By Victor Parachin
We were married 47 years when Grace died, leaving a huge hole in my heart no amount of activity could fill. Except for my two daughters, there was no one I could turn to for solace.
After Ellen died, I returned to work and for a few hours each day, everything seemed normal. But then I would come home and it hit me hard. I was walking into an empty house. There was no one to say hello or to talk with about the day. I had to eat alone, watch television alone, and go to bed alone. My life was incredibly empty and lonely.
Though men may not always express their grief in public ways, these two experiences reveal that men do feel deeply the pain of loss. The fact is that the loss of a life partner is a profoundly heart-wrenching time for men. Adding to their challenge is the fact that the bulk of information and the majority of support services are directed toward women. This leaves men struggling their way through bereavement. Here are 10 tips—directed specifically toward men—to inform and empower them in order to recover from grief, rebuild their lives, and reclaim the joy of living.
Know that you are not alone.
According to the Men’s Bereavement Network, nearly 415,000 men in the U.S become widowers every year. Since 1990, the number of widowers has increased 26 percent, from 2.3 million to almost 3 million. Though feelings of isolation and loneliness are common, it’s helpful to know that you are not alone as a man grieving the loss of a spouse. Nurture an optimistic attitude by reminding yourself that you can and will overcome just as other men have done.
However, coping with grief will take effort on your part. Gerald J. Schaefer, author of The Widowers Toolbox: Repairing Your Life After Losing Your Spouse (New Horizon Press, 2010), writes about his life and emotions shortly after the funeral of his young wife, Terri:
The task of moving forward in life seemed impossible. A wide range of emotions and thoughts flooded my mind in a seemingly endless sea of confusion. Would I ever be able to endure this grief? How would I manage the daily needs of my family? How would my financial situation change? How could I, as a single parent, continue to provide my sons with the balanced parenting that they had previously received? I felt as if my life was completely dismantled, every component scattered about needing my attention. It was clear to me that if I was to achieve peace and happiness again for me and my sons, these issues would have to be resolved. . . . I rebuilt my life one concern at a time.
Tap into the spiritual.
Author Corrie Ten Boom was fond of saying, “Let God’s promises shine on your problems.” Apply her wisdom to your life. Build confidence and courage for facing your future from the 118th Psalm: “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good! His faithful love endures forever. . . . In my distress I prayed to the Lord, and the Lord answered me and set me free. The Lord is for me, so I will have no fear (Psalm 118:1, 5, 6, New Living Translation).
Disregard those who say you are not grieving properly.
Be wary of those who judge you and your grief. Grieving men are often the target of comments such as these:
• “You are healing too quickly.”
• “You are stuck in your grief.”
• “You’re not showing emotion and letting it out.”
• “You should be getting on with your life by now.”
These kinds of comments almost always come from those who have never dealt with the death of a mate. Distance yourself from such people. Instead, stay close to those who understand. You know better than anyone else who is supportive, kind, and nurturing toward you. Spend your time in their company.
Spend time with a spiritual friend.
The Bible says, “As iron sharpens iron, so a friend sharpens a friend” (Proverbs 27:17, NLT). When facing a time of grief, don’t go it alone, because going it alone often means going nowhere. Invite a spiritual friend on your journey through grief. Allow that person into your life to listen, to offer insight, and to include you in prayer.
Beware of cultural stereotypes for male grief.
Bereavement authority Joy Johnson accurately notes that in our culture, “About the only place where you, a man, can openly cry, wail, beat your chest, and bury your head in your hands is at a sports event.” She adds,
In some native cultures, grieving men painted their bodies; here, you can do it at the Super Bowl. The biggest, toughest, meanest player in the National Football League can look into the camera with tears streaming down his face and everybody understands. If tears stream down your face at work, well, that’s a different story.
Don’t allow yourself to be confined by cultural expectations for men. Grieve according to your personality. For example . . .
• If you are a man who is highly physical and active then move, exercise, and work with your body. One man who had been a recreational runner decided to run a marathon on the first anniversary of his wife’s death. He began training for that event shortly after she died. On the day of the marathon, he paused to remember his wife and commit the event to her memory.
• If you are a man who is stimulated intellectually, then learn your way through grief. Research the topic. Read books and magazine articles about grief, bereavement, and recovery. Attend workshops. Frank, widowed after 35 years of marriage, learned so much as a result of what he called his “grief project” that today he leads grief workshops all over his state.
• If you are a man who is social and extroverted, then join a grief support group. There you will find others like you. In a support group you will be able to share your experience and feelings without fear of judgment or misunderstanding.
• If you are a man who is quiet, reflective, and introverted, then turn inward. Meditation, yoga, long solitary walks, or journaling may bring relief for your grief.
Let others in.
People want to reach out and help. Accept what they have to offer you. The ability to accept aid from friends and family is both an effective coping mechanism and a sign of personal maturity. Here is some sound advice from Rabbi Earl Grollman from his book Living with Loss, Healing with Hope (Beacon, 2001):
Remember that even the best of friends cannot read your mind. Communicate clearly. If you repeatedly say “I’m fine,” how can your friends know that you need their help? Sometimes, a casual acquaintance may step in to fill the breach, help you through your despair, and become a new true friend.
Balance solitude with the social.
When we are hurting, our natural tendency is to withdraw, retreat, and self-isolate. This is useful but only if it’s balanced with social times as well. One widower advises, “You need to get out of the house and be active rather than sitting around alone every evening.” In his case, he joined a local YMCA saying, “I’m there most nights of the week after work and I exercise for 90 minutes. I not only get in a good workout those evenings but I have made new friends there. It’s become the highlight of my day.”
Let memories bring happiness and healing.
Ruth Davis Konigsberg, author of The Truth About Grief: The Myth of Its Five Stages and the New Science of Loss (Simon & Schuster, 2011), says,
Research has shown that being able to draw on happy memories of the deceased helps you heal—those who are able to smile when describing their relationship to their husband or wife six months after the loss were happier and healthier 14 months out than those who could only speak of the deceased with sadness, fear, and anger. As hard as it might be, try to focus on good memories and feelings about your relationships, as it is the positive emotions that can protect your psyche and help you find serenity.
Be helpful to others.
An Eastern proverb states, “Help your brother’s boat across and you will find your own has reached the shore.” Reaching out to others not only helps them but it helps you by taking the focus off your own pain. Furthermore, helping others brings a better sense of perspective about your own life and circumstances.
After his wife of 34 years died from cancer, one man decided to use his loss and grief experience as a way of helping other grievers. He wrote an informational pamphlet specifically geared toward men in grief. “I self-published the booklet and mail it off to men I know who are grieving. My friends know I have the booklet and have been kind enough to ask me for copies, which they distribute. Also, I saved the booklet on my computer as a PDF file so I can e-mail it to those who prefer an electronic version.” In the last 24 months he has distributed several hundred copies.
When depression, despair, and discouragement knock on the door of your life, don’t open it. Choose instead to regard your cup as half full rather than half empty. This was something author James Michener did after his beloved wife of 29 years died from cancer. At one point he began feeling sorry for himself because he carried a “very, very heavy burden.” Then he corrected himself immediately saying, “This is very dangerous thinking. And we are not going down that road.”
The lesson from his experience: allow hope and optimism to be your traveling companions as you journey though a time of grief.
Victor Parachin is a minister and freelance writer in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Using What You Know to Comfort Others
1. Pray about losses you’ve experienced and grieving people you’ve been close to.
2. Make a list of things you’ve learned from these experiences. What’s helpful when confronting loss? What does more harm than good? What truths and practices keep people rooted in Christ in the face of the enormity of loss?
3. List a few things about these experiences that have overwhelmed and bewildered you. There’s much more that we don’t know how to handle than we do know. Grappling with these feelings can make the comfort you offer to others deeper and more meaningful.
4. Think of ways you can apply these lessons to comforting others.