Big Boys Don’t Cry: How Men Grieve

by Larry Barber

Months after Rick’s father died, Rick’s wife Cathy began to worry about her husband. “Rick has never cried or talked about his father’s death,” she says. “Now he spends all of his free time working on an old ’58 Chevy he and his dad had bought right before he died. I’m worried that he’s not handling his dad’s death in a healthy way.”

Generally, men and women don’t respond to grief in the same ways.

“It’s a normal life event that throws us into instability,” say Tom Golden, LCSW, internationally known grief counselor and author of Swallowed by a Snake: The Gift of the Masculine Side of Healing.

Here’s why men grieve about death, divorce, and other losses the way they do.

Masculine Versus Feminine Responses to Grief

What Cathy perceives as an unhealthy response is, in fact, a healthy one. Rick’s behavior is typical of the masculine side: he is expressing his grief privately, and by restoring the Chevy, he is honoring his father’s memory. Cathy, however, grieves from the feminine side: by crying and talking with family and friends.

“It’s not a matter of men and women grieving differently,” explains Golden. “Everyone has a masculine and feminine side. Generally, men tend to use more of the masculine side and women the feminine.”

While women typically express and share their grief and look to the past, most men won’t verbalize their pain and often deny they are sad. They are also more likely to take action, such as setting up a trust fund or creating a memorial.

“The important thing is that the activity connects you with the pain,” says Golden. “If it does, then it’s a healing process.”

Men are taught to hide their tears, and to replace their sadness with anger. During therapy, Golden says at first men get very angry, then the tears come. With women, the situation is reversed: first come the tears, then the anger.

“Women have been shamed out of their anger,” explains Golden, “so they use the strength of tears; men use their strength of anger to move into their tears.”

Sometimes the anger is unhealthy. One man tore the sink out of his estranged wife’s kitchen, says Frank Williams, PhD, director of the Family Counseling Agency in Tucson, Arizona. Another man, whose wife died of cancer, ransacked the church because he was angry at God. Men who experience deep grief are more likely to successfully commit suicide, while women tend to attempt it but fail. Studies show that more men act out by abusing drugs or alcohol.

The biggest problem with therapy, says Golden, is that it is “shaped to be effective with women.” Talking and expressing emotions are difficult for most men because it is not in their nature to seek help. “Only when men reach crisis do they come for help,” says Dr. Williams.

“If you really want to help men talk,” says Golden, “get them involved in an activity.” One hospice invites all the recent widowers to an all-day fishing trip. This activity allows the men to process their grief while they fish together. This approach works with boys as well. Boys won’t open up one on one, but they will talk while playing basketball.

When men do seek counseling, Dr. Williams asks them to tell their story: “Tell me what the last day with your wife was like.” While a woman will almost always cry, men generally do not, at least initially. “Men tell stories about their feelings instead of expressing them; women are more likely to express them [directly],” he says.

Once men do start to talk, they are more willing to express anger than are women.

“Many times they’re also expressing a greater degree of guilt—they should have been able to do something about the situation,” says Williams. The idea that they should have been able to control the circumstances is typical of men, while women usually believe they can’t, so they are more open to help.

Ritual and Symbolism

A ritual is a routine activity that helps people move from one state of mind to another. It is often a critical part of a man’s healing process. For Rick, it was restoring the old Chevy.

“The ritual activity is intended to connect you with your pain and grief and allows you to move out of ordinary awareness and into the experience of grief, in a safe way, for a period of time,” explains Golden.

Sometimes men express their grief symbolically. When pro golfer Payne Stewart died in a plane crash several days before the Tournament of Champions, many of his peers wore knickers (Payne’s trademark) during the event.

“That was their way of showing they were feeling something they couldn’t express inside,” says Dr. Williams. Other symbolic actions can include dedicating a game during a sporting event, or building a memorial.

Mixed Signals

Men often get mixed signals when it comes to expressing grief. The message they receive growing up is to take loss “like a man.” When they reach adulthood, though, the messages become contradictory. Golden sees grieving families in which the wife and children are crying, but the husband is not. The family is worried because dad isn’t crying. Yet if he does, they get upset. Although a wife may be relieved that her partner is able to grieve, she may fear that his tears somehow lessen him as the stalwart of strength she holds him to be. Thus, men are criticized when they don’t grieve, and their masculinity is questioned when they do.

Physical Differences

Biological differences also offer some insight into why men grieve the way they do. Compared with women, men have less prolactin, a hormone excreted by the pituitary gland, which is associated with emotional tears. Boys and girls have equal amounts until about age 12, then the level in boys plummets as testosterone levels rise.

Despite the talk about men “getting in touch” with their feelings, “We are still in the throes of six million years of evolution and hormones,” says Golden. “It’s amazing that we’re changing as fast as we are. What’s changed is that men are expected to be more sensitive, yet strong and masculine.”

Once both men and women understand that a mixture of their masculine and feminine sides are at work in the grieving process, perhaps they will be more willing to allow the people in their lives to grieve in their own ways

Larry Barber, director of Grief Works, shares his expertise along with Deborah Mitchell. Deborah Mitchell is a freelance writer specializing in health and earth-friendly issues. She has had more than a dozen books published and also writes for several professional and consumer publications. Used by permission.

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