Written by Griefline counsellor, Bryan Petheram
Grief is our response to loss and can be experienced physically, emotionally and psychologically. Grief can be an individual journey and it doesn’t necessarily help to compare ourselves with others. For men however, there are common ways that we grieve. It can be important to examine your own grief style to see whether it is supporting you.
Having sat with and worked alongside men who have experienced significant loss, I’ve observed a tendency for men to want to solve the problem of grief.
This is a reasonable and understandable “go-to” action for men. We as men can be good at problem-solving. Difficulties arise however when grief cannot be solved and we as men come to realise that. Grief, as troubling as it is, needs to be experienced for all that it is so that we as men can begin to heal and move towards restoring our lives from the loss we have endured.
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Do you grieve intuitively or instrumentally?
Grieving can be grouped into whether we grieve intuitively or instrumentally.
Intuitive grief involves becoming emotional, identifying and experiencing the feelings of grief. Intuitive grievers are often viewed as feeling their way through grief.
Instrumental grief can be thought of as grieving actively, grieving by doing things. Instrumental grievers often appear as someone thinking their way through grief. So, instrumental grief is thinking and doing grief.
It is very common for men to grieve instrumentally, by doing and thinking. Examples of things some men do when instrumentally grieving are:
- building or fixing a garden
- building a memorial site
- fixing cars
- cleaning out a part of the home
Some people engage in increased physical activity or become involved in exercises that engage the mind and allow for deep thinking.
Instrumental grieving can be helpful for many men, but it is not the only way to work through grief.
Of course, some men will intuitively grieve and feel comfortable in feeling and expressing emotions around grief. Some men are able to grieve both actively and by feeling. It is possible to grieve by both thinking and feeling. The way a man grieves can change and shift during his journey in grief.
But one of the challenges in instrumentally grieving is that it can leave us feeling disconnected from others, not sharing how we are really feeling.
Sometimes social expectations are for men to be strong and protective. It can feel for some men that they need to be self-reliant. Men can place these expectations upon themselves too. Remember, we can be strong and protective while also recognising our feelings. Being open about our feelings can in fact be a sign of strength and courage.
For some men, being closed to feelings seems like a good defense against grief. But we know that grief will be patient and wait for us. This defense against grief won’t stop grief. Coping strategies like alcohol or drug use or engaging in risky behaviours are common among some men in grief. These strategies of trying to avoid grief are common. Men often report that they don’t want to “burden” others with their grief.
By not showing our emotions, those in our lives might not know what we are feeling or how they can best support us. This can lead to feelings of isolation including in our relationships. We can feel a range of different emotions, and this can lead to a sense of chaos and confusion. Being able to identify and talk about these emotions can help us navigate our way through.
For men, the pain being felt on the inside is not so easily reflected on the outside. Men have learned over generations to keep things to themselves and try to hide their true feelings.
As the stress of grief takes hold, some men isolate themselves even more and struggle alone. Stress has recognised adverse impacts on our health including our physical and mental health. Stress can be managed and addressed, including the stress of grief.
Sometimes we think that public displays of emotion are not expected of men. Men have emotions too! For men, common emotions are sadness, guilt and anger. This is normal and expected.
“Sometimes we think that public displays of emotion are not expected of men. Men have emotions too! For men, common emotions are sadness, guilt and anger. This is normal and expected.”Bryan Petheram
What can help me as a man in grief?
Remind yourself that this is your grief and your grief style might work for you. Practice judgement-free grief.
We know that grief can change and other aspects of our life are important too so it might help to think of other ways to grieve. Here are some ideas that men have found helpful in coping with grief.
Connect with other men who might be grieving in a similar way.
Increased emotional sharing and seeking social support for men are associated with improvements in overall health including during grief.
Have open and honest conversations.
Talk about your grief and how it feels for you. What are the emotional feelings you have? Can you name them? What are the physical feelings you have? Can you name them? These feelings might change frequently, sometimes quickly. Practice being able to recognise them and tell others about them so your grief load is shared and not all on you.
If you do grieve instrumentally, find space and time for this.
This is ok and very normal. At the same time, encourage conversations about grief involving both thoughts and feelings. Some men find it helpful to talk about their grief while they are active, combining both ways of grieving. Practice what it feels like to talk about your feelings around grief. We can get better at it.
Prioritise your grief. It deserves your attention.
When we as men try to avoid grief, it is like we are not giving it the attention it needs. Like any significant stress in your life, avoiding grief will not lead to it disappearing. In fact, many men have found that by trying to avoid grief, the thoughts and feelings around it can become stronger.
Ask for help.
Many men engage in counselling with a professional, trained and experienced in working alongside someone in grief. For a long time, it appeared that men were reluctant to seek help. This is changing and we are seeing the benefits for men in being able to better cope with and manage the pain of grief. Seeking formal help for your grief is very normal and it might work for you. For some, informal support works as well. Stay connected with others.
It’s important to recognise that everyone grieves differently, regardless of gender. The ideas I have shared are based on my own personal experience and from what I have witnessed in others and may not apply to all men. Ultimately, the most effective way to support yourself during the grieving process is to be self-aware, practice self-compassion, seek support and find healthy coping mechanisms that resonate with you as an individual.
Griefline support services
Griefline offers free phone support services nationwide, 7 days a week
Telephone support sessions are secure and confidential and available to adults aged 18 years and over.
- Call the toll-free helpline between the hours of 8am and 8pm Monday to Friday (AEST), or
- Book a call at a time that suits you.
Online community forums available 24/7
Share your experience with others who can empathise with you. Visit: https://griefline.org.au/get-help/online-forums/
Bereavement support groups
Comfort and support from peers who can empathise, facilitated by a Griefline counsellor. Free, with monthly intakes. To register for this program, visit: https://griefline.org.au/get-help/support-groups/
NSW bereavement counselling program
The NSW Integrating Grief program is a free counselling and support services for residents of NSW who are struggling to cope with the death of a significant other. To register for this program, visit: https://griefline.org.au/get-help/integrating-grief-program/
Other support services
- 13YARN provides 24/7 crisis support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples
- Beyond Blue 24/7 mental health support call 1300 22 4636
- MensLine free telephone and online counselling for Australian men anywhere, anytime
Clayton, R.E. (2015). Men in the triangle: grief, inhibition, and defense. Journal of College Student Psychotherapy, 29(2), 94-110. https://doi.org/10.1080/87568225.2015.1008361
Creighton, G., Oliffe, J., Matthews, J., & Saewyc, E. (2016). “Dulling the edges”: young men’s use of alcohol to deal with grief following the death of a male friend. Health Education & Behavior, 43(1), 54-60. https://doi.org/10.1177/1090198115596164
Lundorff, M., Bonanno, G.A., Johannsen, M., & O’Connor, M. (2020). Are there gender differences in prolonged grief trajectories? A registry-sampled cohort study. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 129, 168-175. https://doi.org/j.jpsychires.2020.06.030
Tallant, J. (2020). Exploring the social and cultural patterns of male grief and their associated health effects. Cancer Nursing Practice, 20(1), 23-28. https://doi.org/10.7748/cnp.2020.e1727