While grief is an individual experience, the findings of our latest research highlight how typical behaviours can present themselves during the male grieving process. This doesn’t mean that there is a ‘male way’ to grieve, but rather that how someone is brought up, the society they live in and the social norms they are surrounded by can sometimes affect how they cope with a bereavement.
So if you want to better understand how men grieve, or are looking for ways to support a man close to you with their bereavement, such as your husband, boyfriend or friend, read on as we explore male behaviours in grief in more detail.
How do men grieve?
Our latest research has found that 80% of men feel alone in their grief, but why is this the case? How does this affect men trying to cope with a bereavement? And what can we, as a society, do to be more Grief Kind and better support a man experiencing grief? Let’s find out.
Men tend to be action-focused grievers
An action-focused griever - also known as an instrumental griever - is someone who may appear less emotional about their bereavement and instead focus on the practical issues around death, or funnel their energy into new projects, fundraising events or relationships to keep going.
These characteristics are reflected in the results of our survey amongst men, with 52% admitting to bottling up how they were feeling from those closest to them during the grieving process. When asked why they felt the need to hide their feelings, 56% went on to say they had to in order to support others.
If you are starting to recognise that the man you are supporting through grief is an action-focused griever, you may be wondering what you can do to support them. While it may often look like they are coping quite well, either because they aren’t vocalising their emotions or because they’re pushing on with planning the funeral or sorting through belongings, it’s important to recognise that this might not always be the case.
If you want to encourage him to open up, try to start the conversation at a time when he already feels comfortable or has completed an activity he enjoys, such as a run or a DIY project.
Asking open questions can help things flow, but you can always try again at another point if you find that he doesn't engage or want to talk with you initially. By bringing up the topic of bereavement and grief, you will have shown him that you are ready to talk when he is, which can help him to see that he doesn't have to deal with his feelings alone.
Men can often want to appear strong or be the protector
52% of the men we surveyed said that wanting to appear strong was one of the other reasons they hid their emotions while grieving, with another 35% stating that they didn’t want any sympathy.
These findings play into traditional gender and cultural stereotypes which portray crying or being sad as a weakness in men, despite the fact that this emotional outlet can have a positive biological impact on the body.
This is because, in the time after a bereavement, the stress hormones pumping through the body increases a person’s blood pressure and weakens their immune response. Releasing the emotion associated with your grief, whether that’s through crying or taking the time to process your feelings, can help to lower the stress hormones in your body.
But with 33% of the men we surveyed fearing exclusion if they opened up about their feelings to their friends, and 46% saying that they didn’t want to make their friends feel uncomfortable, it’s clear to see how stress levels in men who are grieving can continue to remain high without any form of emotional release.
If it feels as if you are supporting a man who isn’t being honest about how he is feeling, try to show him that it’s OK to feel his emotions, especially during grief. Remind him that you are there when he is ready to start sharing his thoughts, and that it’s important to accept how he is feeling rather than be dismissive or avoidant because “that’s how a man should be”.
There is no right or wrong way to feel during grief, and showing that you are accepting of all of his emotions - whether that’s anger, shock, guilt, regret or something else - can be really reassuring.
Men can turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms
41% of the men we surveyed said they would not have been able to get through their bereavement without alcohol or drugs, with our research showing that, on average, men turned to alcohol 13 times a month and 24% used recreational drugs every day during grief.
Although the initial use of either substance may help someone to escape their grief in the short-term, the long-term impacts of this can be devastating. In fact, our research not only found that 15% of men never resumed normal alcohol or drugs habits after their bereavement, but that, for 30% of men, these unhealthy coping mechanisms actually heightened their grief.
If you’re supporting a man who has turned to alcohol or drugs during his grief journey, it’s important to show him that you aren’t judging him for doing so. Try to find a time to speak to him when he is relaxed and at ease, as this may help him to open up. Explain that you are there if he needs you, and that there is help and support available to him via their GP or through the NHS. Their website also has useful advice for the families of people who use drugs.
With half of men saying that they wouldn’t have used drugs or alcohol so often if they had the support of family or friends, talking about grief has never been more important for those turning to these substances as a way to cope.
More support about what to say to a man who is grieving
Through our exploration of the three common behaviours found amongst male grievers, it’s clear to see how supporting a man through the grieving process can sometimes cause a strain on your relationship. Because of how they grieve - whether that’s through focusing on specific actions, trying to appear strong or relying on unhealthy coping mechanisms - it might feel as if they are pushing you away.
But the boyfriends, husbands, friends and other men we surveyed told us that what helped them the most was:
- spending time with family and friends
- being able to cry and feel their emotions
- being able to talk about how they were feeling
- feeling as if they are doing something productive with their time.
That’s why it’s important to continue to show the man you’re supporting that you’re there for them, and why we created our Grief Kind campaign too, so that you could find resources and expert information to help your loved one feel less alone in their grief. For more support:
- watch our Grief Kind classes from Sue Ryder bereavement experts about supporting others with grief and bereavement
- read about five ways to support someone who is grieving or what to write in a bereavement card
- order our free, limited-edition Grief Kind sympathy card packs as a way to check in on your loved one throughout their grief journey.
You may also want to talk to him about our Online Bereavement Community, a place where many male users come together to anonymously share their experiences, talk about how they’re feeling and find others who understand what they’re going through. It’s free to use, available to anyone over 18 and available day or night.