A Father’s Grief
By David Pellegrin
At my second meeting of The Compassionate Friends about three years ago, one of the mothers said how nice it was to see a man attending, since “men grieve differently from women.”
Her remark was no doubt meant to help put me at ease. I hadn’t said a thing so far, and might have been intimidating in my silence. But it caught me off guard. What I was feeling after George’s death was so absolute, so awful, how could it possibly come with any “differences”? Would one grieve differently for an infant than for an adolescent? For a son than for a daughter? Surely, grief was absolute for both mothers and fathers.
Over time, I came to acknowledge the differences the well-meaning mother had in mind:
Neither I nor the other men who occasionally attended talked much; the women talked freely.
I sensed I was better at compartmentalizing my grief than the mothers, better at keeping a lid on it socially and at work.
My male friends seemed less comfortable talking about George, bringing up his name or even looking at his pictures than female friends. I came to see how intensely I felt I had let my son down as his protector, the father’s primary role.
Shortly after becoming editor of my chapter newsletter, I sent a copy to my friend, Jack Knebel, in California. Jack and his wife, Linda, had been involved with a chapter of The Compassionate Friends after the death of their daughter, Hollis.
He replied, “It’s good to see that a man is taking an active role in the group.” Then he went on to write movingly about those male-female grieving differences. The rest of his letter, which touched me deeply, follows:
” . . . Several years after Hollis died, Linda and I were being trained by Compassionate Friends to be “buddies” for newly bereaved parents. One of the exercises was to list all the unhelpful things that others had said in trying to comfort us, so that we wouldn’t make the same mistakes. The other trainees, all women, made long lists, and did it with enthusiasm. When the lists were read aloud, they nodded knowingly at every entry and eventually hooted and howled with derision at the worst (some of which were pretty bad). When it came my turn, I held up an empty page and said:
People may have said such things to me. I just don’t recall.
What I do remember is that people tried to tell me how sad they were for us. I remember being told how much they loved Hollis and how much they cared about us. I remember one of my partners hugging me in the halls of my very stiff and proper law firm. I remember men who had never told me anything more personal than their reactions to a Giants’ loss crying at our loss and their fears.
You women are used to talking to each other about your emotions and about personal things. I wasn’t and my friends weren’t either. So the fact that we could do so was a great gift, and it wasn’t marred in the slightest by someone’s choice of words.
Now, the shell has been broken and I find it easier to talk about my emotions, my hopes and fears, about those things that really are important. And that, for me, was one of Hollis’ greatest gifts.
I know that even after George’s death, he is a major part of your life. My guess is that you’re becoming more open to the gifts that he and those who care about you are able to give.”
Yours, with compassion and friendship,
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We Need Not Walk Alone, the national magazine of The Compassionate Friends.