I don’t remember when I first heard the expression “man-flu,” but it has been around a few years now. Generally, it expresses the view of many women that men whine and complain when felled by the flu, but women soldier on undaunted by a little thing like a flu virus. Even women who consider themselves feminists will trot out man-flu as evidence that women are stronger and more resilient than men.
After this went on for some time, men rejoiced when a study published in the American Journal of Physiology claimed that women’s stores of estrogen spared them the worst effects of flu and helped them fight off the virus. Men could stop apologizing for their suffering and just continue whining and demanding attention, because the man-flu was real after all.
But, of course, some researchers pushed back. An article in STAT in March 2017 boldly asserted that the scientific evidence for man-flu was overblown. If women have stronger immune responses, it said, they will have more severe symptoms, as it is the immune system that causes sneezing, coughing and other flu symptoms. More telling, though, is the final statement in the article. The article quoted immunologist Laura Haynes of the University of Connecticut, who said, “Maybe men just get whinier.”
“Whiny” is a rough scientific category to pin down, but in this case I guess “whiny” means a man expressing pain out of proportion to his suffering. For any study to determine whether men suffer from flu more than women, it would have to quantify and measure the subjective experiences of men from across the globe. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but I am saying it has not been done.
Given the fact that we can’t actually know who suffers more from the flu and the fact that we actually don’t know who complains about it more (anecdotal evidence from women who just happen to live with men lacks a bit of rigor, I think you will agree), I propose to blame another culprit: patriarchy.
It just might be true that men seem to complain more because they are expected to never complain at all. Men are expected to be stoic and unaffected by pain and suffering. This may be at least one reason women take 50 percent more sick days than men. When men show any crack in their invulnerability, they are mocked by other men, by women, and even by feminists.
So, the term “man-flu” may just be another way of saying someone failed the test of the patriarchy to fulfill the demands of sacrificial masculinity. If you support gender equality, phrases such as “man-flu” and “man-up” can only hurt your cause.
My wife and I recently led a discussion on the ethics of grief with a group of psychotherapists. Wishing to challenge the claim that there is no wrong way to grieve, I asked the group to consider boundaries they would place on proper and improper grieving. For the most part, they were a cooperative group, but they were certainly reluctant to declare any way of grieving to be unethical or wrong. Sometimes our conditioning is strong. When the workshop was over, one of the participants asked me what sorts of grieving I think are unethical or inappropriate.
My answer is really simple. I think you are clearly grieving unethically if you let your personal pain compel you to hurt others. I also think you are grieving unethically if you let your personal pain compel you to hurt yourself, but I don’t think that claim is so obvious as the first one.
Homicidal rage—I’m not saying this happens often, but someone overcome with grief who goes on a killing spree is acting unethically for sure. After Ivan López opened fire at Ft. Hood military base, killing three and wounding 16 others before killing himself, friends speculated that it was a reaction to grief over his mother’s death.
Lying and cheating—In her book, Wild, Cheryl Strayed described the emotional turmoil she experienced in the wake of her mother’s death. In her agony, she turned to casual sexual relationships and substance abuse for comfort, tearing apart her marriage and leading her to lie to her husband and other family members. She eventually found better means of coping, of course, but she still regrets the pain and harm she caused those who loved her.
Alcohol and other drugs— The philosopher, Bertrand Russell, took a fairly standard Stoic response to grief, saying it is acceptable to grieve so long as it is not to excess. He says we should distract ourselves from our grief with other pursuits, so long as they are not harmful to us. In his words: “I do not of course deny that a man may be broken by sorrow, but I do say that every man should do his utmost to escape this fate, and should seek any distraction, however trivial, provided it is not in itself harmful or degrading. Among those that I regard as harmful and degrading I include such things as drunkenness and drugs, of which the purpose is to destroy thought, at least for the time being.” Self-harm is harm, and we do have ethical obligations to care for ourselves.
Demanding but not offering emotional support—Many people repeat an unsubstantiated claim that most parents who lose a child will divorce within a year of the child’s death. This claim is not substantiated by any sort of study and seems to be more intuition than anything else. Nonetheless, it is true that some people who are overcome by grief are unable to provide emotional support to others even though they are receiving and expecting emotional support from those same family members or friends. It is a special kind of cruelty to ask someone in the vice-grip of unimaginable grief to provide emotional comfort and support while being left to drown in sorrow alone and adrift. If you find yourself overwhelmed by grief and unable to provide support to the rest of your family, please help them or at least permit them to find other sources of support. If you can’t provide what they need, at least do not become an obstacle to their mental health and comfort.
Anyone who has grieved has probably felt judged for his or her style of grief. As a result, we rush to say that there is no wrong way to grieve, but this bold (and wrong) assertion prevents us from having discussions about the correct ways to grieve. When our grieving causes harm to others or ourselves, it is not merely unhealthy—it is unethical.
A conversation about ethical grieving is worth having, and we can have it without shaming those who are suffering from grief. We can improve our own grieving and our reactions to grief if we can establish an ethics of grief that seeks a path to greater collaboration, greater care, and greater health. Grief will never be easy, and it will always come with risks, but an open conversation can help us avoid its worst effects.
While philosophers seem to thrive on conflict and would really have nothing to say at all without substantial disagreements, they are remarkably consistent on how to respond to death, dying, and loss. Most recently, I have turned to the work of Al-Kindi , who lived from about 801 to 866 in Baghdad, for advice on how to respond to grief. Al-Kindi gives us the example of the mother of Alexander the Great.
As his death approached, Alexander wrote to his mother to prepare her for the loss of her child. As Al-Kindi tells it, Alexander said, “Do not be content with having the character of the petty mother of kings: order the construction of a magnificent city when you receive the news [of the death] of Alexander!” Everyone in Africa, Europe, and Asia should be invited to a great celebration of his life with one proviso, that anyone struck my similar misfortune should not come. After his death, his mother was mystified that no one obeyed and attended the funeral until someone pointed out to her that no one had ever escaped the type of misfortune she was experiencing and those with similar losses were told not to come.
Al-Kindi says Alexander’s mother exclaimed, “O, Alexander! How much your end resembles your beginning! You had wanted to console me in the perfect way for the misfortune of your death.” This story of consolation is similar to the Buddhist parable of Kisa Gotami who lost her young son and was advised by the Buddha to collect a mustard seed from every family that had not lost a close relative. Of course, she was unable to find any family that had not faced loss, so she realized her suffering was universal and took comfort in the teachings of Buddhism.
German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, himself influenced by Buddhist texts, also points us to the suffering of others for comfort: “The most effective consolation in every misfortune and every affliction is to observe others who are more unfortunate than we, and everyone can do this. But what does that say for the condition of the whole?” Indeed, the suffering of others may make us feel petty for our complaints, but it does little to relieve our pessimism about life. But maybe we just cling to life too tenaciously.
Al-Kindi tells us that all our possessions are only on loan to us and that “the Lender has the right to take back what He loaned and to do so by the hand of whomever he wants.” He says we should not see our loss as a sign of disgrace; rather, “the shame and disgrace for us is to feel sad whenever the loans are taken back.” He is speaking of possessions in this instance, not of children, but I’ve heard many people say that our children are only “on loan” from God, who can call them home at any moment. I personally have never found any comfort in this, and I wonder whether anyone has ever felt the brunt of loss softened by the thought of a merciful God calling in His loans.
No matter what happens, Al-Kindi tells us we should never be sad, as sadness is not necessary and “whatever is not necessary, the rational person should neither think about nor act on, especially if it is harmful or painful.” Many philosophers echo this sentiment. We should trust that God has created the world that is perfect according to God’s design; therefore, we should accept the vicissitudes of life with equanimity. This advice is almost universally dispensed and almost universally not followed for a simple reason: sadness is really an involuntary reaction to loss and pain.
Al-Kindi tells us the death is not an evil, because if there were no death, there would be no people. By extension, if what is thought to be the greatest evil, death, is not evil, then anything thought to be less evil than death is also not evil. As such, we have no evil to fear in our lives. From these assertions, Al-Kindi claims that we bring sorrow to ourselves of our own will. A rational person would not choose such a form of self-harm, so depression and mourning can be controlled through the proper exercise of reason.
Most ancient philosophers, and many contemporary ones, will tell us that letting our rational nature rule our emotional nature will ease our pain in the face of loss. Certainly, a rational examination of death, life, and loss helps us to make sense of our suffering, but it does not eliminate suffering. In fact, if you see grief as a moral failing, which many thinkers have said it is, I believe your suffering is compounded. Grief, hard enough to bear on its own, becomes a catalyst for an explosion of guilt and shame.
While it is important to examine the causes of our suffering and explore what meaning loss brings to our lives, denying the necessity of grief is as useless as denying the necessity of breathing. While I can accept that Al-Kindi’s description of death is accurate, it only helps me come to terms with the prospect of losing my own life. For each of us, our own death brings a promise of relief, but the death of our loved ones only brings relief when they are so burdened by suffering that we can no longer bear to see life oppressing them.
Death is still an evil, because it robs me of the people that make my life meaningful. It threatens to rob me of the people, indeed, who may make my life bearable. It is possible to imagine that death is not an evil, but, more importantly, we must recognize that love is certainly a good, and to lose those we love is an excellent reason to mourn. Mourn freely, I say, without guilt and without shame.