Men and Suicide Loss: An Often Invisible Grief
I remember just weeks after my brother’s death, my family ventured out to a survivors of suicide loss support group. We sat around a very large table in a dimly lit room in the basement of a church. One by one the participants introduced themselves and stated their reason for being there. We were the last ones to go in this round robin of about 25 people, and our grief was so raw we could barely get the words out. Afterwards my Mom and I remarked on how helpful the shared expression of sorrow was for us. My father had a different experience. I continued to attend the group for 18 months; my mom continued off and on for over a decade. My father found it more helpful to meet one-on-one with other bereaved men, and eventually, he offered his support to other fathers who had lost children to suicide.
Our family dynamic is common in many communities in the aftermath of suicide. Suicide grief support groups are predominantly made up of mothers, sisters, aunts and grandmothers. While many men find these groups helpful, most grieving men forge their own invisible path.
Over time through my involvement with the American Association of Suicidology and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, I found partners who also were interested in helping men bereaved by suicide: Franklin Cook, a grief coach connected to Alliance of Hope of and Rich Mogil of Didi Hirsch. Together we set out to get a better understanding of men’s experience of suicide bereavement and what was needed to best support them.
Together Franklin, Rick and I found we had a shared passion for supporting people bereaved by suicide and for preventing further suicides among working aged men. This common ground led us to our goal to conduct a gap analysis to help answer the question “How do men grieve a death by suicide?” This blog is a summary of our presentation at the American Association of Suicidology’s conference in 2014 in Los Angeles.
First, we reviewed some of the literature on men’s grief and found the work of Thomas Golden, author of Swallowed by a Snake: Honoring Men’s Path to Healing. Golden wrote about men’s “unconscious grieving,” and while there was a great deal of overlap between men and women, he concluded that “gender differences exist and need to be honored.” In his book Golden suggests rituals and other action-oriented steps as pressure releases for pent up male grief. He discusses the power of reciprocity and ways to make meaning by helping others. He notices that men who have success in processing their grief experience position the act of mourning as a strength in healing process.
Survey on Men and Suicide Grief
We also distributed a national on-line survey to better understand men’s grief experiences: What was working? What was missing? Almost 200 men completed the survey, most of them over 50 years old and white. Most of the men in our sample had lost other adult men — brothers, fathers, and sons — to suicide. When asked how the suicide loss impacted their life, many consequences existed including fairly intense repercussions on mood, social relationships, spiritual health and the outlook on the future.
Formal and Informal Supports for Men
When asked what was most helpful, our older sample of white grieving men stated that one-on-one and group experiences, often in face-to-face interactions, with peers, friends and family were most effective.
Support groups and one-on-one interactions helped when:
“It was the only environment where I felt as though I wasn't alone, I wasn't judged.”
“People…’walked with me’ through my pain”
They offered “Validation and care”
“Other survivors understand on a level that no one else can.”
In addition, many men mentioned that their religion and the power of faith helped them. Many found clergy helpful and considered their congregation as family.
However, there was much diversity in the responses. While some felt they had abundant help:
“I had ample resources available to me, and I used them.”
“The people that made themselves available to my family went above and beyond.”
“I can't think of a resource that wasn't available.”
Others felt help was not available:
“I never even thought to seek out support, and nobody suggested it.”
“There really is nothing that helps.”
“I'm a guy … I did not ask for help … so none was offered.”
Some indicated that family members all needed their own pathway: “My family wasn’t helpful at all … We all seemed to have to deal with it on our own.”
Sometimes friends they thought would show up disappeared: “People you've known for years can't deal with it and bail.”
For some, support groups seemed to go in circles: “The support group just re-hashed tragic stories over and over, and it took my wife and I backwards.”
Many men received negative communications that were hurtful and shaming from all directions. From the initial response from the first responders —
“Police just acted like, ‘yep, another suicide’.”
“Emergency responders … behaved like a pack of baboons, joking, refusing to give any info.”
— to funeral directors, physicians, counselors, and clergy. Actions taken by others often made the process harder. The expectation to “move on” and get back to some sort of normal was commonly present.
While men often pointed out the short-comings of the resources available to them, they were also quick to state that they too were part of the process because they were not able to acknowledge pain, reach out or show up.
“I'm not really one to seek out help.”
“Men don't reach out.”
“Perhaps they [counselors] would have been of more significance if I had continued to see them.”
“Men try to pretend they're not affected … a great deal of denial.”
“We need to be taught [that] it's necessary to grieve openly.”
“Men do not usually make time for this.”
Gender Differences and Grief
When asked questions about gender and grief:
81% felt that men and women grieve differently (“quite a bit” to “a lot”)
52% felt strongly that men should have special programs to deal with their grief (25% weren’t sure)
79% strongly desired male peer support in grieving process
67% said they would be willing to help other men bereaved by suicide
Many believed that the grief is individualistic
“Everyone has their own way of grieving.”
“I am not sure that men and women grieve differently, but I believe people grieve differently.”
“I found it more related to individuals than to gender.”
Masculine Scripts and Stereotypes and Suicide Grief
Most commented on how masculine scripts and stereotypes can influence the healing process:
Strong: “We don't want to seem weak.”
Nonexpressive: “I feel bad when I start to cry.”
Masculinity: “Don't think [grieving] the manly thing to do”
Individualism: “Men seem to want to deal with and conquer their grief demon by themselves.”
Stoicism: “I am a realist … my loved one is gone.”
Action-oriented: “I threw myself back into work and that helped me.”
Solution-oriented: “[Men] tend to try to help or fix things.”
Seek control: “I think men … try and act in control instead of expressing it when necessary.”
Less emotive: “Most men have difficulties showing the type of emotion that comes with grief.”
Anger: “[Men may] get in fights with others, [or] become disruptive at work.”
More cognitive: “I wanted to ‘know’ and so researched extensively.”
Process internally: “We hold on to it inside, tend to bury grief.”
Somatic reaction: “[Men] may develop physical ailments.”
Use alcohol and other drugs to cope: “I drink so much now ! Too much!”
User humor to cope: “[We need] a guy group for guys … but no one would show up :( Why? Because we're guys!”
Most men in our survey attributed to any differences in suicide grief between men and women to male socialization to be strong and self-reliant and at the same time, many wished that they had access to more supportive men-friendly resources during their bereavement. We know that family members who have lost someone to suicide have an increased risk of suicide themselves — partly because of the exposure effect, partly because the suffering is so great, and partly because of the yearning to be with their loved one. Thus, we owe it to the men who want different options for suicide grief support — perhaps peer-to-peer, one-on-one, or side-by-side — to find innovative ways to help men honor their losses and find ways to integrate the tragedy into their life’s story.