REAL MEN DON'T GRIEVE - OR DO THEY?
 
In his runaway bestseller, Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus, author John Gray examines in detail what most of us intuitively already know. Men and women are very different from each other in how they think, how they feel and how they behave.

So it is with grieving. When a cherished pet is critically ill or has died, men and women will not experience or express their reactions in the same way. Failure to understand and accept our different ways of grieving can result in hurt feelings and conflict between partners and among family members during a very difficult time. There are big decisions to be made - whether to proceed with expensive diagnostic procedures or treatments, choices about euthanasia, options for care of the pet's body after death. There are good-byes to be said and there is grief work to be done. Behaviors can be misinterpreted; needs may be misunderstood; expectations may not be met.

Male grief has certain characteristics that are important for us to know. Otherwise we may assume that, when faced with the crisis of losing a beloved companion animal, real men don't grieve.

Like everyone else in our Western culture, men are saddled with certain stereotypes. Real men are supposed to be tough, confident, rational and in control, not only of themselves but of situations as well. Real men don't cry, aren't afraid of anything and wouldn't be caught dead asking for directions, let alone for help. Real men know exactly what to do in a crisis, and they're strong enough to support the rest of the family, too. Add to these stereotypes the assumption that, if a man doesn't express thoughts and feelings of grief the same way a woman does (by crying or by openly sharing with others, for example), then he must not be grieving at all. If the grief doesn't show, it must not be there!

Scientific studies indicate clear differences between the male and female brain, not only in how it is structured, but in how it is used as well. We know that the left side of the brain houses language skills, while the right side controls spatial problem-solving skills. That the connective tissue between the two sides (the corpus collosum) tends to be thinner in males than in females may explain why a man tends to use one side of his brain at a time, while a woman uses both - and why a man is less able to verbalize what he is feeling. Other studies indicate that from puberty a male produces less of the tear-producing hormone prolactin, leaving him physiologically less able to cry.

So do real men grieve when they lose a beloved companion animal? Most certainly they do-- but they may do so in an instrumental rather than an intuitive way. (See Understanding Different Mourning Patterns in Your Family.)

In general, men tend to put their feelings into action, experiencing their grief physically rather than emotionally. They deal with their loss by focusing on goal-oriented activities which activate thinking, doing and acting. Rather than endlessly talking about or crying over his lost pet, for example, a man may throw himself into time-limited tasks such as digging the animal's grave, constructing a burial box, carving a memorial marker, planting a memorial garden, or writing a poem or a eulogy. Such activities give a man not only a sense of potency and accomplishment as he enters his grief, but also a means of escaping it when the task is done.

If a man relates the details of his loss to his closest male friends, it's likely to be around activities like hunting, fishing, sporting events and card games.

Although a man may let himself cry in his grief over losing his pet, he is more likely to do it alone, in secret or in the dark.

Regardless of the differences, the pressures of grief are still present for both men and women, and the tasks of mourning are the same: to confront, endure and work through the emotional effects of the pet's death so the loss can be dealt with successfully. Grief must be expressed and released in order to be resolved, and men need encouragement to identify and release emotions, to talk about and share their thoughts, and to accept help and support from others.

To better understand men who are grieving, it's helpful to recognize that:

  • Our own gender biases may influence how we "read" another gender's grieving.
     
  • Although men and women grieve differently, neither way is inappropriate.
     
  • It is not helpful to take sides, supporting one way of grieving over another.
     
  • The way we grieve is as individual as we are: some men grieve in traditionally "feminine" ways and some women grieve in traditionally "masculine" ways.
     
  • What looks like inappropriate behavior may be a man's way of avoiding feelings or displaying emotions publicly. A man should not be judged for how he is grieving.
     
  • If a man seems more angry than sad at the death of his pet, he may just be angry at the situation - and anger may be the only way he knows to express his grief. It's useful in such cases not to take the man's anger personally, or to react defensively against it.
     
  • Some men turn to drugs or alcohol in an effort to numb the pain of loss, or to lower their inhibitions so they can let loose their emotions. They need to know that, because alcohol is a depressant, it will only add to the sadness they're already feeling.
     
  • Men are less likely to seek the support of others (either individually or in a group) in order to express (think, talk, cry, or write about) their feelings, especially if they don't feel respected, or if they find certain aspects of grief to be embarrassing. A man needs encouragement to share his reactions and emotions, to explore what his pet's death means to him, and to acknowledge how the loss affects his life.
     
  • Men often appear to be further along in the grieving process than they actually are. Even if a man appears to be all right, it is unwise to make assumptions about what he is feeling. When in doubt, ask!

Copyright by Martha M. Tousley, RN, MS, FT, DCC    All rights reserved


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