Victoria Noe assumed that asking men to talk about their feelings would be like pulling teeth.
Ask a group of people if men grieve differently than women, and most would say that yes, they do. They’d insist that men work through their grief by doing things: keeping up with familiar routines or running errands for the family of their friend who died. Maybe they think men just get drunk and get over it. It’s assumed that men don’t want to verbalize their grief, much less share it.
When I started interviewing people for my book, It’s Not Like They’re Family’: Mourning Our Friends and Celebrating Their Lives, I approached the men I interviewed with my own, pre-conceived notions about how they’d respond. I needed and wanted their input, but I thought asking them to talk about a friend who died would be akin to pulling teeth. I thought I would be lucky to get a few coherent sentences. My expectations were … low. I don’t think I’ve ever been so wrong in my life.
“All my friends are dead,” one lamented recently. It’s not true, but at the age of 87,he had outlived most of them. Then, without prompting, his next comment was, “I wouldn’t be where I am today without them.” For almost three hours, he talked about the people he met at different moments, people who affected the trajectory of his life:
The woman who invited him to Paris …
The man who sponsored him to come to the U.S. …
The man who offered him a job that changed his career …
They’re gone now, and he speaks fondly of their friendships. He gives them full credit for the successes he’s had-both personal and professional. And he misses them.
He’s not the only man who’s talked for hours about friends he’s lost. My first interview with a man lasted almost two hours. I sat down with a list of thirty questions. By the third question, he didn’t want to stop. We never got to my fourth question, but that was all right. He wanted to tell the stories, wanted to make sense of what had happened and why he still grieved so deeply for his best friend.
Women may very well be more willing to talk about their feelings. But women are expected to talk about their feelings. That kind of behavior is sanctioned by society. So it’s not a surprise that they open up about grieving their friends.
Men are quite capable of talking about their friends, their memories, and their grief. But in many situations, men—rather than women—are judged by how they react. Men are expected to be stoic, in control, able to “handle” messy things like grief.
The truth is most men aren’t given a safe, non-judgmental place to share their memories and sadness. They may be protecting their image; they may feel the need to be stronger than anyone around them. But without realizing it, I’d given some of them a place to vent: to be angry that their friend died, to be sad; to wonder what it all means. I’m not there to make a diagnosis or prescribe anti-depressants. I’m just there to listen.
So, while I still try to finish my first book, I’ve begun work on a second one: about men grieving their friends. Getting men to talk about a friend who has died requires no special talent or skill. Anyone can do it. If you know a man who’s lost a friend recently, get together with him. Go have coffee or a beer. Just hang out. Tell him you’re sorry his friend died. And ask him to tell you something about that friend.
Just don’t be surprised if you’re listening for a long time.
—Photo Alex E. Proimos/Flickr