Helping men mourn

Twelve steps to help men whose emotional turmoil conflicts with the male stereotype to be stoic

Victor M. Parachin is a minister and counselor in Norfolk, Virginia.

Sixteen-year-old Naja was killed in an auto accident. When the news reached her father, actor Ben Vereen, he was simply shattered. "It was like someone had reached in and just ripped my heart out," Vereen recalls. Desperate to ease the pain, he turned to alcohol and drugs. "I plunged into self-destruction, physically, mentally, and spiritually. I just went on a death spiral and didn't care to get out of it," he says sadly.

Although Vereen's situation may be extreme, the fact is many men do not know how to grieve in healthy ways. They are brought up to be socially strong, to be in full control of themselves, and never to respond emotionally. Studies show that because of this social compulsion, there is an increase in depression, alcoholism, mental health problems, and risk of heart disease. "A suppressed grief," said Ovid, the first-century Roman poet, "chokes and seethes within, multiplying its strength."

Men today, more than ever, desperately need the ministry of comfort and healing. The Bible clearly calls Christians to this task: The Lord "comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God" (2 Cor. 1:4).* Here are 12 ways for clergy and other Christian leaders to help men mourn.

1. Understand the male predicament. When someone they love has died, men are under great tension and pressure. Their emotional turmoil comes in conflict with the male social image to be strong and in control. Frank, 65, widowed after 38 years of marriage, says: "It's not easy to be a man. If I express my grief, I lose be cause I violate the male stereotype of the strong man who shows no emotions. I also lose if I do not express the pain of grief, because suppressing my feelings will bring me more problems. I'm in a no-win situation."

2. Politely discount men's protests.

When a man is asked how he is doing after a loss, often the reply will take on these variants: "I'm doing well"; "I don't feel like talking"; "I can handle this myself." Such statements should be treated with respectful skepticism. In their book Silent Grief, Christopher Lukas and Henry M. Seiden observe: "In actual fact, the Tm all right, I don't need to talk' approach is often not a sign that a man is doing fine but a cover-up for his inability to express painful feelings." Anyone, male or female, who experiences a profound loss such as death is hurting, suffering, and can use the kind and compassionate friendship of an other person, able to empathize with love and sensitivity.

3. Encourage mourning. As odd as it sounds, some men need approval from another significant person to mourn. Such approval can take several forms, such as:

"It's OK to cry."

"You should share your feelings rather than keeping them bottled up inside." "It's natural to feel depressed after a loss like yours."

"People who lose a loved one to death often feel anxious and agitated." "I don't blame you for feeling angry."

4. Make men aware that grief feelings are normal. Let men know that emotions connected with grief and loss are natural, normal, and universal. Emotions are not feminine; they are human. Thus, when death strikes, crying, anger, and a feeling of loneliness and depression are quite normal and should not be confused with weakness of will and character.

To help in the process of grieving healthfully, point to biblical examples of men who experienced the full emotional range of bereavement. For example, when Ephraim's sons were killed, his grief was so acute that his marriage was in jeopardy. It was only after Ephraim's brothers came bringing comfort and consolation that his grief was relieved and his marriage restored (see 1 Chron. 7:21ff.).

5. Respect emotional patterns. No one should be expected to grieve the way another person would. For example, women cry more easily and more naturally than men. A man who does not get torn apart over other traumas need not be expected to do so over death. One who does not cry easily can be encouraged to express feelings through other means, such as talking or writing about them.

6. Encourage reading on grief recovery. All public libraries carry a variety of books on bereavement and grief, ranging from academic treatment to personal stories. Reading how others have over come grief will help the bereaved to come to terms with their own feelings.

Some particularly good books for men include: Lament for a Son, by Nicholas Wolterstorff (Grand Rapids, Midi.: Eerdmans, 1987); What Helped Me When My Loved One Died, edited by Earl A. Grollman (Beacon Press, 1981); O Susan, by James W. Angell (Hope Publishing, 1990); and A Grief Observed, by C. S. Lewis (Seabury Press, 1963).

7. Support a man in his unique mourning pattern. Besides providing opportunities for a man to cry and talk about the loss, look for other comfort able mourning patterns. One man, 32, whose wife was killed in an automobile accident, says: "Although I had one friend I felt comfortable enough with to talk about my feelings, the most therapeutic activity for me was painting. I had done watercolors while in college, and now I resumed painting. I always felt better after doing some painting." Another man engaged in chopping and stacking wood as a physical way of venting his feelings.

8. Suggest a support group. A sup port group provides a safe setting to listen to others and express one's own feelings. Meeting others recovering from loss provides good role models for recovery.

9. Do not attempt to turn men into women. Dr. Therese Rando, a psychologist and author of Grieving: How to Go On Living When Someone You Love Dies, writes: "Do not try to remake males into female mourners. This is unrealistic. Men may never cry as frequently as women do, but this does not mean they cannot express their sadness in other ways. For example, they can think about, verbalize, or in other ways give vent to their sadness, and they can do things in memory of their loved one. But they do not have to do it in exactly the same ways as women."

10. Nurture the spiritual. "Look to the Lord and his strength; seek his face always," says the psalmist (Ps. 105:4). Grieving men need gentle reminders to turn to God for comfort and guidance. While family and friends can help to soften the blow of grief, it is God who transforms fear into faith and despair into hope. Encourage the bereaved to find strength in worship, prayer, and the study of God's Word. Nurturing the spiritual makes way for peace of mind and gives courage to go on.

Turning to God in faith is what ultimately restored actor Ben Vereen. After hitting rock bottom and knowing that he would soon self-destruct, Vereen found out the need for the spiritual. "I reconnected," he says, "with my spirituality. I realized that it had never turned from me. I had turned from it. It motivated me and became my rock."

11. Provide help with sensitivity.

Offer support without making the bereaved feel weak or incompetent to handle their loss. Every attempt to help should be done thoughtfully, carefully, compassionately, and sensitively. The journey through bereavement is often filled with confusion and self-doubt. After his wife died, C. S. Lewis wrote: "In grief nothing 'stays put.' One keeps on emerging from a phase, but it always re curs. Round and round. Everything repeats. Am I going in circles, or dare I hope I am on a spiral?"

12. Recommend professional help.

Some men may need crisis intervention. Generally professional help from a skilled, experienced grief counselor such as a psychologist, social worker, or psychiatrist is indicated if:

  • there is evidence of alcohol or drug abuse,
  • suicidal thoughts are constant and recurring,
  • there if near total withdrawal from family, friends, and colleagues,
  •  depression becomes clinical.

All Scripture passages in this article are from the New International Version.

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Victor M. Parachin is a minister and counselor in Norfolk, Virginia.

September 1995

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