by William H. Schatz
Through an unconscious process, we all learn the role that is modeled for us by parents, teachers, relatives, heroes, television and movie characters, and others. This social conditioning applies to both men and women and is one way a culture passes it’s values and patterns to the next generation. Fortunate is the child who is surrounded by strong, positive, loving models, both male and female.
But there may be negative elements. The fact is: Typical male roles tend to interfere with grieving.
“Big boys don’t cry.” So it begins in childhood – the suggestion that a man must always be strong, not showing softness, weakness, or tears. Reinforcing images continue within the family – father does not cry. Any everywhere outside the family the boy sees what is supposed to be the desirable male – big, strong like steel, and never crying.
Whatever may be said for or against this macho role, it definitely interferes with grieving. The emotions of grief are real and need to be expressed.
The effect on grief comes in a man’s rapid return to work, often in a week or so, long before the shock and numbness have worn off. He feels isolated because co-workers do not know what to say. Tasks take longer because grief is using up his normal reserve of energy. He may have trouble concentrating. Or he may throw himself into his work with extra intensity in an attempt to forget his loss. In a few weeks, he may adjust to a normal work routine but the grief is still with him. The stark reality comes when he returns home each night and finds the family in grief. Memories surround him.
A role that a man learns early is that of protector. He believes he should shield his wife, children, and property from all types of harm. The danger can be emotional, physical, or financial.
When a boy starts dating, he learns that someone has entrusted a daughter to his care. He responds by protecting her. This role increases through courtship, marriage, and finally, the birth of children. Now the man has a family to protect.
When a child dies, a father often feels he has failed in his protective role.
He feels he should not have allowed his son to use the car. He should not have allowed his daughter to go to that party. He should have watched the baby more closely. He should have called the doctor sooner. Somehow he feels he failed to protect.
If the child died when the father was present, such as in a sports or auto accident, his feelings of failure may be especially severe.
There is another villain – grief itself. The family, individually and collectively, is in grief, and tries as he would, the father, cannot protect his family members from the pain. He would even like to protect the family from the effects of his own grief. He may put on his macho image, deferring his own grief to protect the family, but the effort is futile.
The man of the house is expected to fix things. He hears, “Fix my bike,” “Please do something about the door,” and “Check the car – it’s making funny noises.” If he cannot deal with the problem himself, he is expected to arrange for someone else to do the fixing. This applies not only to mechanical problems, but also to almost any crisis. A woman can step into the problem-solving role and often does, but typically she looks to her husband.
The death of a child, however, is an unsolvable problem. Neither husband nor wife (nor anyone else) can solve it. Yet the wife and other children may look to the husband as if he could have solved it. They may ask him, “Why?” He may ask himself why he could not or did not prevent the death. He may wonder if he could have obtained someone more capable to treat the child.
Just as in the protector role, there is a sense of failure and guilt. “If only I could have found the person with the solution.” “If only…if only…if only.”
Grieving is the way we put our world back together. Of course grieving won’t undo the death or take away the void. Life will never be quite the same, but it can be meaningful again. Bad wounds may leave scars, but they do heal if cared for.
Grieving heals by bringing feelings to the surface where they can be expressed, talked about, understood, and resolved. If feelings are left buried, they cause prolonged turmoil, bitterness, family problems, and even ill health. Studies have indicated that unresolved grief is a serious problem. So grieving is necessary. It is a work that must be done.
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