I Don’t Need Help: Guys and Grief

Guys are different.

(No, they’re not!)

When I make a bereavement phone call following a loved one’s death, about half the people that answer the phone are . . . men. Not much of a revelation, right? 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 . . .

Nope. Don’t want to talk.

There was the guy who didn’t need 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 casual 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 head outside to fix the sprinklers and wondered why he had so little energy after waking up in the morning. 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 had been made for Mom by their youngest daughter way back in the high school days.

It still held her fragrance.

He—I don’t want to talk—said he stood there, frozen in the middle of the kitchen, the apron pressed to his nose.

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Of the thousands of on-the-phone conversations I’ve made, a handful immediately terminated the call. They were all men. Additionally, when first explaining that I’m calling from hospice to check on how things are going, a higher percentage of men will deliver a blunt variation of “I’m fine.” Seconds later—not moments—the call will conclude. He didn’t really hang up, but he had no interest in hanging on to listen or talk.

There was the guy who was retired military. 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 Air Force. 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 overseas?”

There was a pause, a hear-a-pin-drop moment. And then he shared about meeting her in a two-star general’s office, about their whirlwind courtship, about where they’d gone together on “secret military missions.” He didn’t give details about his wife; at most, he related terse 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 a way to let him know he wasn’t alone. Though, I hope, if only for a little while, he hadn’t felt alone.

While I’ve done no formal research, it seems more likely that men say they don’t want any more phone calls from our office, or they want our monthly bereavement letters to stop. A few have been polite enough and honest enough to explain a version of, “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.

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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 decades from the Great Depression to the Cold War as a history lesson. Those experiences were the realities 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, the do-it-yourself dudes. What you say is never as important as what you do. Don’t be emotional 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 guy was born.

Many men, in American culture, tend to avoid “feelings.”

Stay strong.

Don’t cry.

Don’t whine.

Work it out—whatever IT is—on your own. Anyhow, won’t getting help for grief’s heartache or nonstop weeping or bursts of anger or unsettling guilt or nighttime loneliness or . . . only add to the hurt? Bury the pain. Ignore it. Avoid it. Numb it.

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

I press the numbers on the phone’s keypad. 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 is different.

(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.)

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