What do we know about the needs of men who are bereaved by suicide, and -- if, in fact, male survivors of suicide loss do have unique needs -- what is being done to meet those needs? The answer to the first question is that we know very little specifically about men's needs after they experience a loss to suicide (beyond what we know generally about grief after suicide, about the differences between men's and women's psychological make-up, and about their different styles of communication and help-seeking). The answer to the second question is that almost nothing is being done to meet the special needs of men who have lost a loved one to suicide.
Here is a personal story -- not about grief specifically but about "sharing emotions" -- that illustrates why it is important to find answers to these questions.
The first experience I had that marked me as a man in therapy (as opposed to a woman in therapy) was in early 1982 in an aftercare support group in Twin Falls, Idaho, which was designed to help people who had completed inpatient treatment for addiction make a successful transition back to the community after spending a month in an institution.
It was my second week attending the group, a circle of about 25 men and women of all ages. I had enjoyed the first week immensely because each person who spoke got a lot of help from the counselor in charge of the process, as well as from the others in the group, and I learned some very interesting and useful things about what went on "inside" of recovering addicts. I didn't realize it at the time, but the first week a new person attended the group, he or she was purposefully not called on to participate -- so I had spent the whole time listening. But the second week a new person attended, he or she was targeted for participation.
About half of an hour into the session, the counselor called on me: "Franklin, would you mind telling us how you feel about what was just said?"
I was glad to answer her -- and to speak for my first time to the whole group -- so I said quite a lot about my feelings on the very engaging and meaningful topic at hand.
When I finished, she said, "Thank you for sharing, Franklin, but you just told us what you think -- and I asked about how you feel. So would you mind taking another try at it?"
I looked around the circle at two dozen faces of people who seemed to clearly understand what she was talking about and what was expected of me. Although I myself did not have a clue, I was game (and I was truly invested in the subject matter), so I launched into a more detailed exposition of how I felt, adding -- to show my gratitude -- how helpful it was for me to share my feelings with the group.
When I finished, she said, firmly but with encouragement, looking only at me and at no one else, "Again, Franklin, what you're telling us is very interesting. But it's all about your thoughts on the matter, not about your feelings. Please, tell us how you feel."
Everyone again looked at me, both knowingly and expectantly. My core body temperature felt as if it increased about 10 degrees, but I was not dissuaded. I looked around the room, nodding my head slightly toward each and every person, with the intention of signaling a message to them all, something like, "Oh, I get it. Now I see what you're asking, so here it comes ..."
This time, I more earnestly than ever shared my precise feelings with the group, artfully rewording and summarizing all that I had meant to say already, speaking skillfully and with great passion and conviction, telling my story from the heart but being brief and coming right to the point.
When I was finished, she again announced that I had spoken about thoughts and not feelings, and she went on -- seemingly for my benefit alone, for she never took her eyes off of me -- to issue an explanation of the difference between "thinking words" and "feeling words." Then, for good measure, she touted the immense value of "getting in touch" with and sharing one's emotions.
But honestly, I heard only the bare outline of what she was saying -- because I was suddenly and unexpectedly occupied by grappling with a crucial argument between the fight and flight choices taking shape in my head.
Her voice shook me loose from my internal debate: "Franklin," she said, "you look like you're angry. Are you angry?"
To which I said, very quickly but calmly -- and with deliberate emphasis on being entirely clear about what I was communicating -- "No, I am not angry." (I didn't say anything more, but I wanted to add, "... even though you're doing everything in your power to make me angry while this entire circle of unmerciful people-in-touch-with-their-feelings watches me turn into a stone, but I am going to keep my cool no matter what you say or do to me.")
She paused, perhaps to allow the dialogue in my head to run its course, then began to describe to me -- in exquisite detail -- how my body posture was similar to that of people who are angry, how my facial expression and my position in my chair and my breathing and what I was doing with my legs and what I was doing with my arms all added up to a person who was obviously angry.
Then she said, with the utmost kindness in her voice, "But you say you are not angry, so I wonder if you could tell us how it is that you actually do feel about our discussion."
Much to my surprise, all of a sudden -- in what seemed to me like a miraculous flash of insight -- I was in touch with exactly how I felt. I knew without any doubt whatsoever that I had unquestionably responded positively to this therapy "technique." In spite of being immersed in anxiety throughout the process (and doing everything in my power not to show it), I was now, at this very moment, unequivocally clear about what my feeling was -- and I told everyone (with absolute certainty in my mind and heart that I was having the last word on the topic, knowing deep down inside myself that I was sharing a personal realization as valuable as any I had ever had in my life):
"I feel crazy."
And she said, "'Crazy' is not a feeling.'"
I've told this story a dozen times, always inflecting the back-and-forth rhythm of the "conversation" between me and the counselor in such a way as to make it a humorous tale. But the fact is that it isn't funny at all.
If the topic of the group session had been grief and not addiction, it would perfectly illustrate two different grieving styles, in which a counselor is interacting based on an intuitive style (which is marked by the expression of feelings) and the client is interacting based on an instrumental style (which features thinking and acting). Furthermore, I would suggest that a dynamic similar to the one in this story of mine (similar but not the same) explains why, in almost any suicide bereavement support group, women outnumber men two-to-one or three-to-one or even more drastically than that. Besides support groups, the other most prevalent form of assistance for people bereaved by suicide is talk therapy, and a host of studies have shown for decades that women participate in talk therapy much more than men do.
This suggests to me that -- while there is a serious need for more research on suicide bereavement in general and on the needs of every affected population -- special attention needs to be given to suicide bereaved men.
If one multiplies the number of suicides, 38,000 per year, by the often-cited number of survivors per fatality, six, it can be estimated that there are nearly a quarter of a million new survivors of suicide loss added to the population annually in the United States. Up to half of those new survivors likely are men, and not a single program of substance that I know of (other than a handful of suicide bereavement support groups in the entire country) is specifically designed to meet the needs of men grieving a suicide loss.
The Carson J. Spencer Foundation and Unified Community Solutions are conducting an exploratory survey to get a better sense of the experience of men who are bereaved by suicide and the needs they may have in coping with their grief (and to promote a meaningful conversation about the needs of men survivors). To take the survey, please click here -- and please share the Internet address (www.surveymonkey.com/s/MenBereavement) with suicide bereaved men who might be interested in completing the survey.© 2013 Unified Community Solutions. All Rights Reserved.