Tom's Columns

1. My Father's Death/Making a Box
2. Singing the Grief/ My Eulogy for My Father
3. Fixing a Hole/Grieving With Other Men
4. Reverse Anthropology/ Learning about healing from Tribal people
5. Stewarding Children's Grief/ Helping Families Heal Together
6. A Family Ritual for the Year Anniversary
7. When Grief Recedes/ Grief is Like a Cloud
8. Healing Through Our Strength/ Knowing Our Weakness Part 1
9. Healing Through Our Strength/ Knowing Our Weakness Part 2
10. Stress and Grief



A Family Ritual for the Year Anniversary

Tom Golden LCSW



It has been one year now since my father's death. In some ways it seems like ten years and in other ways it seems like ten minutes. My brother and I went to Greensboro, North Carolina to spend some time with my mother to honor this anniversary. We worked together to plant a tree in honor of my dad and it was good to be together in our grief.

I had been wondering how to honor my dad within my own family. I was having some difficulty in coming up with something that felt right. About that time my wife Darbie, came up to me and said, "Hey I have an idea". She went on to suggest that we decorate the tree that had been donated by my male friends (as described in the July 95 column) and planted in park land adjacent to our home. What a great idea. We discussed how we could all work together in making the decorations and in putting them on the tree. I started this by gathering some berries and dried flowers from my garden. Orange nandina berries, purple beauty-berry bush berries, and some dried up purple and white gomphrena flowers. As I tested this idea and strung them together I was with my father. I felt the sadness of his absence. I experienced the profound gratefulness at having been his son. I thought of what he would have preferred and took those preferences into account in making the decorations. I marveled at how the idea resonated with what I thought he would appreciate--the decorations were natural and would serve not only as decorations but as food for the various wildlife that inhabits our nook of the woods. Perfect. When the kids came home from school we had all of the berries, string, pine cones, carrot pieces, etc., that was needed and we sat together making the decorations. As we did this we talked of my dad and what he meant to us. When we finished (on the actual anniversary of his death) we went out into the rain to adorn the tree and have a short ritual. This activity gave everyone in our family a chance to remember my dad by being involved in a family activity that honors him. As a man it helped me to connect with my grief through a task that involved our entire family.

The reason I am bringing this up is that it is a great example of how people can be of help to men in their grief. Darbie was wise in her suggestion of a family activity. This allowed us to plan, initiate, and discuss the project and in the process remember my father and our grief for him. Through the "doing" our family had the opportunity to experience the "being" of the grief.

What are other ways that people can help men in their grief? Please bear with me for this one. The ideas we talk about may be helpful to some men and some women. Please know that the we can't say all men grieve like this and all women like that. Everyone is unique in their path toward healing. The following ideas will be generally applicable to men but could very well be helpful to anyone. We all grieve in our own unique way and the following ideas are meant to be just that, ideas, and not only for men.

One idea is to avoid asking a man how he feels. Have you ever done this before? What do you get in response? Most times I bet you get "Oh, I'm doing okay" or "Fine" or something like that. Why does this happen? In her newest book Deborah Tannen explains that conversations such as this are tiny rituals which are not meant for information exchange as much as they are to perform a task of following through on a habitual "ritual" which helps us in negotiating our everyday hellos and good-byes. When you ask a man what he is feeling he will many times respond automatically that he is doing fine, this is a male (and sometimes female) cultural ritual that brings a response that is not usually what the questioner had in mind. Perhaps a better question would be "What is the toughest thing about your loss". This question avoids the mechanical ritual response and also honors a man's hierarchical nature. The men I have known have often mentally gauged the most difficult aspects of their loss and have some familiarity with this way of looking at things. The question also overtly honors that this is a struggle and tacitly honors the man for being engaged in this struggle.

Men in general seem to have a different way of connecting to their grief and often this way is not related to talking. I can remember a couple who was coming to see me for therapy where the wife's complaint was the man didn't talk about his feelings. The woman was a therapist herself and the man was a construction worker. It was clear that they loved each other dearly but were having some tough times in talking about things. I noticed that often the wife would ask the man how he was feeling---he would pause-- and in a short period she would proceed to tell him how he was feeling. Now she was usually right but she did not give him the opportunity to find it himself. The next time this happened I suggested that we give him time to come up with his own answer. Wellllll....We waited and waited what seemed to be a long time. Five minutes went by and then almost ten. I was afraid I had really screwed up--had I put him into an impossible situation?.....and then he spoke up. He proceeded to speak from his heart in a way that astounded his wife. We all learned that he was capable of finding his heart...he just needed more time. Men seem to have different mental processors for feelings. Maybe it's like computers: men have a 286, and women have pentiums when it comes to processing emotions mentally. There is absolutely nothing wrong with a 286 it's just slower. Give men a chance, give them time.

One way to give men more time is to write to them rather than talk to them. By writing a note it gives the man the freedom to read it more than once, to take it with him to work or the john, and importantly to respond in his own time. Another benefit is that writing takes the non-verbal communication and the "tone of voice" out of the equation. I know couples who have a terrible time in talking about their grief but when they start writing notes to each other they gain a greater understanding. Give it a try.

Another important thing to note about men and grief is the tendency for men to withdraw when they are actively grieving. The purpose of the withdrawal is often not to avoid those close to them or to avoid the grief but is related to a man's desire to find some inner understanding and balance before moving the pain out into the "open". Men tend to view grief as a burden and a problem and they are steadfast in their desire to solve their own problems and not "dump" this problem on someone who has no responsibility for the grief. This contrasts with the more feminine mode of "sharing" the grief and thereby bringing greater intimacy with her loved ones. For years the grief research showed that men grieve "less" than women. Then we found out why this happens. When drawing research samples for grief studies the women who would volunteer would usually be in a great deal of pain and in the midst of the chaos of grief. They tended to be interested in "sharing" this pain with the researchers. The men, on the other hand, who were experiencing a similar intensity of grief did all they could to avoid being a part of these studies. The men who would participate were those who had already withdrawn and had found a certain handle on things. Therefore the results from these studies indicated that women grieved more than men. We know now that this is not so but is a function of a biased sample.

It is probably good to honor a man's need to withdraw to gain some balance. There are numerous masculine role models for this activity, Christ being one. My own reading of the bible tells me that when Christ was in need of healing he would withdraw "to the desert". This does not mean that men shouldn't talk about their grief. Talking about grief and connecting with one's emotions in the process is healing for all people. It does mean that men will usually withdraw first and talk later.

Because of a man's tendency to withdraw, his inclination to grieve through task, and societal shaming of tender emotions a man's pain tends to be more invisible than a woman's. If you want to connect with a man in his grief keep in mind that he will often have an easier time connecting to his pain through activity, he will have a tendency to withdraw initially, and he will probably be less agile in his verbal processing of his pain. Maybe knowing this will help in finding ways of honoring men in their grief. I think Darbies willingness to connect with me through planning an activity and ritual for our family together has deepened our intimacy while at the same time honored our different paths. What do you think?


Tom Golden is a professional speaker, author, and psychotherapist whose area of specialization is healing from loss and trauma. You can find out more about Ton's private practice here. Tom gives workshops across the country and in Canada on many aspects of this topic. His workshops are known to be both entertaining and informative. Contact Tom at the addresses below (email or snail mail) for inquiries about speaking or training for your group. You can also order his book Swallowed by a Snake: The Gift of the Masculine Side of Healing on this site or through Amazon.com

 

Tom Golden LCSW
 P.O. Box 83658
Gaithersburg, Maryland 20883
USA
301 670-1027