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

 

My Father's Death/Making a Box

Tom Golden LCSW


I was stopped at a red light only a mile or so from my goal of my brother's house. We were planning to drive down together to North Carolina to be with my father who was critically ill. As I waited at the stop light experiencing this forced slow down, I noticed Sharper's Florist over to the left. It was the same place I had stood as a young man nervously picking out a corsage for my date--floods of memories went through my mind as the light no longer seemed a nuisance but a blessing. I noticed the liquor store straight ahead where my father and I had been many times before, picking out the beer of the week. We both liked German beer. The light finally came green and I made my left turn and drove through the poor section of our home town. I remembered how each thanksgiving my family would be together. I also remembered how my father would take some time out of each thanksgiving to make sure there was no one hungry in the neighborhoods surrounding where we lived. I can remember as a young boy going with him to deliver some food. I was scared. I had never been into this part of town this deeply before. My father seemed unfazed by this and went about his business. The people we went to seemed to know him and gratefully accepted what he came to offer. My father seemed able to give away the food in a way that honored those he was giving to. This was not an arrogant act. It was a humble act on his part. He would stop at each place and talk a little, which I can remember totally pissing me off. I wanted to get the hell out of there. My father wanted to be sure everyone had food. If there were people he found who didn't have food he would take the time to go back and get more. That's the kind of man he was.

I pulled into the bluestone circular driveway of my brother's home. This was the same driveway I had driven into so many times before. This had once been my childhood home until my wife and I bought it from my folks. Then we sold it to my brother Joel. The crunch of the bluestones as they passed beneath my tires brought back more memories. I got out of the car and my brother Joel was there to meet me. We hugged and Joel said dad had "passed away" just an hour ago. I was in shock. The first thing that hit me was "hey Joel, why are you using euphemisms" but I said nothing of this to him. It brought back a memory of working at a counseling center for death and dying in Washington D.C. Father William Wendt was the director and Bill was a powerful man with a voice that was surpassed only by God's. One day a new counselor was being introduced in our monthly staff meeting. She was introducing herself and was talking a bit about her own history. Then she said, "We lost my mother last summer". Father Wendt, from the back of the small room barked in his gravelly voice, "Where'd you lose her?" The new counselor looked like she wanted to melt down into the couch. Bill had made a point in a way only he could do. People don't pass away, people die.

Being Lost

I was lost for a while. I went through the motions of talking with my brother's family, and talking about when we should leave. I could hear myself talking but it wasn't really me. There was a distance between my actions and my brain, as if I was in someone else's movie. Then I decided to call my mother. We talked for a short while and I then told her that I wanted to speak at my father's memorial service. She told me that I didn't have to, that it might be difficult, blah blah. And then it happened, the tears started to flow out of my gut amidst noises who's volume I don't remember nor did I care. It was when I said to her that I wanted other people to know what it was like to grow up with a great man like my father, and only one of us could do that. These words took about a millennium to come out, they were interspersed with tears like a syncopated ratchet in the hands of a two year old. It felt good. My father had been ill for 5-6 months and during that time I had experienced a great deal of sadness but no tears, now they were flowing.

I did speak at my father's memorial service and it was a important and powerful experience. Through the action of speaking (and preparing to speak) I found a container for bits and pieces of my grief. The word container is meant to describe anything that allows us to move from an ordinary state of awareness into the experience of pain--and then lets us get out of it. Women often will use interaction as a means of "containing" their pain. I hope you will learn from this homepage that men will often prefer an active container.

Let me give you an example of an "active container" I used that week in working with my grief:

During the week of my father's funeral my brother Joel and I decided to design and make the container for my father's ashes. That week Joel and I spent time in my parent's garage which had doubled as my father's workshop planning and constructing this memorial container. That week the men who came to visit our family tended to be drawn to the workshop and the women who visited were more likely to spend time inside talking. The men who visited usually had ideas or comments about the work that was being done. They gladly chipped in and did this or that to aid in making the project.

These boundaries were not solid. We men spent plenty of time in the house talking with visitors about my father and what he meant to us and the women would sometimes boldly venture into the workshop area. It was not that the men and women were separated it was that the men and women each had specific tasks which were many times intermingled.

The tears flowed both inside the house and in the workshop. As we worked we would share stories about my father. We used his tools and his wood. One of the most important parts of this for us was the presence of my father's 80 year-old best friend Charlie Beamen. Charlie was a retired minister and was also my father's woodworking buddy. As the three of us worked together we exchanged numerous tales of my father. Joel and I told Charlie of our days with dad growing up, and Charlie told us of his exploits with my father in the recent past. As we worked and told stories the tears and laughter flowed.

We men had found a safe place to act as a "container" for our emotions. The workshop functioned in this manner to connect our pain and tears with a project. The project became a "hook" for our pain. Men tend to have an easier time in connecting their grief with their action due to many reasons one of which is that men have a harder time in connecting their emotions with words. Women on the other hand have great skill in this arena and are usually more drawn to connecting their pain, tears, and grief on a verbal level to their most intimate friends and family. It needs to be said that each person's grief is unique to them and by separating men and women we are in dangerous territory. There are general differences in the way men and women grieve but there are probably more individual differences.

This difference puts men into a precarious state in our culture because almost all of the activities related to death have been sub-contracted. Activities such as building the coffin, directing the ritual, giving the eulogy, digging the grave, or the funeral itself have been turned over to the "death professionals." This leaves men with nothing to do following a death which negates many men's strength of action. It is a difficult task for men to stand in a funeral home with nothing to do.

What I have noticed in myself and other men is the tendency to connect with the pain through some sort of action. Consider the following historical event: Abraham Lincoln had a male friend who would come to the White House at his request and sing what Lincoln called "sad songs." This man and Lincoln would walk quietly to a certain room in the White House where the man would proceed to sing these "sad songs". During these activities Lincoln would sit quietly and cry. Was Lincoln dealing with his grief? Undoubtedly. Did those around Lincoln know of this activity? Probably not. Many times the activity a man chooses to contain his grief (often times this is not a conscious decision- but done instinctively) is not highly visible to those around him. This invisibility leads many to believe that the man is not grieving. This is simply not so.

There a many containers that men use to deal with the chaos of their grief. Without any sanctioned grief rituals men have had to be creative in finding workable containers. This writing functions for me as a container for my grief. It is through the act of writing that I come into contact with my pain. Interestingly, the writing takes on a more powerful capacity when I read aloud what I have written about my grief to other men (and women). It is somehow more natural to read what I have written (usually through my tears) than to sit and talk about my feelings.

What containers have you found?


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