Geoff Warburton suggests aiming for compassion rather than stoicism to men dealing with loss.
There is no right way for men to grieve. Each man has his own way to grieve. There is, though, a right approach if we are to stay in the land of the living and thrive after loss. This approach is about living with balls. I’m not talking about the kind of balls that are needed to head into a fight; I’m talking about the kind of balls that we need to embrace our feelings. Having this kind of balls allows us to face what grief brings us, no matter what. Staying with our feelings—and allowing them to arise—keeps us feeling life afresh.
I’ve worked with hundreds of men to help them through their grief. In this work, I’ve witnessed countless responses to grief, for example men who turned to drugs after losing their lovers to AIDS, urban gang members who took to arms to avenge the death of their ‘brothers’, and fathers who became addicted to their work after the death of their child. Despite those reactions, what I’ve seen in all cases is that men lack nothing when it comes to their capacity to get through grief—nothing. What men do lack, sometimes, is the practical wisdom to navigate grief safely without causing harm to themselves or others.
Fundamentally, what we men need to know is that we will still continue to be ‘complete’ even if we allow all our feelings of grief to surface. Even if we feel temporarily overwhelmed, helpless or excruciatingly vulnerable this does not mean we are any less complete, or lacking in the balls department. Quite the opposite. We need our balls in order not to run away from these uncomfortable feelings and our vulnerability. And all men have this kind of balls— all men. We just need to use them.
Another name for having this kind of balls is called ‘having compassion’. This may sound a little strange if looked at from a traditional Western lens of what it means to have balls. Bear with me a moment, though, while I break down the term compassion to illustrate the point. True compassion is determined, courageous, steadfast, strong and able to withstand being challenged. Having this kind of compassion is about embracing what is happening, no matter what, and not running away when pain is present. It keeps us facing the truth of our experience.
We don’t need to concern ourselves with whether we are able to be compassionate—or whether we actually have or don’t have this quality. All men are able. We just need to practice, to work our capacity for compassion. We could liken this to working a muscle. The weights we’re talking about here, however, are the weights of our emotions. In the same way that we would feel more physically alive if we exercise our physical muscles, we will feel more emotionally alive if we exercise our compassion muscle. The more we practice just accepting whatever we feel in our grief, the more we build this muscle.
The more we can hold the weight of our pain, the more we can hold the weight of our joy too, or the weight of any emotional experience. In other words, when we practice compassion our ability to experience the fullness of life increases. It’s that simple. And every man can do it, regardless of how physically endowed he is.
Taking up arms or numbing out our feelings with activities and addictions is not a solution to grief. Such acts just keep us detached in some way and limit our capacity to feel alive. Such acts perpetuate an image about what a man should be and cloud the reality of what a man is. Holding up an image and trying to live up to it requires a lot of effort and this—paradoxically—castrates us from our compassionate hearts.
When the compassion muscle gets stronger, as it does with practice, it’s easier to navigate the times when we feel pain or deficiency. With grief we might suddenly feel the pain of the loss many years down the line. We might wake up one morning and suddenly feel the depth of the loss, the fear, anger, pain and vulnerability, with no apparent trigger. At these times we can trust compassion to guide us steadfastly and gently through these feelings. This is true guidance. Guidance with balls.
The more we are able to embrace our feelings of grief, the more we are able to be with others in their grief. We don’t need to try and ‘be strong’ for them, or advise them how they should grieve. When we build compassion towards ourselves we just naturally become compassionate allies for others. At most we just need to encourage the bereaved to embrace whatever feelings arise in them. This encouragement and our steadfast presence is enough. Other than that, we need to leave well alone and not meddle with anyone’s grief.
Once we realise that grieving is about having the balls to embrace whatever feelings arise, it turns grief into an adventure to be had. I talk about this idea in more depth in a TED talk, which you can watch below.
When we approach grief in this way, as an adventure to be had, it stops becoming a morbid cloud that looms over us and that inhibits life; instead, it becomes a direct route to experiencing life with our hearts and building our compassion towards ourselves and others.
Image Credit: roy costello/Flickr