A young widowed father opening up about living with loss
I’ve just started to feel something like human again after nearly two weeks of suffering from chicken pox.
‘Man flu’, I hear you cry. Well maybe, but I can honestly say I don’t remember ever having been so ill. It occurred to me about a week in, however, that perhaps my immune system is somewhat suppressed through grief. Oddly, given how difficult and long a winter it’s been, I’ve barely been physically ill over the last six months. But then when it hit me, it took me with full force.
Yet I could still imagine my wife’s eyes rolling and catching a look that told me that a woman would never make such a fuss. It’s pretty well established that men and women suffer differently when it comes to muddling through a common cold, but what about grief? I started this blog in the hope of starting a conversation about male grief, so having been confined to my bed, it got me wondering whether we grieve differently to women. Whether we put ourselves at risk by suppressing grief.
I realised quite quickly that perhaps you can’t generalise, especially since I am writing this post as a man who has no problem opening up and talking about loss, so this time I looked to the experts for the answers. I actually wrote much of this copy some weeks ago for a men’s magazine, but I don’t think it’s going to see the light of day, so I thought it worth sharing here.
Can grief negatively impact male health?
Dr. Kenneth J. Doka is a Professor of Gerontology (ageing) at the Graduate School of The College of New Rochelle. He also co-authored a booked entitled, Men Don’t Cry, Women Do: Transcending Gender Stereotypes of Grief. His insights help explain how our responses to grief, both male and female, can include a number of dimensions.
“We can respond to grief physically, on a very visceral physical level with aches and pains and all kinds of physical reactions. We can respond with emotional reactions—sadness, loneliness, yearning, jealousy even, anger, guilt are all relatively common reactions. We can respond cognitively. We may think about the person. We may experience a sense of de-personalisation. We may find it hard to focus or concentrate. We can respond behaviorally—again, acting-out behaviors or withdrawal or lashing-out behaviors or even things like avoiding or seeking reminders of the person who died or the thing that was lost. Of course, it can affect us spiritually. Everybody’s pattern of grief is highly unique.”
Drawing from his own clinical experience, Dr. Jonathan Wyatt, a writer, research fellow at the University of Oxford and a former counsellor in primary care, adds that the long-term health impacts of grief can include depression; anxiety; panic attacks; and weight loss or gain.
Other research from Harvard Medical School goes a step further and talks of a “perfect storm’ of stress, lack of sleep and forgetting to take regular medications that puts mourners at increased risk of heart attacks in the days after losing someone. This is romantically, and tragically, known as dying of a broken heart.
Grieving spouses have higher long-term risks of dying, with heart disease and strokes accounting for up to 53 per cent of deaths, according to the Determinants of MI Onset Study, conducted between 1989 and 1994.
The researchers estimated the relative risk of a heart attack by comparing the number of patients who had someone close to them die in the week before their cardiac arrest to the number of deaths of significant people in their lives from one to six months before their heart attack. Psychological stress such as that caused by intense grief can increase heart rate, blood pressure and blood clotting, which can raise chances of a heart attack.
At the beginning of the grieving process, people are more likely to experience less sleep, low appetite and higher cortisol levels, which can also increase heart attack risks.
Dr. Murray Mittleman, a preventive cardiologist and epidemiologist at Harvard Medical School in the United States, comments: “During situations of extreme grief and psychological distress, you still need to take care of yourself and seek medical attention for symptoms associated with a heart attack.”
But understanding how to take care of yourself when you’re in shock and at your absolute lowest, from my experience, can be difficult and even complicated because we all grieve differently.
“There’s a lot of confusion out there on ‘the right way’ to grieve. Movies and popular culture tend to dramatise the grieving process. People are exposed to this over and over and think that going through certain rituals will help them heal. The truth is everyone is going to approach grief differently and needs to work through it a way that’s beneficial to them. For example, I worked through the loss of my wife and daughter with long, early morning runs and blogging anonymously about my day-to-day experiences. That worked for me but may not be the solution for someone else.”
I wrote and ran a lot too. I did a half marathon three months after my wife died, which probably sounds like a healthy step on paper. However, I’d lost too much weight, I was drinking too much alcohol and not getting enough sleep to sustain my energy levels through training, so I was facing total burn out. I’d become an ‘action-orientated’ griever according to Robert Zucker, the author of The Journey Through Grief and Loss: Helping Yourself and Your Child When Grief Is Shared.
I’ve certainly faced my grief openly so far, but Zucker and I talked about how denied, buried or absent grief can lead to health issues and stress. We discussed how some people choose to try to somehow delay their grief by taking medication that mitigates it.
Again, I’ve seen from first hand experience that benzodiazepine drugs, such as Diazepam and Valium, can help ease the pain of loss but that denying yourself the opportunity to grieve fully can then emerge later as anxiety or illness.
Perhaps the obvious thing to seek out when you lose someone close to you is counselling. According to Cruse Bereavement Care, a national charity set up to offer free, confidential help to bereaved people, this is something that significantly fewer men opt for than women. Perhaps because men find it harder to open up and ask for help.
That’s not to say this is wrong. In fact, I went to counselling immediately after my wife was killed thinking I would find the answers I was looking for, but I quickly learned that the process is about catharsis rather than closure or fixing the problem. Although I definitely believe in the benefits of counselling I only attended two formal sessions. I actually discovered quickly that my own willingness to be ‘counselled’ by friends and family, my openness and my writing was providing all the catharsis I needed.
Zucker helps explain the process of bereavement counselling. “One common benefit is being acknowledged as someone who is suffering without the judgment of others. It’s about wanting to live well and normalising the experience loss, learning about it and how it is changing you.”
The incapacity of counselling, or I as I now believe anything, to remedy grief might help explain why it’s not the choice for some men. Professor Sue Read, a specialist in bereavement counselling and a nursing professor at Keele University says, “It seems to me that if men cannot ‘fix’ things, they don’t spend time worrying about them, and that’s how they survive.
I saw myself slip into this kind of survival and social conformity in the beginning, which I now understand to be common in men. Read adds, “Men often feel they need to ‘move on’ quickly, support everyone else as ‘head of the house’ and their emotions will get overlooked or ignored. This results in men feeling weak and ineffective if they feel they need to talk about their loss. For example, following a miscarriage, much of the early literature focused upon the mother’s loss, where more recent literature acknowledges the impact on fathers too. Both parents have incurred a loss, but the father is expected to support the mother and the rest of the household through theirs.”
Keogh expands on this idea of men feeling weak when seeking help. “Men who do seek bereavement counselling tend to hide that knowledge from others while women tend to let their friends or family know that they’re getting help. I think part of the reason they do this is because they believe seeing a counsellor makes them look weak or unable to “man up” and do it on their own.”
Dr. Wyatt adds, “If I could caricature, the way men are ‘supposed’ to do it is, ‘It’s done. They’ve gone now. No point in dwelling. Time to get on with it. Move on.’”
This is something I can relate to and that I’ve started to believe is instilled into males from a very early age. Zucker agrees, “Boys are exposed to fictitious characters and superheroes who are strong men of few words. They look up to these figures as role models of masculinity and doubtless this affects how they deal with their emotions in later life.”
Even my son, who’s only two-and-a-half-years-old, already tells me not to worry about things he doesn’t even understand yet and informs me that he can fix them, probably because he’s copying Bob the Builder. If only he knew how big a job he’s got on his hands.
As well as trying to fix things, widowers often date new women just months after their wife dies. Keough explains that widows generally wait longer to date until they finally feel ready to open their heart to someone else. “Widowers sometimes jump into the dating game months after their wife dies because they’re lonely. They think that dating and having a relationship will somehow heal them and make everything better. It doesn’t. In many cases it can lead to more confusion and extend the period of grieving.”
This notion goes back a long way. In Kate Boydell’s book Death…And How To Survive It, she talks about the expectation on the Victorian widow to completely withdraw from society and follow a strict mourning dress code for years. Men, on the other hand, were expected to follow no conventions as widowers, but rather were encouraged to get straight out there and find another wife.
These days, this is probably quite an extreme view, but from my recent interactions with both widowers and widowers, women still tend to openly ‘wear’ their grief more than men.
Keough suggests that this is fine and that men don’t have to approach grief like women in order to approach it in a ‘healthy’ manner. “I don’t think men necessarily need to show their feelings or grieve the same way women do. Men tend to dive into work and other activities as a way dealing with their grief. There’s nothing wrong with that as long as they’re able use it as a way to move toward healing.”
Dr. Wyatt adds, “Maybe it’s harder for men to allow ourselves to get in touch with grief and all its complexities. But I think that it’s the suppression or ‘denial’ of grief that does particular damage. Fully engaging with grief, trying not to expect it to be a neat, sequential process (as some of the literature suggests), and allowing it to unfold and emerge, is likely to lead to no long term health impact, in my view and experience.”
So that’s my plan. I understand now that I am subservient to grief. I can try to work with it but if I try to beat it, I’ve no doubt it will fight me harder to be named the victor. My secret weapon in this battle is that I’m not looking to win. I’ve decided I’m going to look after myself and I know that means settling for a draw.
I’d like to thank everyone who kindly offered me their time to help write this piece.