Monday, February 1, 2010

A Model Approach to Grief

Man & Woman
Originally uploaded by phogg25

In reading about grief, I was initially curious if there were diferences in how men and women grieve. And if there were, where would a gay man fall in the various experiences of grieving?

Some of the research I read described a male model and female model of grieving. These models were used to describe where a higher majority of people, male or female, fall into. Not all men follow the male model, and not all females follow the female model.

For men, we as a society typically expect them to guard their emotions carefully. As young boys men are taught directly, or indirectly, to keep their emotions carefully hidden. This type of expectation, or model for raising boys, was definitely more prevalent in past generations. I believe this was partly due to the thought that males would likely become soldiers when they became young men. You cant have soldiers becoming emotional whenever one of the fellow troops fall. These days we know that many women now fill the ranks of the various military services. For these women, the male model is likely what they are being trained to respond to loss with. As a young boy, I was clearly given the message that boys don't cry.

For generations I believe the majority of girls were being raised with the freedom to react to loss, or even joy, with tears or a full range of emotions. If we know of a woman who has experienced loss we clearly expect to see her full of emotion. This is not to say that every woman will react the same, but there does seem to be more tolerance for a range of emoting that men do not have.

Looking back on my childhood, I was being raised in a home with four boys. We were all being raised in the same way, by the same parents, with the same expectations. Yet, without my parents knowing, one of their boys was hearing these lessons, feeling these expectations, from a different perspective than the other three. That child was me. From a very early age, around 3 or 4, I knew that I was clearly different from my older brother. As I gre older, and my next two younger brothers were born, it became even clearer to me, if not to all, that I was a very different kind of boy. Yes, I may have been less masculine. Yes, I didn't display any interest in the same games or sports as did my brothers. And yes, I tended to be a bit more free in my choice of expression.

There was a time during my early adolescents that I was feeling quite emotional, and would find myself crying without any direct cause. I believe I was likely feeling conflicted about the changes going on with me, and worrying that the changes were going to reveal my true identity to others. I remember one trip in the family car, I was lying in the back of our station wagon, crying. Up front I could hear my parents discussing my behavior. At one point I heard one of them say that they had heard of girls being very emotional during puberty, which included a lot of crying, but not boys. I thought I would just die. I felt that right there and then, they could just call me out. Being a confused little gay kid, not really understanding exactly why I was different, just knowing that I was, I thought to myself, oh my god, I'm supposed to be a girl! That seemed to explain everything. No wonder I experience my emotions differently than my brothers.

This is a very sad position to be in as a young boy. Imagine that you never quite fit the mold that your other three brothers did, and you always wondered what it was all about. Suddenly you are faced with the possibility that there is really something wrong with you. Something so wrong there was no fix. Well I played around with the notion for a few years that maybe I was supposed to be a girl. I would have to wait, and figure out if this was true. How I was going to figure this out, I wasn't quite sure.

Thank god for the onset of hormones. I suddenly realized that I was all boy,and loved being a boy. The only problem, and mostly a problem for others than for me, I was a boy who liked boys. Now this was something I knew I couldn't share with anyone, at least not until I was an adult. In high school I began to meet other guys who thought they were gay, and I began the process of slowly, I mean very slowly, coming out.

Now factor into this mix that I am not only a boy, or a gay boy, but a catholic Latin boy. Double, triple whammy. The message that I learned was very clear, machismo is what is desired, machismo is what is respected, machismo is what is expected. Help! Now, in some circles, Latin men can be very expressive, but only in very specific ways. They can be very romantic, sing ballads, and woo their women. What they can't do is cry at the drop of a hat. I learned this clearly, and to this day, I have a difficult time shaking this notion.

When I was participating in my Lesbian and Gay Bereavement Group a couple of months ago, I was clearly one of the guys, maybe the only guy, who didn't easily cry. There were tears, let me tell you, lots of them, but my tears were reserved for the drive to the group, and the drive after the group, and especially let loose once I was safely in my home. This is not something I am proud of. This is something I wish was different, but this is how it is. When I first returned to work I would end the day in total exhaustion. Not because they were over working me, but because it was taking everything out of me to hold it together. And whenever I had those moments that I was going to crumble and fall apart, I would quickly announce to my supervisor that I was having a "tough time" and needed to leave. And I would sprint right out of there.

Originally uploaded by J@ck329

Another aspect of the male/female models of grief is how we choose to either reach out to others or handle things on our own. The typical female model follows the thought that women more than men tend to share what they are going through. They tend to look for others with similar experiences, so that there is a coming together to process their feelings. In the male model men tend to mostly want to work things out of their own. In looking at my own approach, and by the fact that I am blogging about my experience, I do look to share this experience with others. I want to know how others are getting through this, and want to share my own experience as well. This has not necessarily been the easiest, or most comfortable, way for me to work through problems in the past. In the past I have mostly wanted to do things on my own, and have the look of being polished and self-sufficient.

When Michael died I decided that I needed to change my approach to my life. I needed to try being a bit more vulnerable, and be willing to stand naked in front of others. Now, I am only speaking figuritively, and there will be no nude pictures attached to this post, but as I have stated in prior posts, I now prefer to have no veils or buffers when I am having a "weak moment," or "tough time." I know longer feel that doing things completely on my own is the best way. That is why I write, I attend groups and participate in therapy. It no longer serves me to process in private.

In many ways I am learning to be more comfortable in my own skin. I want to be comfortable with my male and female "model" modes of behavior. I want to let go of some of the messages I have taken on as a man. I want to welcome some of the freedom that is afforded me as a gay man. Yes, some of the freedoms. I find it odd to say that, as we are currently battling in court for our freedom. What I am saying here is that since many in society have the notion that gay men are lesser men, then why fight it. Why not use this to my benefit? I am definitely not as flamboyant as I have the potential for. I could have more of a fabulous life if I wanted to. I could be living life a bit more on the edge. Okay, I am just kidding around. That isn't me. What I do want though is to learn from my female counter parts. I want to be more fluent in expressing my emotions. I want to take some of the freedoms that I previous didn't allow myself to explore. Why shouldn't I? What have I got to lose? I have already lost that which was so important to me.

At this point in my life I have to redefine how I see life. I have to decide how I will approach the rest of my life. I have already experienced the worst. Now I want to experience better, and with a better working model.

I was never very good at building models, but I'm willing to give it a try.


  1. it's funny that you describe these gender expectation models. my Dragon was a Marine, Force Recon, one of the tougher jobs. in his telling of his life 'out there,' he told me of the times he, his men, 'brothers' they met up with, cried. fear of dying. fear of not being honorable enough. sadness that they had not been able to save someone.

    i, however, learned during my childhood not to cry. during punishments for letting something slip from my hands or reaching across the table and accidently knocking over a glass, i learned that crying made the whippings last longer. during my first marriage, not allowing myself the release of tears also served me well.

    when i met my Dragon and was safe in his arms, i finally could be who i was meant to be. now that he's gone, i am who i am. i cry. i mourn. it's all in my own way, my own pattern of behavior. i never thought of gender appropriate behavior. we are who we are. i don't know if my expressions of grief are centered in female or male gendered specifics but i do know it's human. it's all me.

    i was never told i was a good daughter. only my Dragon and my children saw/see my worth. being an honorable human being is all i ever wanted to be. i wish society would stop compartmentalizing people as women, men, black, white, rich, poor, gay, straight, Indian, Chinese, etc. and see us all as sentient human beings. we're born. we live. we laugh. we cry. we love. we lose. life is. we are in it. good things happen. so do tragic things. humans have emotions. well, most of us us. sociopaths and psychopaths seem to have different things going on inside them. trust me. i know.

    you live your way, Dan. you live and love and grieve however it is emotionally healthy for you and your children. live. laugh. love. cry. you are, as each of us are, unique in all the world. that sounds kind of Saint-Exupery of me, doesn't it?

    i hope you have a good day being human. =0}

  2. Dan, I think Michael had a man he could be proud of. I also think your children have a Dad they can be proud of, and thankful for.
    A man who holds sensitivity and openness with emotions as a strongly valued character attribute as you do, is obviously one of superior intellectual and spiritual character.
    While you're correct, that most guys try to hold in their feelings and tears, I'm noticing women adapting to the same thing, especially professional women, as the old social mores of strength are still too often measured by the appearance of being stoic. But, as any mental health professional will confirm, holding it all back has drawbacks for one's self, and others: For ourselves, when we compress strong sentiments internally, they will eventually combust, and explode outwardly which hurts us, but also can cause harm to anyone in range of the explosion. We then also have the mess to clean up.
    The point here, is that it's healthy to cry and express real feelings. It's the audience we should invest in. Anyone who would ridicule, argue, oppress, or ignore us when we're self-disclosing are obviously not the right people deserving of our investment of disclosure.
    We must remember too that pain is like a fire. Sometimes it can only be extinguished with our tears. If its not extinguished, it may burn us, from the inside-out.
    Thank you very much for this very special entry today. It has ignited some long-ago childhood memories which I had buried away, a little too deeply.
    Thanks also for your comments in my blogs about Chuck. I'm hoping others will read and follow them. I'm finding them very therapeutic, and you, Dan, are the inspiration for my creating those blogs. If it weren't for you inspiring me, they would never have been created.
    With Love, Bill in NH

  3. Hi wNs & Bill,

    Thank you both for weighing in on this topic. You both point out important aspects that factor into how and why we adapt our emotional responses at different ages, and in different circumstances. My reading on this topic is a starting point from where research was gathered in the past. While I do believe there are certain models we approach at different times in our lives, it is probably less useful today to divide the models by gender.

    If I look at my own children I can see both a gender divide, and an adaptive age/experience model. My daughter has always been much more emotional (expressive) than my boys, yet as an 18 year old she acts more along the teenage lines than gender. In general I would have to say that my boys factor more into age and circumstance as well, and less in gender, although my 16 yr. son is very "typical male" in his responses to grief.

    For me it is such a long process to change the way I express myself. I would like to be more emotive and less explosive. This is a trait that I learned from my father, as we are definitely cut from the same cloth. In a recent conversation with him about grief, he felt that his inability to cry for the loss of his brother was something he wanted to change. It troubled him that even though he felt significant pain over his loss, that somehow he was not allowing himself to cry.

    I think we as adults are perhaps always coming to terms with letting go of the defenses we built up along the way. In time we realize that we may not need those defenses anymore, so we work at changing our responses.

    When I see my kids using defense mechanisms that don't seem helpful to them I try to point them out by explaining how they are not working right now, rather than the old messages of "boys don't..." and "girls don't."

    Oh, there is always something to think about.


  4. yeah i always feel screwed over by problems with gender roles when it comes to grief. like, bc im a guy no one ever asks me if something is up and i cant communicate to them either. its as though nothing happened and im always crying alone. i do want to do it all by myself and most of the time it works out but i dont understand why people just arent there for me and now i get it. bc they buy into the gender roles themselves. i dont really do the feminine thing like crying around ppl and im very jealous that my best friends can bc they are girls. its all making sense tht gender is one of the big issues here!