Kate McKay

Exploring How Men Express Loss and Grief

November 21, 2019

We all have a unique way to deal with loss and grief, just as we approach joy and happiness in different ways. How one may express emotion may be completely different than another. How we honor and respect these differences is important, especially as we delve into how men express such emotions. I believe it’s due that time this conversation reaches the forefront in our society.

Recently, I conducted research for a new coaching program I am developing for men. I was deeply touched by the level of openness these men shared with me about their views on success, relationships, personal growth, regret, loss, and legacy. It was both heart-opening and thought-provoking. It also gave me great pause.

The responses to my questions were widely varied, much to their surprise. I frequently heard, “I am sure all men say this”, though this was not actually the case. What I did sense through my interviews was that these men appreciate safe spaces where they can communicate ideas, talk through past experiences, and share their hopes and dreams. 

As a sister to five brothers, a mom of two boys, and both a personal trainer and business and lifestyle coach to several men, I have had a special and intimate insight into the way they communicate, and how they express their thoughts and emotions. I have also witnessed how men have been pigeon-holed by society. It seems they are straight-jacketed emotionally, limiting their ability to express a wider range of feelings, particularly when it comes to loss and grief.

The reason why I decided to focus on grief and loss in this article was a result of a conversation I had with a friend of mine. I recounted my interviews, research, and amazing revelations, to which he responded with pensive silence. After a moment he said, “After a woman experiences a loss, she is sad, but she does ok. Men, not so good. This is important to write about.”  I agree.

Men and women generally have different grieving styles, whether the loss is through divorce, a job, a parent, or a health issue. The discrepancies seem to result from women having more opportunities to talk about their deeper feelings than men. Men are conditioned at a young age to “just deal with it”, “to “suck it up” and at all costs “don’t let them see you cry”.

As a result, men compartmentalize parts of their emotionality, causing vital processing information to be buried underground. This compartmentalization is often because of their fear of being shamed, embarrassed, or ridiculed. From adolescence on, men have minimal social support outside their immediate family, if that, to provide a safe place where they can express sadness and loss.

Because of this expectation of male behavior and coping, men are disproportionately unprepared to express distressed feelings and loneliness. Society expects them to be self-sufficient, independent and to rely on their own strength to get through life’s challenges.

It is important to remember that even Lone Ranger had Tonto! To expect anyone to experience grief and loss alone is not only limiting but unhealthy, physically and emotionally.

When they experience this lack of support, men tend to isolate in order to protect themselves. They disconnect to cope with the intensity of emotions, or, as we are seeing more and more, men resort to aggression, violence, substance abuse, even suicide.

So, what can we do to help men and as a result help all of us face loss and grief with more openness and acceptance? 

Here are some ways we can bring this subject into the open to support men experiencing loss and grief, in hopes to relieve the inner stress and emotional bottle-necking:

  1. Acknowledge the loss or death. Don’t expect any canned or warm and fuzzy response. Just by acknowledging someone’s loss or suffering is a first step in creating connection and a bridge to healing.

  2. Express genuine interest in feelings, concerns and conditions of the loss. Accept their response. Don’t take their response personal if they respond in an abrupt fashion. Grief and loss is messy. Grace can go a long way.

  3. Hold confidentiality. Say things like, “Hey, if you need someone to talk to, I am here.”  Ask them if you just want to hang out, even in silence. It may feel like you are not doing anything, but remember, silence actually speaks volumes and is a wonderful vessel to build trust.

  4. Do small acts of kindness. A note, a meal, a quick text. Don’t expect anything back. They will remember those who reached out. Each and every kind gesture matters.

  5. Don’t judge tears. People cry. Encourage it. It’s a natural human reaction and it’s why we were born with tear ducts.

  6. Do something physical. Men often resort to physical activities as a way to express and de-escalate painful emotions. Doing a parallel activity is a wonderful bonding experience for people. Lifting weights, going for a run, stacking wood; choosing any activity that is both repetitive and strenuous is a great release.

The world can be a scary place for all of us, and yes even men. By taking small steps of kindness towards each other, we can foster more healing and support. This will help create a more honest, yet stronger place for all of us. Isn’t it time we all, men included, are given the opportunity to stand in and be heard? I believe it is.

A special thank you to the men who trusted me enough to share their inner lives with me and a special call-out to the men who left this planet early, yet who’s lives continue to impact me deeply, including my brother Matthew and my son William.