We need to talk about men and grief

By | September 10, 2019

“In the porch I met my father crying, he had always taken funerals in his stride. And Big Jim Evans saying it was a hard blow.”

Jonathan Walters on The Late Late Show
Jonathan Walters on The Late Late Show

Even reading it as Leaving Cert students, we understood the depth of his mourning: the strong man, the Irish country farmer – felled by the unspeakable loss of his little boy. His friend, awkwardly attempting words of comfort.

The different ways in which men grieve were highlighted last week, after Roy Keane mocked Jon Walters for “crying on television” when he spoke about tragedies within his family.

Keane – who has had a decade-long feud with the former striker – seemed to ridicule Walters as weak for talking about the loss of his mother and his brother on The Late Late Show, saying: “He’s crying on the TV about his family situation. Maybe he should lie low for a while. Have a look at his medals? That shouldn’t take long.”

READ MORE: Eilis O’Hanlon: ‘Don’t be so keen to condemn Roy for going too far’

Personal loss: Roy Keane’s own father died recently. Photo: PA
Personal loss: Roy Keane’s own father died recently. Photo: PA

Roy was demonised as the villain – yet he was in grief himself, having lost his own father Mossie just a few weeks previously. Perhaps his flippant remarks about Walters’ show of emotion was less about Walters, and more about himself.

Cork psychotherapist Tom Evans believes so. He says that while there’s no gender stereotypes when it comes to grief, there are patterns more common in men than in women, and vice versa.

“Predominantly, men tend to handle grief somewhat more silently,” he says. “Maybe more stoically – at least on the surface. Perhaps this is to do with conditioning about remaining intact in a crisis, or appearing strong on the outside.

“Part of that has been about staying silent, and not showing weakness. It takes strength and courage to show vulnerability. To do this implies there is a lot of strength running in the background.

READ MORE: Stephanie Regan: ‘It’s good to talk and courageous to cry and show your emotion, Roy’

“Roy’s interjection was a bit schoolyardish,” he continues. “I think behind it all, it was all about Roy. His own father has just died. It would sound like his approach to grief and public disclosure is a little bit old-school.”

Which is fine, therapists say, if that’s sincerely how you cope best, but if you are smothering emotions to maintain a hard-man image, the consequences can be devastating.

“Unfortunately, a lot of men turn things inwardly and sometimes that is terminal,” says Evans. “It reflects in our suicide rates.

“But it’s okay to express it outwardly,” he adds. “Jon Walters’ public reference to it has shown he has a mature and grounded and real response to grief. I think what he did was tremendous.

“Male sports stars being open about showing vulnerability in public has beautiful ramifications for men’s mental health. And I am convinced it has saved lives in the last few years.”

Orla Keegan, Head of Education, Research and Bereavement at the Irish Hospice Foundation, says we should be compassionate towards Roy too at this time. She says grief has many manifestations and that Roy appears to have a more “cognitive” grief style, which is in line with the Roy Keane we all know.

“To some extent, grief has been feminised,” she explains. “There’s a prescription: ‘You need to talk and cry and get your feelings out’ and that does a service to people who have a more emotional style of grief, but it isn’t doing a service to people who have a more problem-focused ‘thinking’ style of grief.

if sad man.jpg
Show of emotion: Men grieve in different ways

“Grief is individual. If we want to be reasonable and supportive, we have to try and understand it a bit better.

“We don’t look at it so much thinking about what is right for a man, or what is right for a woman, as looking at grieving style. There’s an expressive one characterised by high, visible emotion and the drive to talk – and that’s what most people tend to think about when they think of loss – being sad.

READ MORE: Hurling hunk: Mr Ireland on overcoming grief and anxiety

“But there’s another approach to grief which is more in our head, more cognitive than emotional. People who have that way of grieving might try to come to some sense of what happened, which can be very internalised. They may channel their grief into a project or distract themselves with work. That’s not to say they don’t feel emotion, but they may express it in private. Rather than focus on feelings, they might put their energy on problem-solving.

“It can be re-framed into, ‘I can’t control what has happened, but I can help others’. We still live in a stereotyped world and there are sex roles, particularly in relation to the division of emotional labour. So we can judge and think: ‘Oh he’s in denial, he hasn’t cried’. But a person grieves in the way they have lived. You have your personality. Through your life you have developed different ways of coping.”

Roy’s approach appears to have much in common with the tough love of clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson, who has spoken about being “useful in the face of death”.

Peterson urges taking a responsible role in coping with family tragedy as a means of coping. “Maybe you can be useful when it happens… and that’s brutal – you have to be brutal to be useful in the aftermath of your parent’s death. You don’t get to crumble and fall apart, even though you have every reason to. You gotta be some tough monster to manage that.”

Ann Darcy, bereavement co-ordinator at Our Lady’s Hospice in Harold’s Cross, Dublin, suggests Walters and Keane may simply be at different ends of a grief spectrum.

“There’s a spectrum of grief: the intuitive griever is very emotional and finds it easy to express emotion and connect with feelings. At the other end is the instrumental griever, someone much more cognitive in their approach, who finds it less easy and less helpful to talk and copes more through doing. They are extremes and for most people, it is somewhere in the middle.

“That will even differ in families, when one person is demonstrative and the next is contained – and both can get confused and frustrated with each others’ reactions.

“More men have a tendency to be at the instrumental end. If that is their natural way of being in the world and coping, that is what is helpful for them.

“But if they might like to be tearful, but are fearful of how they will be judged – by themselves or society – as being unable to cope, then they are suppressing what they are feeling, and that can become problematic.

READ MORE: ‘He’s crying on the TV about his family situation’ – Roy Keane hits out at Walters, Arter and Ward

“It is always about the context. Sometimes people feel guilty they’re not crying. But it depends on how they are in the world and their experience of crises, it may be a perfectly helpful way for them to adapt. If they were keeping too busy to avoid confronting their emotions, or if they are engaged in a destructive behaviour such as drinking a lot to numb the pain, then that is very different.”

There’s a difference between acknowledging our feelings and allowing that expression, and suppressing those feelings, she adds.

“If someone genuinely doesn’t feel particularly sad, or doesn’t have a need to be crying, then that’s what they need to do. Trust what you need.”

Irish Independent

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