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''Big Boys Don't Cry''

It bothered me for years that I didn’t cry after the deaths of my Mom, Dad and Sister Charlotte. I cried when President Kennedy was assassinated but not for the deaths of my own blood.    There was much grief and sadness but no tears.  And I felt guilty about that. Like there was something wrong with me because I didn’t cry.  But in moments of reflection and sadness, I wrote poems and prose that expressed the depth of my relationships with these people who were so close to my heart. I was to learn years later from an amazing book called “Fatherloss” by Neil Chethik,  that writing was my ”masculine style of grieving.”

After being with his father through the death of his grandfather, Neil realized that there was little or no research on men dealing with the death of their dad’s, the most important men in their lives.  He set out and interviewed 70 men on how they reacted to their father dying and how it affected their lives.  He came to some remarkable conclusions that can give much insight and power to both men and woman in dealing with the death of those who they love.   There is a masculine and feminine style of grief.

I quote from his introduction, “Listening to the men, I was struck by the distinctive rhythm of male grief.  In recent decades, psychologists and grief counselors  have tended  to consider crying and talking—the traditionally female style of mourning—as the gold standard of grieving…As a result well-meaning therapists, spouses, partners, and friends have sometimes tried to steer a bereaved man toward his tears…However, most men in my research seemed to mourn in more subtle ways.  Their emotions moved like tectonic plates, shifting far below the surface, sending out tremors and shudders, perhaps the occasional tear.’  And the aftershocks went on for years.  These men tended to release any energy around the loss only gradually, in small rushes, often thinking it through and expressing it by moving their bodies and changing their worlds.”

It’s a mistake to ask a grieving man, “How do you feel?”  He may just stare at you speechless or mumble something vague. Many a wife or sister have asked this question and concluded men just don’t feel. The question should be, “What do you want to do.”  Chances are the man will pause in thought and then start talking about actions that will express the depth of his grief.

This is my own take on this.  Some Twentieth Century behavioral psychologists and sociologists assumed that men and women were basically the same with just different plumbing.  So not true.  Men and women are wired differently by millions of years of evolution for very specific and important reasons that our brief experiment with civilization can not change.  A man in the hunt or in battle can not stop and mourn when his comrade falls.  To insure food and safety, he must continue in action using intuition, strategy and thought.  The woman, as the keeper of the hearth can express grief more quickly and emotionally before the altar and at the funeral.  In pre-modern societies, these two styles worked together.  It is we who have lost sight of from wench we came.

Neil makes that point that all people contain both styles in one degree or another. Grief and mourning is an on going healing process where the living honor the story and the lives those who have gone before.  We are all indebted to countless generations who have given us life.  Honoring them is our sacred duty.

"Fatherloss" by Neil Chethick, copyright 2001, Hyperion Books, New York

Neil has a terrific website with excerpts from the book at

Although the book is geared to men and their fathers, the insights transend that limitation and are valid for anyone, male or feamle dealing with the death of anyone close to them.  Inotherwords, women should read it too.

Posted: May 26, 2005 ,   Modified: May 28, 2005

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