On Men and Grief: Dispatches from My Book Tour
“I am just a man who lost his wife and wrote about it.”
A hand goes up from the back of the room.
It is an unexpected full house in a southern bookstore where I have been invited to talk about my memoir, The Widower’s Notebook.
The man, late middle age, salt and pepper hair, says, “My best buddy lost his wife a couple of months ago. I’ve been trying to get him out, inviting him to ballgames, drinks, dinner. Nothing works. Should I keep trying or leave him alone? I just… don’t… know.” His voice cracks on the last couple of words.
I take a moment. I say, “Look, I’m no expert and I don’t know your friend, it may be too soon for him, but I’d say keep trying. Some of us push people away when what we really want is the opposite. Maybe men do that because we’re brought up with the idea that we’re supposed to tough things out, not ask for help, or even accept it. I’m not saying women don’t do this, I’m sure some do, but I think it’s a too common affliction for men.”
I know this feeling all too well. I have lived it. Perfected it. After my wife died suddenly, almost five years ago, I never asked for help, pushed people away, wore a mask and kept a lid on my emotions.
Another bookstore. Another man. He is in the front row on the end and I have been aware of his presence throughout my talk, something almost electric emanating from him. His hand is the first one up when the Q&A begins. “I can’t believe I got myself here,” he says, his voice hoarse. “My fiancé died a month ago.” He stops, choked up, a tough-looking thirty-something in a Grateful Dead t-shirt. “I didn’t think I could come, but I saw something about your book and I just. . .” He stumbles. “. . . just want to know it’s going to get better.” I pause, then rely on clichés that have, for me, come true. “It takes time. There are things you never get over—and why should you?—but. . .” My turn to stumble. “. . . you will figure out a way to move forward, you will get better.” The words take me back several years, how I wish someone had explained it to me: that I was in shock, but that it would get better, though I’m not sure I would have heard them. After the talk the guy comes up and gets me in a bear hug then breaks away fast.
A man writes, “I read your book. It gave me permission and I appreciate that. Thank you.”
Permission. To grieve? Do men actually need permission to grieve? Is that what he’s asking? I’m not sure. My own feelings about grief were conflicted: I could grieve in private but never in public.
The notes and messages keep coming, people telling me their stories, asking questions, or simply reaching out, something I never expected. Not just men, but it’s the men who surprise me.
Every bookstore; every day more emails. I am astonished. I did not write a self-help book. I am just a man who lost his wife and wrote about it.
A man writes to thank me for writing the book, for being “so raw and open” for giving him words he could not find when he went through his own loss. It’s ironic because I could not utter a single word about what I was feeling when I went through it, and I tell him that.
I don’t subscribe to the belief that men experience grief any differently than women, just that men seem less equipped, the emotional bandwidth the society allocates them so much narrower.“I did not write a self-help book. I am just a man who lost his wife and wrote about it.”
A large venue, somewhere between a hundred and two-hundred people. Time for the Q&A (it’s always in the Q&A), a man stands up, mid-thirties at most. He looks down the whole time he speaks: “I lost a child and I’ve been trying to write about it, but how do I make it into a book? What’s your advice?” I am stunned into temporary silence. What have I taken on? I am not a therapist, nor a grief counselor. I fight my own tears. I say, “Keep writing. You’ll find a way to turn it into a book if that’s what you really want to do. Writing helped me. A few years ago I couldn’t speak about this at all, now I can.”
And it’s true. Writing did help. It wasn’t exactly cathartic—it was painful as hell—but putting the words down on paper made it possible for me to speak about it.
Same venue. A man having me sign his book leans in. “It’s been eight years since my wife died and I’m still not better, why not?” Again, I am flummoxed. I say, “Look, it’s different for everyone, but can I ask what you’ve been doing to try and make yourself feel better?” He shakes his head and says, “Nothing.” I ask if he’s going to work. He tells me he’s retired and has no one to talk to. “Is there anything you ever wanted to do but didn’t have time for, say learn a language, something like that? I just think doing something is better than nothing. At least it was for me.” And it was: writing, drawing, and especially teaching when I was thinking about my students and not myself, not caught up in my own grief.
Still, I can’t believe I am dispensing advice. It’s as if I’ve flipped a switch, opened a valve, given these men some sort of license they’ve never had before.
I am at a party after a reading standing with two women, both widows. One lost her husband two years ago. The other is a two-time widow. Both discuss the ostracism they have felt becoming widowed, dropped by couples, not asked to dinner parties nor invited out. We discuss how different this is for men who are often inundated with invitations, the man shortage an obvious motivator (though couples often drop single men too). The women talk about their circumstance easily, back and forth, even laugh about the nastiness and absurdity of it.
A middle-aged man who has been hovering nearby waits until I am alone then moves in. He tells me he could never do what I did, write about his wife’s death or get up in front of a group and talk about it. I tell him I didn’t think I could either, but the fact is it’s easier for me to talk about it in public as opposed to being alone with my thoughts and demons. “I just couldn’t,” he says again. I tell him he doesn’t have to, and pat him on the shoulder. He lifts his drink to me in a silent toast. I do the same. We stand side by side. I feel a quiet affinity for this man. Is this what so many men are missing in their lives: the ability to open up, to express their feelings, especially to other men without embarrassment or judgment?
I wonder: have men finally found their voice? I don’t know. I am an anthropologist without a degree excavating in the mine of grief, and everyone is asking me questions, particularly men, and I see what they really want is not so much an answer, but a platform, a safe place to voice their feelings.