GRIEVING: A key to a man’s healing

Let’s be clear. When a man, woman or child is crying it is because the hurt has already occurred and crying or grieving is the healing of the hurt. One of the doorways a man must walk through is the one that leads to many rooms filled with sadness, despair, depression, trauma and the pain that has been locked in them for far too long.

Many men and women fear sadness and grief because they are afraid if they succumb to their sorrows then the black dog—depression— will devour their minds and souls. Part of why this fear exists in so many is because we have confused grief with self-pity, which if participated in long enough, will turn into depression and depress the people around us eventually leaving us alone in a dimly lit place with only a glass of beer and playing to many “somebody done somebody wrong songs” on the juke box in our minds or in the beer joint.

Over the years I have been asked many times, how do you start grieving and what does it look like, sound like, and feel like. Grieving is different for everyone but here are a few things that are generally true for most.

Step 1:

A person must become conscious of the necessity to grieve all their losses of any kind, no matter how big or small and no matter what anybody tells you or thinks. A person not only has to mourn the loss of things, people, places, pets, stages, transitions and changes but also the things, people, pets, etc. they wanted but never got. Not having is a loss to be mourned.

James is a data entry processor who told me how his mother married for the second time and had a child with his step-father. She then devoted all her attention, support and nurturing towards his half-brother. “She always took his side,” he went on to say, “Even on her death bed she wanted him there and not me. She even refused to tell me anything about my real father.”

We must also completely reject the toxic teachings that have become worn out clichés when it comes to genuine grief work: It’s just water under the bridge, let sleeping dogs lie, no use in crying over spilt milk, get over it, get back in the saddle, pull yourself up by the bootstraps, keep a stiff upper lip or the past is dead and gone. William Faulkner, the great Southern writer said, “The past isn’t dead, it’s not even the past.”

Step 2:

One must develop a support network of people who will stand by you while you are doing your grieving. These are friends, family, therapist, God or Higher Power, sponsor or all of the above—the more the better. These people will not hurry you, shame you, and talk you out of your grief. But rather, “we’re here and we know grieving can be scary that’s why you shouldn’t do it alone.” In other words, use your community to hold your hand while you walk through what can feel like the “valley of the shadow of death.”

One of the main reasons we put off grieving is because we have been told not to show our feelings and thus feel grief should be a solitary act if an act at all. Grieving was never meant to be done entirely alone.

There is a tribe in the Polynesian islands that provides the best example of how grieving is a community job. When someone in the immediate family dies, it is everyone’s job in that family to mourn and grieve the loss for a full year. During that year tribe members take care of the children, the garden, the home, the cooking, and the cleaning for the grievers. At the end of the year the grief cycle is completed because that was their sole/soul focus and the family then resumes the business of life.

Step 3:

Create a grief ritual. For example it may be necessary to set aside time each day or once a week or whatever is appropriate for you. For instance you might get up thirty minutes early before going to work and take your ex’s picture out, light some candles or put on yours and her favorite music and look at the photograph and tell her how you feel, tell him what you loved and hated about your togetherness and then weep, wail, get angry or whatever and get up and take a shower and go to work.

Roger, an energetic man in his late sixties once helped organize one of my workshops in South Dakota several years ago. He was a professor of English at the university there for thirty-five years and had recently retired. As we were driving to the campus auditorium where I was to speak he pointed to a building and said, “See the last window on the corner of the fourth floor? That was my office for thirty-five years.” I said, “I bet there are a lot of you still in that room after all those years.” He said something I’ll never forget. “Not an ounce.” I was taken aback to say the least. “How is that possible after all those years?”

“I listened to your tape on grieving and I did what you suggested because I didn’t want any of me floating around in that building when I left. I wanted closure so when I started my new life I had completely said goodbye to my old one and honored it in the best possible way I could. Every Friday for a whole year I would sometimes have my students in for little get-togethers. Other times I had my faculty friends over for drinks. Some Fridays I just sat alone in my office and recalled some of my fondest memories but every Friday I did something to say goodbye to my office, my profession, my students and friends and at the end of that year I was just full of gratitude for the time spent there.”

Most people do not participate in ritual grief work like Roger. Instead what most do if they do anything at all is what I call hit or miss grieving. They will start and stop and catch as catch can. They will a do a lot for a day or two or a week and convince themselves they are finished or some idiot—sometimes their own therapist or sponsor—tells them they “should be done” and move on. Or they might go to a grief workshop and do a whole weekend’s worth. I don’t think your twenty-year marriage or your one-year relationship could be grieved in a weekend and the only person that will know when you are done is you. Remember a ritual is something you do over and over again until it is no longer necessary. Some last for weeks, months, years or lifetimes. Most grief rituals usually take six months to a year.

Step 4:

I’ve found it to be important to have a ceremony at the end of the your grieving process, this can be done by say inviting your friends who stood by you to some place special—your favorite restaurant or park and thank them for the support they gave and to let them and you see that you navigated the treacherous waters that flowed in your body’s ocean of grief. Do you remember Alice in Wonderland? Well the only way she could get through the huge locked door was to cry and cry and pretty soon she raised herself on her own river of tears and floated right through the key hole to the other side of the door and the other side of her life.

How will you know it is time to do the ceremony? Because you will be in a place to celebrate the time you spent together, you’ll be able to praise your ex and yourself for all the gifts you gave each other and all the lessons you learned. You will focus on the good parts of your old job, the pleasant memories of your parents are likely to surface and even the good things you learned from your ex magically appear. Like Roger you will find yourself feeling gratitude for the time spent at your job. You will be expressing gratitude for the time you spent in whatever relationship it was that is over and there will be no residual grief, anger, or resentment. You will bless the person, place or situation. These are all signs that you have successfully come through this time of loss or change. However, if you are still angry, sitting in some bar drinking and telling the bartender or a stranger that the divorce papers were finally signed and now you are “rid of the bitch” or how much you hated all those years at your job, you’re not done—you probably need to go back to step one.

I have also been asked many times, “When one begins the grieving process how long does it take?” Some people might take a month to say goodbye gracefully and someone else may have a similar thing to grieve and it could take a year or more. Time is a key element to grief work.

At a workshop on grief a man asked me the question, “What do you do if you are already in a relationship but you didn’t make time to grieve the last one? Won’t this upset my partner to see me grieving another woman?” First of all know that emotionally intelligent partners tend to know if memories, love, or sadness are still floating around in someone’s psyche or body. These healthy partners will give their partners time and support their loved one to get the past out of their body, their dreams, nightmares and souls for the very reason mentioned above it will make room in their hearts for the present person they love and cherish.

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John Lee has been a leader and author in men’s health issues for over a decade. Lee began his career as a professor at Austin Community College, the University of Alabama, and the University of Texas. He has written 18 self-help, psychology, recovery, creativity, or relationship non-fiction books that explore men’s health issues, like alcoholism and co-dependency. In addition to literature, Lee has advocated for the maintenance and improvement of men’s health in magazines, like Newsweek and on shows such as Oprah and 20/20. In 1986, Lee co-founded Primary, Emotional, Energy, Recovery (P.E.E.R.), a training program for counselors, social workers, and psychotherapists. Two years later, he founded and directed Austin’s Men’s Center, a counseling center that specializes in men’s issues. In the late 1980’s, he opened his own private practice in Austin, Texas specializing in men’s issues, relationships, adult children of alcoholics, and co-dependency. His latest two books, The Anger Solution and When the Buddha Met Bubba, are on sale now on More information about John Lee can be found on his web site and on his daily blog at
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