Men Grieving Their Friends

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

 

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About Victoria Noe

Victoria Noe worked in theatre, fundraising and educational sales before becoming a writer. Her blog, Friend Grief is the only site focusing on how the death of a friend changes you forever. When not cheering on her World Champion St. Louis Cardinals, she's either writing, watching BBCAmerica, or planning her next trip to New York.

Comments

  1. I’m sorry you found this surprising.

    • Honestly, my only defense in being surprised is…experience. The men in my family never talked much about anything. I was used to men who pushed down their feelings, at least feelings about grieving their friends. There’s one exception: gay men. I worked in the AIDS community for years, and they were the first men I’d ever known who willingly and openly talked about their grief. Mea culpa (no sarcasm).

  2. I think the reason for your preconceptions was that men don’t typically express grief to their female partners. Those men knew you weren’t going to reject them, so they were honest. From my experience men have an easier time being emotionally honest with complete strangers.

    • I agree that rejection is a big part of it. I don’t have an agenda, other than hoping they’ll share their stories. I make no judgements about how they grieve, nor do i dispense advice.

  3. Great article! This is such a tragedy that some men are unable to express such negative feelings…

    My ex carried around the grief of the death of his 17 yo sister in a car accident for 3 decades…he never fired at her funeral…he only cried 30 years later when he felt safe and alone with me…what a burden to carry that around all those years! What a burden it was for me to listen to it…I was so young at the time and unprepared for the gravity of what he was telling me….

    He was so self-destructive (i.e., alcohol and other drugs) …and so used to keeping everything so bottled up until it all exploded…how sad and frightening he could be when it all those terrible feelings spilled out…

    Thank you for writing this….

    • Thank you, Leia. How sad for your ex to carry around that much pain for so long. It just shows how destructive – and self-destructive – unresolved grief can be.

  4. Bravo , Viki, for putting a crack in the cultural expectation that men should not show their emotions. Granted, there are always exception to the rule but you’ve called attention to a very important issue. We all need encouragement to express our grief in a healthy way. Thanks for an excellent post.

  5. Thank you for sharing this with us. Truth is there are a lot of older generation that’s being forgotten. So much wisdom and a wealth of information can come from these people. I wish more people would take the time to speak with them. For men and their feelings … just spend some time at a war memorial.

    • You’re right, Tom. Older men are less likely to discuss these things than younger men (generally speaking). But they have so much to tell! And you’re right: war memorials and military cemeteries are where a lot of men feel they have permission to express their feelings. Thanks for your comment!

  6. What a gift you have given those men. I’d guess they’d never had anyone who had given them the opportunity. I wonder how many shed tears as they talked to you. We men are so isolated, or so many of us are, that part of our humanity, grieving, sadness, almost completely stuffed away. I was a good friend of Fred Rogers, the children’s television icon, who gently insisted from his friends that the sadness, the difficult feelings come out. Everything Mentionable is Manageable, he would say. So I shared with him my depression, my sadness, the complex and painful relationship I had with my father. And and when I told him I was getting ready to leave my wife, he said this: “I will never forsake you.” (We didn’t separate after all.) And he loved that I would share those difficult things. “Your trust confirms my trustworthiness,” he would say. Your work will do so much to bring us out of our isolation. Thank you for that, and for this post. Brava.

    • Thanks for the very kind words, Tim. I did see a lot of watery eyes, for sure, when I interviewed people – men and women – for my book. Several people even contacted me afterwards with more than they wanted to say. I think men want to be strong for those they love, and they assume strength means being stoic. They don’t have to be any certain way with me. Plus, I’ve sensed relief from some, that they were finally able to talk about their friends.

  7. I’ve long been a fan of the Good Men Project because it gives men a place to converse about what’s on their minds and in their hearts, and gives me the chance to lurk, listen and understand better. The emotional health of the men I love is no less important than their physical health. And grief comes to us all, sooner or later. Or sooner and later. We all need to be able to talk w/o being judged, and listen w/o judging.

    Thanks for writing this, Viki.

  8. 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.

    Victoria – thank you for being so honest! P^)

    There is one observation I would add – and that is “Emotional Competition”. From experience, far too many people deal with other’s emotions by competition, and that is men and women.

    Just allowing an individual to tell their truth – no competition – no comparisons – no Mine is bigger, badder, worse than yours is a key. It’ just takes time and an openness to others.

    It also helps if you like people. So many think they do, but they fail because they don’t actually like people – they like to judge people and like to find comparisons to make themselves feel better in some way.

    • You are so right about competition! One of the reasons why people feel their grief over a friend’s death is not respected is that there’s some very real competition for “my grief is worse than yours”. You can see this in a very real way in the 9/11 community: the families first, then the first responder community (firefighters before police), then everyone else. I can’t get close to the anniversary ceremonies (a high school classmate died that day) because I’m not family. Fair? It doesn’t feel fair, though I understand it.

      And I think in our own lives, most people have had someone react to them in that competitive way. The sad thing is that most of them just want their own grief validated. The only way they know how to do that is to try to compare that grief to others’.

      Like I said in the post, I have no agenda when I interview people. And a lot of stories are offered to me, unsolicited. Those people already know they need to talk abou it.

      Someone told me I was “non-threatening”. I guess that’s true. But I think I like “non-competitive” better. Thanks!

  9. You can see this in a very real way in the 9/11 community: the families first, then the first responder community (firefighters before police), then everyone else. I can’t get close to the anniversary ceremonies (a high school classmate died that day) because I’m not family. Fair? It doesn’t feel fair, though I understand it.

    Fairness has no place when dealing with emotions. P^)

    They are what they are. It’s seen as so anti social to dismiss emotions on grounds of Age, Sex/Gender, Sexuality, Race…. etc.

    Why is proximity an issue? P^)

    C’est la vie.

    • At the 9/11 anniversary events at Ground Zero, there is a Naming Ceremony, where all the names are read (and moments of silence observed marking the times the buildings were hit and fell). Access to the ceremony – and inclusion as one of those reading names – is limited to family members. The ceremony is put up on jumbotrons a block away, where the general public (anyone not a family member) must stay. Like I said, I understand it. I just don’t like it.

  10. Thank you for sharing this. Everyone grieves differently regardless of being male or female, adult or child. But we all grieve.

  11. So true, Holly! There’s lots of research saying that men and women grieve certain ways. I’d love to see research on whether either gender feels pressured to grieve that way. It would certainly be nice if everyone was allowed to grieve in their own way.

    • Victoria – not sure about people feeling pressured to grieve a certain way.

      There is lots of research identifying Sexual dimorphism in grief – and even research that shows being a Professional does not alter that difference.

      This study Suicide of a Patient: Gender Differences in Bereavement Reactions of Therapists, is a case in hand.

      One of the issues with studies and research in general is that they set out to prove or disprove a hypothesis – and not necessarily look at the wider subject and field. There is an issue of imbalance too as in many studies only women are used as subjects – there is a bias to using older women who have lost spouses.

      But, in any event some will wish to argue Nature and Other’s Nurture … I just hope they will allow people to grieve as people until the numbers game has been played out and finished. P^)

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