I Don’t Need Help: On Men and Grief

Men are different. No, they’re not! But they are.

When I make a bereavement phone call after a death, about half the people I talk with are . . . men. No surprise, eh? But men, far more than the women, tend to surprise me after I’ve asked if this is a good time to speak for a few moments.

No, really, I'm fine . . .

No, really, I’m fine . . .

There was the man who didn’t want to talk, and really didn’t need any help from anyone after his wife died. He didn’t say this once—I don’t need any help—but four or five times in the course of our conversation. He didn’t want to talk, didn’t want anyone to worry about him. In between those obvious lies, he shared about meeting his wife decades before and how much she’d changed him for the better. He also fretted about how he couldn’t quite muster the energy to go outside to fix the sprinklers and wondered why he had so little energy. Part way through our call—I don’t want to talk—he mentioned searching for a serving spoon or measuring cup in the kitchen and discovering one of his wife’s folded aprons in a drawer. It held her fragrance. He (this man who didn’t want to talk) said he stood there, frozen in the middle of the kitchen, the apron pressed to his nose.

Of the thousands of phone calls I’ve made, more men than women hang up on me. (Actually, no one has ever hung up on me!) But when I announced that I’m calling from hospice and wanted to check to see how things are going, a higher percentage of men will deliver a blunt variation of “I’m fine,” and seconds later—not moments—the call will conclude. He didn’t really hang up, but he had no interest in hanging on to listen to anything or anyone else.

There was the man who was a retired military officer. His wife died in our care. Based on the notes in his medical chart, several of my hospice colleagues had spoken with him, and supported him, before and after her death. In all of those encounters, he said nearly nothing. But one of the social workers had written that he’d met his wife in the Navy. When I called, he said what I often hear (see above paragraph): “I’m fine.” He was on the verge of ending the conversation when I asked, “So, you met your wife while you were both serving in the military?” There was a pause, a hear-a-pin-drop moment. And then he shared about meeting her in an Admiral’s office, about their whirlwind courtship, about where they’d gone together on “secret military missions.” He didn’t go into details about his wife; at most, he related some headlines about their relationship. Perhaps he would’ve kept sharing, except he arrived at a point where there was a catch in his throat and a thickness in his voice. He quickly muttered, “Well, thanks for calling. I guess I’m all alone now.” He ended the call before I could thank him, before I could figure out some way to let him know he wasn’t alone. Though, I hope, if only for a little while, he hadn’t felt alone.

Of the thousands of phone calls I’ve made, it is more likely a man who will say he doesn’t want any more phone calls from our office, or he wants our monthly bereavement letters to stop. A few, when they’ve done that, have been polite enough and honest enough to state something like, “I don’t want reminders of her death. I just want to forget.” They are lying to me. And they are telling the truth.

Men are different. No, they’re not! But they are.

Many of the men I contact, especially those married for five or six decades, are from an older generation. They don’t think of the Great Depression or World War II or the Cold War as a static history lesson, but as fact of their young, hardscrabble lives. Tom Brokaw may have famously referred to the World War II veterans as the “Greatest Generation,” but they also tend to be the silent generation, the mute men. What you say is never important as what you do. Don’t express feelings because that’s a sign of weakness. But some of what I hear—or don’t hear!—doesn’t have a thing to do with when a man was born. Many men, in American culture, tend to avoid “feelings.” Stay strong. Don’t cry. Don’t whine. Work it—whatever IT is—out on your own.

There are exceptions. Some (or perhaps many) men will read my thoughts and disagree with me. They are tough, but possess tender feelings. They may be quiet, but don’t isolate themselves. They cry, but aren’t ashamed.

And so I look at a name on a list of the bereaved and make a call. A man whose beloved wife has died, answers. Maybe he’ll lie and say he doesn’t want to talk as he keeps talking. Maybe he’ll say I’m fine before “hanging up” on me. But making that call is important.

Men are different. Yes, they are. We all are. Every single hurting one of us.

(Hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with how I share my experiences. Any names used are fictitious. Events are combined and/or summarized.)

Image from here.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *