How to Support a Mourning Man

When Olympian gymnast John Orozco made it onto the US Olympics team after recovering from an Achilles tendon injury and, more importantly, the loss of his mother, he wept openly with a mixture of joy and profound grief. We can’t know whether he was trying to suppress his tears, but they flowed freely and he made no apology for them. I was moved by his emotion, of course, but also grateful that he appeared to weep unabashedly and free from shame.

Not many men can do the same. I have been honored and fortunate to be in the presence of men crying on a regular basis. As a volunteer facilitator for a grief support group, I see men seeking support after the loss of their children, spouses, or other loved ones. Although a few manage to suppress their tears, most of the men weep, and almost all of them apologize for crying like a child. Fortunately, other men who have experienced a traumatic loss are quick to offer a reassuring, “Don’t worry, I’ve spent many hours crying my eyes out, too” or something similar.

It is disappointing, though, to learn how many men do not feel comfortable crying in front of their own families and partners. I hear stories of men crying in the middle of the night or in cars, closets, and bathrooms. Some men schedule time to let their tears flow as they try to put on a brave, unemotional face for the world.

I wish I could say their efforts were unwarranted, but too many men have been criticized for their tears. One distraught father who lost his son to suicide told me people at the funeral told him to “pull himself together” for his family. Other men tell of supporting their wives through extended fits of wailing only to receive a cold shoulder when they break down. Often, I hear laments along these lines. “I know I’m a strong person. I have to be strong. But this is too much. Is there nowhere I can get support?”

It is commonly held, even by some therapists, that men naturally grieve differently from women. Allegedly, men process their emotions through actions rather than emotional purging. Men may bury themselves in work, start organizations in the name of the deceased, build monuments, or fight for legal changes to prevent future deaths. Of course, many men do this, and so do women, but this does not mean that men’s biology prevents them from accessing their tears. Men and women both grieve through actions and tears.

If anything prevents men from grieving openly, it is social prohibition, not biology. Whether you are a man or a woman, please know that most men are capable of crying, need to cry, and should not be ashamed of their grief or their tears. If you need to support a man in mourning, please let him cry. If you are a man in mourning, please follow the example of John Orozco and cry without shame or apology. You are not crying like a baby; you are crying like a man.

He isn’t being vulnerable, he’s crying

As a child, I grew up in a culture defined by rampant sexism, racism, and homophobia. While I now realize many of the people around me were gay, they were invisible to me at the time. At least, their sexuality was invisible to me. As a teenager, I made an intellectual decision that everyone had a right to equal dignity and expression. Living in a seemingly homogeneous society, though, I didn’t have the opportunity to experience my own implicit biases until later.

I strongly defended the rights of gay people to live, work, love, and express their lovepublicly, but my reaction to actual gay lives was untested. I was probably a bit too comfortable with myself and my choice for equality, for the first time I saw two men kissing, I was horrified to find that I looked away with feelings of discomfort and perhaps even disgust. I was then filled with shame for the latent feelings I obviously had, but I did my best to not turn away.

Over time, I was lucky enough to find many gay friends and to experience their love and affection in ways that seemed perfectly natural because they were perfectly natural. I’m sure I still have many implicit biases, and I keep trying to overcome them all, but at least now I can usually deal with people kissing with no internal conflict. (As I age, I have become painfully aware that many young people feel the same disgust when they see older people kissing.)

Unfortunately, many people react to a man crying in the same way I initially reacted to men kissing men—they turn away in discomfort or even disgust. It is widely assumed that it is men who are disgusted by other men crying (and I’m sure some are), but famed vulnerability researcher Brene Brown found that it is more often women who can’t accept men’s vulnerability. Obviously, being vulnerable means much more than just crying, but I would like to say that I think crying is really the single behavior that sets people stomachs to churning.

We find crying so shameful, in fact, that we often call it “being vulnerable” in order to avoid saying the word “crying.” I don’t mean this to be a criticism of researchers’ use of the word “vulnerability” while they discuss men’s emotional health. Rather, I mean to suggest that the rest of us have adopted the word “vulnerability” as a way of avoiding discussion of crying. Often we will only say that a man “was vulnerable,” because to say that he was “openly sobbing” would be to rob him of his dignity and bring shame to him. Paradoxically, by trying to protect him from judgment, we reinforce the judgment that all men face for being weak, sad, or emotional.

I should qualify that last statement. We don’t judge men so much for being emotional as we judge them for what particular emotions they express. Crying is acceptable for women and girls, but anger is reserved for boys and men. If a man loses his son or father, for example, he may seek revenge in various ways, and he is often honored for doing so, especially if the death was caused by malice or negligence.

Historically, revenge frequently took the form of actual violence, and vengeful violence has certainly not disappeared, but revenge can also take the form of lawsuits, public shaming campaigns, and other legal and socially acceptable forms. But the man who falls into a deep depression or cries uncontrollably for an extended period will face criticism. I once talked to a father who was told he needed to “get it together” at his own son’s funeral.

We pretend that men aren’t in touch with their feelings or that men are incapable of expressing their feelings. If these things are true, it is only because we have conditioned men to suppress their feelings through our own reactions of disgust. Boys are taught in their first months out of the womb that crying is unacceptable. The result is that men must either destroy themselves or destroy those around them in order to process their own feelings.

The price we pay is that the men we are around are emotionally drained, stressed to the breaking point, and prone to anger and destruction over empathy and connection. Of course, this is an oversimplification and is an exaggerated statement of what happens. We all know well-balanced men who are nurturing and emotionally connected. Some men are lucky that their lives have not burdened them with too much grief and sadness. Other men have, in spite of social programming, been lucky to find people who accept them and their emotions. And, finally, some men have the fortitude to find effective means of self-care.

Still, we can and should work to remove the shame and stigma from male weakness, and that begins with removing disgust from the sight of male tears. How do we do it?

  1. Don’t turn away. If a man is crying in your presence, do not avert your gaze. Continue to look at him and let him know that you are with him, free from judgment.
  2. If you are a man, openly discuss your own tears with both women and men. When we remove our own shame, the disgust of others cannot affect us.
  3. Stop saying, “boys don’t cry” to anyone, especially a child. Boys hear this almost as soon as people start talking to them. Support the full emotional range of boys.
  4. Stop mocking male tears. Some feminists seem to feel that making fun of male emotions is an acceptable response to centuries of male tyranny, but mocking male tears is a sure way to help perpetuate misogyny and the oppression of women.
  5. Create safe spaces for men. Men need opportunities to talk to other men about crying and weakness. Men need to let one another know that crying is not weakness. You can take care of your family, be a protector, or be a warrior and still take time to cry.
  6. Recognize the varied experiences of men. Adult men are often victims of childhood abuse whether it be physical, emotional, or sexual. Men are victims of domestic violence and abuse. While physical violence is a reality for many men, emotional battery is even more common. The victimization of men is not a joke, so please stop laughing at it.

Many men will reject my suggestions as being absurd and will suggest I should just “man up.” I ask those men to remember those words the next time, and it will happen, they are struggling to force back the knot forming in their throats as they build a dam against the tears threatening to break forth. Whether we choke the tears back successfully or not, the damage is done. We still feel the shame and disgust. We feel devalued and demoralized by our own natural emotions. We can be free and we can be whole. We just have to come out and be honest about what and who we are.

Business man blowing his nose