I recently experienced two unexpected deaths in my family. Both men, one of whom was my uncle, were larger-than-life patriarchs who left behind legacies and shoes that seem impossible to fill. At my uncle’s service, I sat next to my father and watched him fight back tears. My uncle was six years younger than my father when he died. I know my dad is facing his own mortality. I imagine that to be terrifying. I rubbed his back and hugged him.
The first time I saw my dad cry, I was 10-years-old and it freaked me out. It also happened to be the first time I saw any grown man cry. My reaction isn’t uncommon. We rarely see men cry in public, and when they do, their angst becomes memes and punch lines. Remember when John Boehner teared up while watching the Pope speak? Or when James Van Der Beek, playing Dawson Leery, ugly-cried on Dawson’s Creek after a breakup? The staying power of the crying Michael Jordan meme seems to highlight this more than anything. The very act of writing about men grieving makes me uncomfortable. Picturing hundreds of men letting their tears flow triggers a nervous laughter and a desire to crawl out of my skin, run and scream. Then again, I’m not comfortable when anyone cries. I’m not even comfortable when I cry.
Much of that comes from my upbringing. I was raised Irish-Catholic. My father is one of 10 kids, I’m the oldest of five and I have 26 first cousins. My childhood was a constant roast where you were mocked if you displayed your emotions too freely. My grandmother, a true Irish matriarch, set the tone. “I’ve only cried twice in my life,” she used to brag: once when her newborn daughter died and again when her dad died. My grandmother didn’t cry when she was in Pearl Harbor when it was bombed or when her child moved to Europe. She certainly didn’t cry at her own mother’s funeral. In fact, she forbade her children from doing as much. One of my aunts tells a story about being at that funeral. She started crying during the service and my grandmother pinched her and hissed, “No tears.” On the way to that same funeral my grandmother reminded my father not to cry during the service. When he did cry, he said he felt like he had somehow failed.
It seems the only time it’s socially acceptable for a grown man to cry is when his dog dies.
We’ve come a long way from shaming little boys when they cry—we now give them blue ribbons just for participating—but even in 2016’s so-called progressive America, it seems the only time it’s socially acceptable for a grown man to cry is when his dog dies. The harmful effects of repressing emotions are quantifiable; a 2015 Centers for Disease Control report shows men are 4 times more likely to commit suicide than females. As we approach the 15th anniversary of 9/11, I can’t help but remember that there was, actually, a period post-9/11 when men could cry openly. Looking back, that scared me, which might be the foundation of the larger problem. Because when men cry, I don’t feel safe.
Is that feeling primal? How much of that feeling is actually an unspoken social contract underwritten by gender roles? In considering why I feel the way I do about men who cry, where does nature—that is, the genetics that supposedly make men the stronger gender—end and nurture—Irish stoicism, for example—begin?
My reflexive reaction of “When men cry, I don’t feel safe” is an obvious after-effect of the cultural, societal and familial patterns I absorbed growing up. But unless you have extremely woke parents who are conscious of their responsibilities, few of us—male and female—are taught how to deal with loss and tragedy. I realized I needed to take responsibility for the role I, a woman, play in allowing men to be vulnerable. This became especially apparent while writing this column and also after hearing personal stories from men about this very struggle. (And yes, it is a struggle for them.)
Where I come from, weakness is frowned upon. “Swallow your tears and suck it up,” I’ve been told many times. It’s taken me years of therapy to unload that baggage and get in touch with my emotions.
I can’t imagine what it’s like for a man trying to do the same after a lifetime of macho conditioning and poisonous media depictions and thousands of years of evolution. Then, add to the struggle what I would call toxic womanism—the consensus of thought that invalidates men and their feelings simply because they’re men. The opposite of “toxic masculinity,“ if you will.
It’s my job as a woman to look at all of these influences—the media, my family, nature and nurture—and see what I can do differently, where I can be more compassionate and how I can be less reactive. Just because men pee standing up, doesn’t mean they don’t have problems. And just because they’re men, doesn’t mean they aren’t victimized by patriarchy too.
Maya Angelou said, “When you know better, you do better.” At the root of it, when I cry, I don’t feel safe. As a woman, I implicitly have permission to feel those feelings. Traditionally, men don’t. They feel they have to deny their grief and “man up.”
This is taking a toll on our boys and men. A recent CDC report shows that men are twice as likely as women to binge drink and they’re twice as likely to die in alcohol-related motor vehicle crashes. Generations of repressed emotions and unrealistic cultural expectations have seemingly left men in crises. So how do we, collectively, make more space for them to grieve? What little changes can we make that allow men to feel safe being vulnerable and asking for help?
One thing I’ve started doing is accepting responsibility for my own feeling of safety. During times of tragedy or loss, we need to “put the mask on first,” as mental health professionals preach. I’ve had to learn how to take care of myself, and that already makes me better able to support the men in my life, such as my dad. Back at the funeral service, when I saw my dad begin to choke up, I wasn’t scared like I was as a child. I didn’t feel the need to pinch him and whisper “no tears” because I had faced my biggest fear—my actual emotions. In doing that, I’ve learned great power lies in the ability to be weak. And an even greater power lies in allowing others, particularly men, to be weak, too.