Men and Emotions
In the chapter on men and relationships I focused on the how men are not often able to identify and express their emotions and the impact that this has on them. One of the most notable effects of this inability to acknowledge and understand their emotions is that suicide is now the single biggest cause of death in men under 40. According to artist Grayson Perry one of the main reasons for this is that ‘being a man’ is very carefully policed particularly by men who don’t want to cross the line which makes them look like a ‘sissy’.
I also asked the question that ‘if men are not able to deal with their own emotions how are they able to deal with the increasing expectations of their partners to support them emotionally and to show their softer more vulnerable side?’.
Now I want to talk about the emerging shoots of discussion around men and emotions. In this section I will discuss the effects of not talking about a tragedy for a boy of 11 and the impact of the death of the 34 year old wife of Rio Ferdinand, an international footballer leaving 3 small children. Finally I will talk about Prince Harry’s interview as part of the ‘Heads Together’ campaign launched by him and William and Kate, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge to raise awareness of the greater need to understand mental health issues.
At this point I want to stress that although I will on the whole be focussing on men, the issues for women can be the same if they do not address the need to talk about their feelings and emotions.
In his book ‘The Day That Went Missing’ established author, Richard Beard recalls the death of his brother in a swimming accident nearly 40 years previously during a holiday in Cornwall. After the funeral the family returned to the same accommodation and beauty spot to continue the final two weeks of their four-week vacation.
According to Beard after the accident the family never mentioned the dead boy again. He suggests that this happened not because they didn’t want to talk but because they couldn’t, the pain was too much to bear and they didn’t have the language. He also acknowledges that stoicism and the ‘stiff upper lip’ was very much valued in those days.
In the book the author revisits the scene of the accident, talks to local people and accesses the relevant documents. After his father’s death he is also finally able to talk to his mother about the incident and realises how much emotion she has been holding inside herself all of these years. Beard say that one of the reasons he decides to undertake this quest is a realisation that not addressing what happened has affected his personal life and he hopes that revisiting the incident will help him to understand and process his emotions.
Around the same time a BBC documentary was aired entitled ‘Being Mum and Dad’ in which ex international Manchester United footballer Rio Ferdinand shares his journey to heal his grief after the death of his young wife Rebecca, not only for his own benefit but also for the benefit of his 3 young children.
Regarded as the ‘strong silent type’ Ferdinand says that since her cancer was very aggressive during the last 12 weeks they didn’t talk about the future and that when his wife wanted to talk about it he blocked it out.
The programme documents his realisation that he must learn to acknowledge, feel and address his own grief – to learn to open up and talk about his emotions – not just for him but also for his children’s sake. In other words he did not want to be the kind of father who pretended that Mummy never existed. Speaking about his children Rio Ferdinand says:
‘This is one of the only things we are going to do together, where I haven’t got the answers for them and that’s quite a worrying and daunting thing. When they don’t speak it’s kind of difficult sometimes – you are just sitting there thinking – “Where are they? Are they happy or sad?” I have been desperate to know but I don’t want to scare them. I want the bestcase end scenario for my kids. So the only way I see that happening is for me to ask questions. I need help. I do need help. I know that’.
And then talking about himself he goes on to say:
‘Up until now I have just put it in a box and just leave it over there. I don’t like sitting in my house for days, you just start thinking crazy things. I think…….
I have always read the papers and stuff and seen articles about people who’ve committed suicide and I used to think “You selfish so and so. How can you do something like that?” but there’s time at the beginning where you think – you kind of know how they feel. When I look at my 3 kids, I couldn’t do that to them. I am not saying I have not sat there and thought I was going to do it but I have sat there and thought I understand and can see how you can sink into a mad place, where you just think, you know what forget this. But I have been lucky. I have had so many people around me, who have been tight around me’.
‘Feeling and emotions are not things I am good at speaking about. I want to see people who have been through this situation – experienced what I have experienced – which will give me some knowledge first hand. There might be situations where I think “do you know, I thought it was just me, everyone’s getting this”.
‘It seems to be alright to cry at football matches but you are not supposed to cry when your wife dies.
“How do you know how to grieve like a man when you don’t know what it is to grieve?’
During the documentary he makes the point that once you are prepared to ‘feel’ that the organisations, methods and ways forward are available to you.
Emily, a young woman, who had lost her Mum at 7, explains one of these methods to him. She tells him that every time she thinks of her Mum she writes down the memory and puts it in a jar. Then when she feels sad and lonely she reads the notes she has written to feel closer to her mother. After meeting Emily, Rio tells his children about this idea and he is moved to tears when Lorenz his youngest son – and the child he is most worried about – writes something for the jar and then tells them all about it. The footballer then describes the time when he met their mother. In that poignant moment you can see that not only has he allowed his own grief to surface but has opened up and given permission for his children to grieve.
At the end of this experience he says he feels relief.
‘I was not ready before. If you had told me six months ago that I would have this conversation, I would have said ‘no’. But I just felt there was coming a time where I was running away more to stay away from having the conversation. I didn’t really speak about Rebecca’.
Having met all these great people with great experiences and advice that they have shared with me along the way, it’s taken me to a place where I am willing to sit down with a therapist and just have the first initial contact and there is a lot more of a clearer picture going forward I think. Inside I am starting to open up a little bit and breath a little bit. I feel myself opening my mind to thinking about little moments we had together which is something that I was not really capable of doing before. And I just felt that I am equipped far better now than when I started this’.
One of the conclusions from a representative of Child Bereavement UK (CBUK) made during the programme is:
‘Children look at the adults around them and they will mirror, the existing parents behaviour so that they will look perhaps to the Mum or Dad and see how they are grieving and then feel that that’s the way to do it. So that in families where people aren’t expressing any emotion, children pick up that very quickly and learn not to express themselves too’.
Interestingly this comment on how children grieve leads perfectly on to what I want to talk about next which is Prince Harry’s interview to Bryony Gordon which was recorded as a podcast and published in the Telegraph Newspaper on 17th April 2017
Here I am going to let him speak in his own words:
‘The experience I’ve had is that once you start talking about it, you suddenly realise that it’s actually quite a big club. It’s a real community and everyone’s gagging to talk about it’.
‘I can safely say that losing my Mum at the age of 12 and therefore shutting down all of my emotions for the last 20 years has had quite a serious effect – not only on my personal life but also my work as well and it was only 3 years ago funnily enough from the support around and from my brother and other people saying “You really need to deal with this. It’s not normal to think that nothing has affected you”.
My way of dealing with it was to stick my head in the sand, refusing ever to think of my Mum because why would that help? It’s only going to make you sad. It’s not going to bring her back. So from the emotional side I was like “right don’t let your emotions be part of anything”. So I was a typical 20-25 year running around going “life is great or life is fine”. That was exactly it and then I started to have a few conversations and all of a sudden all of this grief, that I had never processed stated to come to the forefront.
‘It was only 2 years so I count myself very very lucky but it was 20 years of not thinking about it and then 2 years of total chaos and I couldn’t put my finger on it – I didn’t know what was wrong with me.’
‘Then once you start talking about it to your mates, 2 months later those mates are coming back to me, starting conversations about “oh we did this and that” but in that conversation they would slowly start to unravel their own issues because they know that I could relate to it and there is nothing better than being able to share your experiences and ask for advice from someone who’s already been through it rather than a complete stranger or someone who doesn’t get what you have been through’.
‘It’s a fascinating process for me that I been through – not just me personally but all the people I get to meet’.
‘It’s all part of a conversation being able to talk to a brother or sister, parent, colleague or a complete stranger, someone you have never met before or … a “shrink” and you sit on a sofa and say “I don’t actually need your advice, can you just listen?” And you just let it all rip’.
Again, referring to the importance of timing when dealing with grief and emotions, Prince Harry says:
‘Even when someone really close to you says “I think you need to deal with this”, it’s all about timing for me personally. My brother, bless him, was a huge support to me and kept saying “This is not right, it’s not normal, you just need to talk about stuff – it’s ok” and the timing wasn’t right.
Commenting on Prince Harry’s interview, Professor Sir Simon Wessley, President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists said:
‘I think that in just 25 minutes he has achieved more good than I have in 25 years. He’s an incredibly powerful role model and has a reach that we can only dream of’.
So what conclusions can be drawn about grief and emotions from the episodes that all three men have experienced and were prepared to share?
- Unexpressed emotions do not go away they are stored somewhere in our systems and continue to influence our behaviour and distort our future relationships.
- Releasing hidden and repressed emotions requires a decision to allow ourselves to be vulnerable and to find people and processes that we trust to help us.
- When grief or emotion is released safely it creates a sense of lightness and freedom.
- Talking to people who have been through similar experiences is very healing.
- Letting go and opening up to emotion and grief is about finding a time that feels right.
- When men (and women) are able to connect with their own emotions they are in a much stronger position to connect with others and to assist them to do the same.
With thanks to Eleanor Pitman for permission to use her photograph in this article
Please note that this blog is copyright (2017) and cannot be reproduced in part or whole in any form whatsoever without the prior permission of the author Pamela Milne