Fixing a Hole: Grieving with Other Men
by Tom Golden
There I was dripping in sweat, the kind that rolls down the side of your head and quietly into your ear. The still, summer evening was allowing me to hear my own breath and my own thoughts. I was determined to make this a great hole and I kept digging-probably farther than I really needed to-but on I went. What seemed like a great deal of sweat was swallowed effortlessly by the hole, absorbed as a matter of course by the dirt in the bottom. The hole and the dirt were equally unmoved by the tears I shed.
This hole was to be the home of a tree that was being given as a memorial to my father who had died the previous November. I had known the hole needed digging but had put off the task until now-now being just the last possible moment it could be dug.
As I continued digging, I found myself flooded with memories of my father. My thoughts moved back and forth between recent events leading up to his death and childhood experiences. I remembered his engineering talents and nature and tried to dig the hole in a way that would please him.
As I dug, the feelings flowed through me: the sadness of missing him, the gratefulness of having been his son, and the anger and frustration of my powerlessness. All of these feelings found their way into this hole. The act of digging became an avenue for the various thoughts and feelings to arise. Through the action, I was opened to my own inner world.
I started wondering why I had put off this job, then realized that I hadn't wanted to do it. Actually digging the hole brought the death more into reality, and a part of me didn't want that. I've learned to accept this part of me that wants to deny things. Denial is not really such a bad thing, and it doesn't go away as quickly as some people seem to think. I've noticed it has a slow, zigzag decay that can last a long time. In a way, denial can be our friend, allowing us to slowly accept the reality at hand. I became aware of the battle going on the between denying part and the digging-the-hole part. As a friend of mine ways, "We have wetware, not hardware."
The tree was planted in an emotional ritual attended by myself and the six men who donated the tree. The activity became an avenue for all of us to delve into our interiors and connect with a variety of issues, from relationships with our fathers to finality of death. The activity of buying, digging, planting and gathering together became a hub for a wide variety of spin-offs. As we stood around the tree, we all had a chance to speak and listen, and somehow having an activity made this process move more smoothly. It would have been much more difficult to simply sit in a circle and talk about our feelings. It was through the doing that we could connect.
Death professionals have long been confounded by the difference in men and women in visiting gravesites, which is that men tend to visit more often. My own experiences have given me a deeper understanding of why this takes place. Men tend toward linking their grief with a place, action or thing. There was the man who wore his deceased daughter's ring as a remembrance of her, the man who carved a bust of his wife after her death, the man who built a pond in memory of his murdered brother, the man who wore his father's watch, and so on. These activities are often quiet and unseen by most people. The casual observer might assume that the man is "not grieving," but many times this is not the case.
I have found a wide variety of activities that, like planting the tree, help me in connecting to my inner spheres. Writing, gardening, and music are examples. All of these activities can take me into myself and my grief and joy. Another activity I have used is a ritual practiced by the Cree Indians. Tree wounding is a simple and beautiful ritual. Following ancient custom, Cree men who are grieving go into the forest, select a tree, and after uttering a prayer, strip away a piece of the bark. Now the tree, like the man, has lost something whose loss causes deep pain. Many times over the following months that man will return to visit the tree. As the seasons pass, the wound in the tree heals, and so does the wound in the man's heart. With the tree as a visible reflection of his loss, the man is reminded that he, too, is healing.
In this ritual, there is both an action and a place, and both serve as "containers" or "hooks" for the inner state of the man. As the man performs the action or visits the place, he is afforded the opportunity to experience his pain and to have his healing reflected back to him. I have used this ritual a number of times and found it extremely helpful. The trees I have chosen are mostly in my backyard, and they stand as reminders to me of my grief, pain and healing.
The use of activity as a means to connect with one's grief is not exclusive to men; women also find this approach helpful. The difference is that women have a certain strength in connecting their emotions to their words and then are inclined to "share" those words with the people in their life whom they love. This proclivity fits nicely with the keyword of "intimacy" that Deborah Tannen used to describe women in her book, You Just Don't Understand. According to Tannen, a woman's world revolves around her intimacy and connection with others
Tannen uses the keyword of "independence" for men. When independence is your keyword, you are probably less likely to want to "share" your feelings with those around you. You will be more likely to seek out modes of healing that will be harmonious with your interest in maintaining independence. I know for myself, and for many men, the verbal connection is facilitated by linking it with some action, place or thing. I am less inclined to simply "share" my feelings with those around me. I am grieving, but I do it in my own way, a way that is quieter and less visible and harmonizes with my interest in independence.
It is for this reason that it is unwise to judge a man's grief by how much he "shares" it with others. A man's pain cannot be judged by outer appearances or the abundance of tears. All people are unique in the ways they find to heal themselves. There are probably more individual differences in grief than there are gender differences, but the gender differences do exist and need to be honored.
Not only was the activity surrounding the tree helpful, now the tree has moved from being an activity to being a place. Each time I come or go, I see that tree sitting there, being itself. When I see the tree, I am reminded of my father, my grief, and the men who lovingly honored both my father and my pain.
from: Grief Digest Vol 1 Issue #2
Tom Golden is the creator/webmaster for the Crisis, Grief & Healing website.
This article was reprinted in the June 2004 issue of the Healing Hearts newsletter - visit the Healing Hearts Website to subscribe or for more information about this organization.