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A Man's Grief

Copyright © 1994 by Tom Golden L.C.S.W.

(This article appeared in the November, 1994 issue of M.E.N. Magazine)

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Tom Golden at his son's elementary school.

As a beginning grief therapist in the late 1970's I can remember the difference I felt when a new client I would receive was a man or a woman. Somehow a woman seemed easier to work with, requiring less effort in helping her to do her work. A man, on the other hand, many times meant trouble. Somehow men didn't seem to fit our program. Being the only male therapist, I would tend to get most of the male referrals.

Swallowed by a Snake
by Thomas R. Golden
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The reaction of the female therapists to male clients was somewhat stronger than my own, with some staff members even refusing to work with men. Various criticisms were heard about the way men grieved or didn't grieve.

It took me some time to realize that the type of therapy I had been taught to do was designed for women. The vast majority of clients who visit therapists' offices are female, and due to this, therapy is shaped accordingly to fit and be effective with women. I slowly began to realize that there wasn't something wrong with the men--there was something wrong with the therapy. This series of booklets will take you on a journey that parallels my own struggle in finding out what does and doesn't help men in healing their grief.

Through my years of experience in working with men and grief I have found that men need grief defined in a different manner. In this article I will begin by defining grief in terms that men will understand. Terms like chaos and desire will supplant the usual definitions of grief in terms of feelings. Most grief is healed through ritual. The last part of this article provides a practical guide to the mechanics of ritual in order to allow each man to evaluate and understand his own way of healing.

Grief is a problem without an easy solution. When anyone confronts a problem that has no solution he or she will often feel lost. When a woman feels lost, she tends to ask for help. When a man feels lost, he looks for maps. This series of booklets is intended to be those maps. This first booklet defines the problem and surveys the ground of grief. The second booklet will discuss gender differences in grieving and self-help ideas for men who are working with their grief. The third booklet will examine the grief rituals of our culture and compare them to those of indigenous cultures around the world. These practices will give us some sense of our cultural poverty in dealing with grief and will show us how other cultures have honored gender differences in the grieving process. I hope you find this material helpful.

What Is Grief?

Grief is a part of life. We are familiar with our responses to gain and celebration, and grief is the other side of that coin. Grief, simply put, is the physical, emotional, and mental responses we have to a loss of any kind. We expect grief to flow from a major loss such as the death of a friend or family member, but it can also flow in smaller amounts from ordinary, everyday losses. Such losses might be the conclusion of your favorite time of year a holiday or being in a traffic jam and late for an important meeting. These smaller losses are examples of what is termed micro-grief. Grief can be related to losses of childhood, such as the loss of seeing the world as a safe place, or all of the unmet expectations, thwarted intentions, or unspoken communications we might have stored inside us. When looked at in this way, we begin to see that grief is an integral part of being alive, a part of our daily living. It is woven into the fabric of life.

Grief and Desire

Grief is related to desire. Desire is the source of both grief and happiness; if you have desires of any kind you will undoubtedly have grief. If your desire is met, you may find joy, and if it isn't, there is grief. Joy and grief are brothers in a way, and if you experience one fully you will probably experience the other in its fullness. If you deny either one, you will limit the other to the same degree. If you deny your grief, you limit your joy; if you deny your joy, you limit your grief.

A man I worked with named Phil immediately saw how this related to his own life. He said, "You know, that's why I had all those upsetting feelings at my mid-life period. I was dealing with all my unmet desires for success at work." He remembered his fantasies of huge success, at being top in his field, and realized that when he reached mid-life he experienced the loss of the possibility of his dreams coming to fruition.

From Micro Grief to Major Grief

The way we respond to very small losses is many times similar to the way we will handle big losses. Our response could be sadness, anger, helplessness, or many others. When a person we love dies, we are flooded with a torrent of unmet desire. We have strong desires to have that person with us still. There are desires to re-experience some of the positive ways we may have connected with that person in the past. We have a variety of unmet desires relating to the person who died. This is the more familiar form of grief, but it differs from micro-grief only in its intensity and duration.

There is no recipe that can predict a man's emotional response to his lost desire. It is a very personal and individual response. Some people have thought that grief followed a specific and linear path, that grief had well defined, additive stages. These ideas have pretty much gone by the wayside. We have come to realize that the so-called five stages--denial, anger, sadness, bargaining, and acceptance--are really only experiences that have no particular order, except that denial is almost always first. Most people think of denial as something to be avoided, that it is somehow bad. What they don't realize is that denial works in both directions; it filters out the excessively wonderful things that happen to us as surely as it filters out the trauma. The first thing a lottery winner says is "I can't believe it." Denial acts as a shock absorber for our ego for both the good and the bad. In a computer, when data is changed the effect is immediate. But our brains and egos are not binary like a computer. It is as if our brains are "wetware," not hardware. In our situation the data change is not immediate, and denial spares us the jolting nature of receiving an extreme message.

In working with people who are grieving I have noticed that many people can go through all of the "five stages" in a single day. A man named Jeff came to me due to the death of his sister and mother. The deaths were fairly recent, and Jeff described a day in which he found himself first denying that the deaths had occurred, then a short time later remembering the truth of the loss. He next found himself angry and sad, and shortly thereafter, felt a more accepting attitude toward the deaths. It is not uncommon to cycle through many different responses in a short period of time. This doesn't mean that Jeff had resolved the loss; it is a normal part of grief to zoom up and down with feelings.

Reactions to Grief

There are numerous other reactions in grief, including getting in touch with the loss, holding on, letting go, making new attachments, and observing one's growth through the loss, etc. Getting in touch with the loss is just as it sounds. It is the reaction that most people equate with grief, usually characterized as being "in" the feelings. Holding on is a sense of not wanting to release the desires of the past and steadfastly holding on to them. Letting go is a time when we are ready to release the desires. Making new attachments is the process where we begin to feel our desires growing again, and we feel strong enough to begin to make other attachments. All of these different reactions can manifest at any time. You can even have denial near the end of a grief, just as you can have resolutions of parts of the grief in the very beginning.

Grief and Depression

What is the difference between grief and depression? I like to think of them as being very different processes. Grief is our unique and natural response to loss, while depression is many times a web of negative self-thoughts. When we are depressed, we are in some way thinking that we are a terrible person. The thoughts can range from "I could never do that" to "I have committed the unpardonable sin." Depression is a deflated state of mind that we tend to act out. By this, I mean that our behavior will follow our thoughts. If we think that we are the worst schlub in the world, then our actions will often follow suit. Grief, on the other hand, is the ability to "stand in our own tension" arising from a loss. It is the natural response to a normal life experience. Many times when a depressed person begins to feel what is inside--not the negative thought processes but the feelings within--they are starting to heal themselves. The distinction can get a bit complicated, but the general rule is that grief is related to the acknowledgment, honoring, and often expression of feeling connected to a loss, and depression is a form of pathological negative thinking.

Grief is like a Beast

Grief can be likened to a beast: it comes in many shapes and sizes. Micro-grief might look like a small beast, a bird or an insect perhaps, in keeping with a loss related to a small desire of some sort. Then there are larger varieties that could be likened to dragons. Their size is unreal to us, and they are so powerful that they appear to be from another world. It is this dragon type of grief that is related to Joseph Campbell's idea of the "call". Campbell related the world's great mythologies as a metaphor for times in our life when we were "called" to leave our everyday existence and enter a new landscape teeming with danger. As we experience such a grief, we are drawn out of our normal functioning and thrust into a world and a part of ourselves that is very unfamiliar terrain. The grief has become the dragon of myth, and we are faced with what Campbell has called the hero's journey. By approaching and confronting this dragon we open ourselves to an inner quest that has all of the trappings of a distant land--danger and unknown landscapes. We can choose not to fight the dragon, but if we do so there is certainly a price for that. The price is that we always have a dragon on our heels, breathing fire down our necks. We find ourselves unable to engage in life, and always having to look over our shoulder to check on the dragon.

Inner Experience

What is the inner experience like when we confront our dragon? The feelings we experience when we meet a dragon are not of the ordinary variety. They are powerful and all consuming--anger, sadness, helplessness, fear, guilt, loneliness. A man I know was experiencing such feelings after the death of his father. He was surprised at the intensity of the feelings and started to discuss this with some of his closest friends. They advised him to "let it go," don't hold on to those feelings. The man was hurt by their advice, knowing that it was off the mark. His friends had no conception of what he was going through. His own assessment of the situation was that his experience was very much like treading water, trying to keep his head above the surface. "How can I let go of something I'm swimming in?" he asked. This is the way it is when we meet a grief that is like a dragon.

The Flute Player

The following story may help in looking at other aspects of grief:

Long, long ago, in a place far south of here, there was a village at the edge of the jungle. This village was a peaceable place except for one major problem, the boa constrictor. These boas were not the snakes we know today; they were huge snakes many times as large as the boas of our modern world. They were uncontrolled animals whose viciousness was only exceeded by their appetite. Much of the time they ate other animals, but without a doubt the boas' favorite dish was humans. Snakes would enter the village at will and eat whatever and whomever they pleased. There was no place to hide from these monstrous beasts.

One day in the village, a woman was speaking openly about her pain related to the boa. She spoke of her two children who had been devoured by this beast and was lamenting the state of affairs of having to live in such an unsafe place. She wondered aloud if there might not be someone who could put this snake reign of terror to an end. Her hope was that the men, women, and children of the village could live in peace.

A man had been listening to her pain and suffering. He was the man who played the flute most beautifully. He pondered her words and knew that something must be done. He packed his bundle of maize and his small knife, and off he went into the jungle, playing his flute as he walked.

The man carefully chose his spot in the jungle and sat and played his flute. He was aware that the boa was approaching, but continued his playing. Then without warning the snake attacked and swallowed the flute player with one bite. The darkness from within the snakes belly was complete. The flute player tried to make himself as comfortable as possible, then unpacked his belongings and took out his knife. He consciously and deliberately used the knife to cut away the snake's belly a bit at a time. The snake reacted to this tremendous pain in its belly by making as much room for the flute player as it possibly could.

The flute player knew that it was going to take awhile to complete the task of killing this huge snake. He proceeded to cut and eat a bit of the snake's flesh each time he got hungry. This went on for quite some time, and the snake was continually in pain. He made it a point to tell all of his snake friends to never again eat a human, or they would suffer the consequences of this great pain that he now felt.

After awhile the flute player came to the boa's heart. Upon cutting this, the boa died. At that point the flute player emerged from the snake and returned to the village playing his flute. Everyone in the village was surprised to see him and asked where he had been. The flute player responded that he had been in the boa, and to prove it he showed them a piece of the snake's heart. The people then knew that the snake was indeed dead.

This beautiful story speaks about grief. It tells us that going into grief may at times be like being eaten by a snake. We are cut off from our everyday life, we feel that our existence is confined, and we are surrounded by our grief like the flute player was. Our world is completely changed, going from life as we know it into the belly of a snake. Imagine being in the belly of a huge snake. Dark. A very tight spot. Every place you turn, there is the belly of the snake. The entire environment is this wet, warm, restrictive belly, pulling at you to conform to its wishes. This is similar to the way a person may feel who is experiencing a deep grief. Sometimes the grief takes over, and you feel that your life has to conform to the grief rather than to your own wishes.

Being in the Belly

Many times we have a sense that there is no way out of the situation, that the grief we are experiencing is never going to end. Part of a significant grief is the feeling that the grief has become the only reality and will continue forever. The flute player must have sometimes felt the same as he experienced his struggle. He took his bag of maize and knife with him, realizing that this was not a short term project. He knew that he must cut away a little bit of the belly at a time, and he seemed to have faith that eventually he would get to the "heart of the matter." This is the way it is with grief. We need to come prepared and be ready for the long haul. Grief is not a short term project; some types are lifelong struggles. With the death of a child for example, the parents are in the belly of grief for years. After the first year or two is over, they find that they are still in the belly. Although probably not in the same way as they experienced it in the first year after the death, the pain is still strong and stays strong for a long time. This kind of loss leaves behind the old metaphor for grief which is that of a wound, and brings forth a different image: that of an amputation. In dealing with a loss like the death of a child it is more like learning how to live after a part of you has been cut off than it is like healing from a wound. What I have seen these people do is to find other parents who are also in the belly and form small communities that can honor their grief. Our culture superficially expects that these parents will heal from their grief in a relatively short period of time, and it just is not so. Often I have worked with a parent who has been asked by a friend, "Aren't you over that yet?" Sometimes this question comes after only a few months. We need to honor these people for learning how to live in the belly and not tacitly demand that they don't mention the belly they are in.

The flute player was prepared for his journey. He took along what he would need for his prolonged struggle. He didn't kill the snake with one blow; he knew that he had to carve away a bit at a time. This is the way it is with grief; we need to carve away at it a bit at a time. We need to realize that each time we experience the feelings involved in our grief we are taking another chunk out of the snake's belly and getting a little closer to the heart of the matter. Many times people don't realize that this is the nature of grief. They feel that honoring and acknowledging their grief is not having any effect. The snake wants you to feel that it is hopeless, that you are never getting out, that your pain is endless, that you should lie down and be digested. This is not the case. With most grief, cutting away a bit of the stomach at a time will eventually lead you out of the belly.

In our story, one of the reasons the flute player responded to the call of the village woman was that children were being killed. This is also true with grief. When we are carrying unresolved grief within us and dragging the snake behind us, we lose our child-like qualities, such as spontaneity and creativity. Our child within is being strangled. Our reasons for wanting to kill the snake should include the renewal of our passion and creativity, which will emerge after we leave the snake.

When in the belly, we must learn a different way of living. In this dark, restrictive environment our usual skills for living are not particularly effective. The situation calls on us to use parts of ourselves that are not our usual strengths. Instead of seeing clearly what is before us, we might have to grope around, using our sense of touch rather than our eyes. Once our activity has brought us into the belly, we may need to find or develop other skills that will help us in navigating this inner terrain.

Activity and Grief

The flute player in our story found a way to enter his grief through his flute playing. Men tend to find activities that will help them in being in the belly, and this is the case with many men in our culture. With our void of socially-endorsed grieving rituals, men have had to be creative in finding active ways to lead them into their boa. Many times the activities that men find, like our protagonist's flute playing, will be related to their psychological strengths. Finding and using this strength as a means to enter into grief is a vital exercise for men. Notice that the flute player did not continue playing once he was in the belly; he had to use other skills in order to deal with the snake. Also notice that his work was not done from the outside, but was accomplished from inside the snake. This is the way it is with grief. We must do this work from the inside, but find our way into it through our strengths.

Tom Golden is a therapist active in Menís Work in the Washington, D.C. area. This article is excerpted from Tom's series of three booklets on men and grief, which have been brought together into his book Swallowed by a Snake, available through MenWeb. Tom can be reached at: Tom Golden, LCSW, 104000 Connecticut Ave., Suite 514, Kensington MD 20895. (301) 942-9192. His e-mail address is:

Tom has a Web site on Crisis, Grief and Healing: Men and Women. It has more of his writing on men and grief, information on him, and and information about his book Swallowed by a Snake. His vision is that his Place to Honor Grief will also be a place to share and dialog on men and grief.

Related stories:


 Men, Grief and Ritual, Another excerpt from Tom's book Swallowed by a Snake, which first appeared in the January 1995 issue of M.E.N. Magazine.

 A Tree for My Father, Tom talks about a ritual he did on the death of his father.

 On the Anniversary of My Father's Death, by Tom Golden

 A Ritual for my Father, by Bert H. Hoff

 Swallowed by a Snake, A review of Tom's book.

 Swallowed by a Snake, A review of an audiotape by Tom.

MP3 WebCasts:

Be sure to check out our three MP3 WebCasts of Tom Golden on men and grief.

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