Men & grief

When my sister was killed by a drunk driver, I came face to face with grief for the first substantial time in my life. I’d been touched by death before, but never this closely. Never this intensely.

But I quickly discovered that I was going through my grieving differently than the rest of my family. My Mom and three remaining sisters expressed emotion in ways that was uncomfortable to me. But that didn’t mean I wasn’t grieving. I was. I just wasn’t doing it in the way women do.

At the time, there was very little study into the way men grieve. The convention wisdom (falsely) assumed that men should grieve in the same way women do. And because of that, conventional wisdom shook its finger at men and told us that we’re bad at grief.

But some were questioning that.

How can all men be bad at grief? Could it be the standard we are using to measure male grief — female grief — is a wrong one? Could it be that men just do this differently?

As I read and as I dealt with my sister’s death, I realized the way I was grieving was primarily through my mind and my hands. That didn’t mean I was divorced from my emotions. It meant that my emotions were expressed in other ways than tears and words (even though those were included). I needed the internal processing of thought and the outward return of control in my life that simple physical projects gave me.

For some guys, that internal thought process is nothing more than what it sounds like. We’ll just quietly sit and think. It may take place while we’re watching TV. It might happen as we drive to work. It might be while our wives are talking to us about their day and our minds drift elsewhere.

Just because other people can’t see what’s going on inside of us doesn’t mean that nothing is going on. There’s a lot that’s being worked through. The wheels are spinning. The heart is adjusting. But for most men, our mouths tell little of the tale. And that’s OK. Guys have been doing this for millennia. It works.

For me, that internal thought process was guided by books. A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis. Lament for a Son by Nicholas Wolterstorff. The Alphabet of Grace by Frederich Buechner. The Four Quartets by T.S. Eliot. They may not be your choices. But they are what I plunged into as I sorted out my thoughts and feelings with the help of companions I trusted.

But I didn’t just think, I got busy.

There were projects around the house that had been sitting idly for months, waiting for me to do something about them. And immediately upon returning from the trip surrounding my sister’s death and memorial, I tackled them all.

Things got fixed. The house got cleaned. And a massive project I’d been given was attacked and conquered with a fierce determination and attention to detail.

Guys need the ability to bring order to an out-of-control world. This is who we are, who we were made to be. And since death is the ultimate out-of-control experience, we need projects to complete even more than words to express or tears to shed.

Guys often get in trouble with girlfriends and wives for trying to fix their problems. A woman will tell a guy about some relational snag that has her tangled up in knots inside, wanting the guy to sit and listen and sympathize. And when the guy offers a reasonable and well-thought-out solution, he’ll get in trouble. “Stop trying to fix me!” is a typical response.

The mistake is in women treating the men in their lives as if they’re women. Guys listen in order to solve problems, not in order to sympathize.

For guys, fixing is feeling.

So, guys facing grief, my suggestion to you is:

  1. Make space to think. Your thinking may take place hunting or reading or exercising or whatever or wherever you want it to take place. And don’t worry about being silent. It’s OK to just think. But do try to do some of your thinking God-ward. Even your silent thoughts can be praying. And don’t be totally silent with the women in your life. Even a few words about your thought-feelings will help them not be anxious for you.
  2. Find something to fix. There are always plenty of projects to be done. The leaky faucet. The lawnmower. The remodel you’ve been putting off. You won’t be able to fix the brokenness of death, but you will find a semblance of peace in fixing other broken things in your rattled world.

And women who love guys facing grief: Stop trying to make them grieve like women. Their silence isn’t necessarily a bottling up of grief. Instead of pestering them to talk about their feelings, give them the space to think through their feelings. And then encourage them (without nagging) to do some of the projects they’ve been putting off, let them bring a little bit of control back to their out-of-control lives.

Grief is an unavoidable part of life. Let’s let women grieve like women and men grieve like men.

[Here are three practices for walking through grief]