Where Are the Male Clients?
Where are the men? Ask any bereavement counselor,
hospital chaplain, or hospice administrator to give
you a breakdown, by gender, of those who use their
services, and youll probably get a similar
response: Somewhere between 60 and 90 percent of
their clients will be women.
In part, these lopsided figures reflect the fact
that men die earlier than women, and thus, are less
apt to face bereavement over the loss of a spouse.
But every year, millions of American men lose their
parents, children, siblings, and other loved ones.
And yet, even in those instances, men seem to stay
away from grief services in droves.
Why is this the case? And what, if anything, can
be done about it?
I recently finished writing a book on how sons
come to terms with the deaths of their fathers. As
part of my research, I conducted in-depth
interviews with 70 men whose fathers had died.
Based on those interviews, as well as the valuable
work of Thomas Golden, Kenneth Doka, Terry Martin,
and others, I intend to suggest in this article
that 1) men avoid grief services in part because
those services tend not to reflect their styles of
grieving, and 2) grief counselors can help more men
by shaping some of their services differently.
In the course of my research on father-loss, I
always asked my male interviewees whether they
sought grief counseling. More than 90 percent said
no. As one 34-year-old man put it: Why should
I go to a therapist? Shell just try to get me
to cry. This statement goes to the heart of
why men tend not to seek grief counseling: They
perceive grief services as being for women.
Theyre only partly wrong. Over the past 40
years, tremendous strides have been made in our
understanding of grief and mourning. But because
widows are more numerous than widowers and
more willing to participate in grief studies
most of the research thus far has focused on how
women handle loss. Thus, affective expressiveness
especially crying and talking about the loss
with others has come to be seen as the
accepted norm for grieving. Those who cope with
loss in other ways are often considered to be doing
And yet, the few studies of mens grieving
indicate that men tend toward a different way than
women, and that this way is often just as
In the mid-1990s, Marion and Sidney Moss of
Philadelphias Polisher Research Institute,
along with R.L. Rubinstein, interviewed 43 mid-life
men whod lost elderly fathers. They found
that men tended to control their emotions after the
death, emphasizing action and thinking instead.
Some of the sons turned their attention outward,
focusing on funeral planning, taking care of the
estate, supporting relatives, and similar
activities. Others turned inward, mentally
reviewing their relationships with their dads, or
rationalizing that the fathers death was best
for all concerned.
The surprise for the researchers was that these
mourning strategies seemed to be effective. The
researchers noted: We suggest that the male
orientation (toward grief) is essentially adaptive.
Rather than leading to a vulnerable self,
action-oriented coping may enhance immediate
mastery and bolster self-esteem. A cognitive
orientation to loss may better enable a long-term
processing that is slow and incremental rather than
sudden and jarring.
In their provocative new book, Men Dont
Cry... Women Do, Doka and Martin also assert, based
on decades of clinical experience, that men tend
toward a style of grieving that focuses on
thinking, mastering feelings, and action. The
action, which may include running, lifting weights,
stacking wood, or chiseling a tombstone, seems to
serve as a way to restore normalcy and a
sense of security after a loss, the authors
The men I interviewed about the deaths of their
fathers also tended toward active grieving. Among
the four categories of male grievers I identified
Dashers, Delayers, Displayers, and Doers
Doers were most common. Men told me that
after the deaths of their fathers, they coped by
walking, running, gardening, building with their
fathers tools, and taking over the
fathers business, among other activities.
Through these activities, they said often
repeated many times the men were able to
gradually release the energy that built up inside
them after the loss.
Its important to stress that gender is not
an absolute determinant of styles of grieving.
About 20 percent of the men I interviewed said
crying and talking were their primary ways of
coping with the loss of their dads. And some women
with whom Ive shared my research told me they
mourn through action.
However, given that men tend toward a different
style of grief than women, is there anything
counselors and death educators can do to better
serve men in grief? Following are three
suggestions, representing a consensus among
researchers and therapists with a particular
interest in men and grief.
1) In setting up grief groups, innovate. Many
men avoid bereavement groups because they expect to
sit in a circle and talk about their feelings. The
Canadian psychologist Philip Carverhill suggests
re-framing grief groups as mutual
story-telling sessions in which men have an
opportunity to simply relate their loss
Maryland therapist Thomas R. Golden goes as far
as to suggest that grief groups for men be held
outside of a standard clinical setting. For
example, Golden says, a hospice counselor might
invite local widowers for a day-long fishing trip
in honor of their deceased wives. In Goldens
experience, men are more likely to show up for such
an excursion than for a group session in an office.
When the boat trip is over, Golden predicted, the
men will walk off in pairs and threes,
having made connections that might even continue on
outside a formal group.
2) In individual therapy with men, be open to
non-traditional styles of grieving. Doka and Martin
suggest that in the opening sessions of individual
therapy with a bereaved man, therapists focus on
assessing the clients past grief patterns and
adaptive strategies. Language is very important
during this phase. When a therapist asks, How
did you feel? it implies that
feeling is the primary domain worth
exploring. Doka and Martin suggest asking:
How did you react? or How did you
If the client and therapist can identify an
effective coping strategy from the clients
past, they should play to that strength. In the
self-help book, When a Man Faces Grief, Golden and
co-author James E. Miller speak directly to
bereaved men: Are you a quiet one? Then write
rather than talk if that feels right. Or take slow
walks. Or listen to soothing music.... Are you
expressive emotionally? Then cry or laugh, rant or
rave.... Are you precise by nature? Then try
keeping track of your grief with a daily
3) In all kinds of therapy, be a witness.
Carverhill contends that male clients are generally
not that interested in feedback, analysis, or
judgment. Carverhill writes: The bereaved
male tells his story to others as an attempt to
make meaning of his loss experience. By being a
reflecting surface, the therapist can aid him in
In the interviews for my book on father-loss, I
personally experienced the power of witnessing. As
a journalist, I was interested primarily in
recording exactly what happened to each man, step
by step, before, during, and after his
fathers death. So my main question was,
repeatedly: What happened next? Most of
my interviewees seemed to appreciate this approach.
In fact, toward the end of each interview, I asked
each man what had helped him most in dealing with
the death of his father. More than a few said
talking with me.
In the end, it is unlikely that male bereavement
clients will outnumber females in the foreseeable
future. But as we learn more about mens
styles of grieving, and apply that knowledge to the
act of therapy, I believe that more men will seek
help, and when they do, get what they need.
* * *
years, Neil Chethik has made it his goal to find
out what men really think -- about family,
relationships, fathering, aging, sex, and more. He
is the author of two best-selling books,
(Hyperion) and VoiceMale
(Simon & Schuster). Hes been a nationally
syndicated columnist, a big-hall speaker, and now,
the national medias go-to guy for what men
really think about their everyday lives. Contact:
Neil Chethik, P.O. Box 8071, Lexington, KY 40533 or
859.361.1659 or E-Mail
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