Man at sunset on swing

Grieving Men Show Strength in Vulnerability

By David Swindell, Guest Contributor

I am a volunteer co-facilitator of a peer grief support group for men bereaved by a death from substance use, and this article explains why I hope men will consider attending support groups. Here is more information about our group.

Having played team sports until the age of 21, I realized the importance of excelling at your position to contribute to the team’s success. I also appreciated the team’s collective strength and camaraderie and the relationship between the individual and the team’s success. This reliance, this insight into everyone’s strengths and weaknesses, was freeing as it allowed the coaches and your teammates to put you in the best position for success. They knew and accepted you as you knew and accepted them, period. 

At the “end of our rope,” trying to figure out how to best help our son with his battle against substance-use disorder (SUD) and against my better judgment, I went to a Learn to Cope (L2C) meeting. The mere thought of talking out loud about my “failure” as a father was crushing. After all, I fix things; I mitigate risk, I plan ahead. Beyond my first name, I didn’t say anything at that first meeting, yet I left there with hope for a better tomorrow. I found people, fathers, mothers, and siblings struggling with the same issues that I had. I had found “my people,”’ my team to help me be better. 

After attending weekly L2C meetings for months, sadly, my son lost his battle to SUD in July 2018. Here I was in the unspeakable world of a bereaved dad. Now I was no longer in the tight-knit group, my team, dealing with active addiction. I was in a much smaller group of dads who initially felt they fatally failed. Not only did I not fix it, but I also broke it more. While fighting active addiction, I felt that my L2C team helped me, supported me in my areas of weakness, and helped build on my strengths. Now my weaknesses were greater, and my strengths were gone. Were my strengths really there to begin with? Were my strengths really weaknesses in this battle? How could I not help my son succeed, worse, not help him avoid death?

Having felt a glimmer of hope at the L2C meetings, I looked for a group of men who suffered as I did. How does a man talk about the ultimate failure out loud? To admit you failed in an attempt to figure it out, to talk about the confusion, pain, sadness, depression, numbness, detachment, feelings of failure, and the “what ifs”? Thinking about my years playing sports, I felt that I gave up the go-ahead home run in the biggest game of my life. I missed the tackle for the go-ahead touchdown, the shot at the open net, open basket in the biggest game of not my life but my son’s life. How does one recover from that, face the outside world as a failure?

At the first men’s grief group I helped start last summer, you could sense the apprehension, the desire to be in the background, and be there but not be seen. The fear of failure floated in the air. One by one, as we each began to speak and to share, it became clear that though different in detail, all of our paths were similar. Though we were at different points in our journey, each of us nodded in both the knowledge and acceptance of where we were. A feeling of togetherness began to replace the fear. We realized that alone we might not be able to overcome our grief, but that building on each other, leaning on each other, helping each other, we could look forward to a better tomorrow. We knew we had a team we could rely on. 

I encourage all men, those on stable ground, and those who feel the clock is running, to join a team, to bring your story, your skills to help others and to be heard and, in turn, become part of something bigger than each of us, a team. 

Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned from our support group. Men are human. Men hurt, they feel lost, they wonder why, how could I have prevented this from happening? They get angry and depressed, not wanting to celebrate normally festive occasions or enjoy past enjoyable things. The avoidance of past enjoyments may be the avoidance of painful memories or the thought that I should not be enjoying anything. Mental fog affects their thinking, their view of the world they once knew. And, despite most outward appearances, they actually do cry. Maybe not in front of you, maybe not alone in their rooms or in their cars but in their broken hearts. They fight back the sudden sadness and tears brought on by some remembrance, some song, another dad with their child. 

The image of the fixer, the problem solver, the one everyone looks to as their rock in the storm is suddenly adrift, questioning their own abilities, sometimes their own sanity or self-worth. They struggle to help their own loved ones with their grief as they are confused by their own. These are the things I have learned from my men’s group. 

I have also learned that they are very accepting, that when given a chance, they will talk about the things they are afraid to say out loud. They are very supportive of the understanding that we have many things in common though each of us is different. A bond forms where what was once a perceived weakness becomes a sought-after strength. The strength of telling your story out loud because once you do that, it no longer controls you. You can learn to accept the rollercoaster of emotions thrown your way. I personally felt having had the absolute worst thing happen to me and then talking about it that I was almost bulletproof to what the rest of life would throw at me. 

I have learned and witnessed that through telling our stories, we no longer feel the perceived weakness. We feel the strength of freeing what is inside. Having acknowledged it and told others about it, the fear of someone “finding out” is gone. We learned that telling our story has helped others realize they are not alone. The solemn confidentiality of the group assures that only those we choose to know will know. Telling our story has helped others as we have been helped by listening to theirs. I have seen many examples of how this works, and I am one of them.