Anoxic Masculinity

I have taken great comfort from attending the monthly grief support group sessions offered by Hospice PEI. As Catherine was living with cancer, and my thoughts would turn toward how I would live on afterward, it never occurred to me that the company of other people, united by grief, would be part of it; if my thoughts did turn to such things, more often than not I would picture myself running as fast as I could the other direction.

I wrote to a friend this week that a year ago I was acting as though I could “treat grief like it was an extracurricular course that I could skip,” and that I was “acting like I was some great exception to the rule of how these things work.” Later I wrote to my family that last spring it felt like I was  “trying to outrun grief.” And both were true: the template I had for grieving was all about “moving on” or “powering through,” and I truly did think, in my heart of hearts, that if I buckled down hard enough I could skip the usual grieving rigamarole and get on with life.

I was wrong.

And, fortunately, in mid-May I came to my senses, and reached out for support. I stopped running.

In the months since I’ve found support in many different places in addition to the grief support group: from Oliver, from my mother, from my brothers, from friends, from my psychologist, from my social worker, in talking to others who are grieving, in podcasts and books, and, mostly recently, on Facebook. Through all this my conception of grief has changed completely from “something I need to power through” to “a new part of who I am and always will be.”

That’s a hard thing to write in a way that doesn’t make it sound like “I will now and forever be sad,” especially if, as I once did, you think of grief and sadness as synonyms. What I mean by it is that I have been cracked open in a substantial and undeniable way, and that crack–a wound is one way of thinking about it–will always be with me. But the wound need not be disabling, and the wound need not lead me to being stuck, or being jaded or being depressed (although, no doubt, it can, and I’ve felt those tugs as much as anything else I’ve felt). 

All of which leads me to men.

Although the monthly grief support group is open to all, and although there have certainly been other men who’ve attended by times, they have, especially recently, been few and far between. On a personal level this doesn’t interfere with the effectiveness of my attending, as long as I remember to listen mindfully and to stanch my natural inclination to fill silences (the “promise” that’s read at the beginning of every session is so helpful, in part, for its role in that reminding). But every time I find myself as the only man in a support group I cannot help but worry about the other grieving men, my brothers-in-grief, and whether they might be stuck where I was, trying to power through.

I am afraid for them, and I am afraid for those around them, because I’ve learned enough to understand that grief ignored, grief bottled, grief contained, grief powered through, has the power to leak or explode in harmful, dangerous ways.

Everyone’s grief is different and we each need to find the path that works for us; there’s no way to prescribe a universal path, a universal timetable, a universal result. But I have been well trained by my lifetime growing up in western society that, as a man, my emotions are to be constrained and managed, that admitting fallibility is weak and to be avoided at all costs, that anyone atypical needs to be culled from the social herd, that self-reliance is noble, and asking for help is something you only do when the water is well and truly pouring through the roof. If even then.

I am so grateful that I am finding my way through this in a way that allows me to be mindful of that education-in-masculinity and to start to unpack it. In this I owe a great debt to Oliver, who we tried so hard to raise with that mindfulness, and who’s atypicalness, fortunately, extends to his regard for gender; to my trans and gender-non-binary friends who’ve shared profound insights into what they’ve learned as they’ve confronted the world on their terms; to the women I’ve listened to and shared with around the grief support table who’ve said, beyond anything else “we see you there, it’s okay.”

All I can do in the face of this, knowing what I’ve learned, is to write about my own path with hopes that it will, at least a little, open up the atlas of what’s possible for others that follow on.

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