Men Grieve Side by Side
By Pat Schwiebert, R.N.
Some of the most touching statements I’ve heard around a child’s death have come from fathers.
I remember a father telling how after his children and wife died in a house fire his buddies would come over and sit with him day after day while he drank himself unconscious only to wake up enough to crawl off to bed and repeat the process the next day. He never talked about his family. They never asked any questions.
Another father told me how he spent the final month of his daughter’s life frantically calling specialists around the country and doing research searching for a cure for his daughter’s rapidly progressing brain tumor while his wife memorized every smile, every joke, every tender moment their daughter shared as she bravely faced the end of her life.
Yet another father described how he didn’t want to leave his wife and travel to another hospital in the ambulance with his sick newborn baby, so he told the staff he couldn’t go because he couldn’t find his shoes. They told him to go without his shoes.
These stories speak of how men are not encouraged to feel and so resort to numbing the devouring pain of grief. They speak of how fathers try to fix things for their kids in an effort to help them dodge death. They speak of how torn they can feel when they to need to be in two places at once, and how they fear the prospect of getting into unfamiliar territory where they feel all alone and expected to make life changing decisions.
As a culture we have made inroads to understanding how differently people grieve. We have recognized that our gender, or how we have been raised, may have something to do with how we grieve, but still we are surprised when a father emotes or cries more than a mother. Fathers still think people expect them to buck up and hold things together for the family. Men tend to agree they want that too. It gives them a sense of control when everything else around them seems out of control. But they do want people to know that they are hurting too. That just because they look okay it isn’t over. That their lives have also changed. They may not talk about it as much as their partners but they feel it just the same. Men grieve side by side. Women grieve face to face. A man typically wants you to be there with him, to not be afraid of him and his pain, not to pity him, maybe to play a game of golf or have a beer with him, and to be willing to listen if he wants to talk. Men are strong, and they are also tender.
I’m in awe of how they bravely face the future while living in the present.