When Olympian gymnast John Orozco made it onto the US Olympics team after recovering from an Achilles tendon injury and, more importantly, the loss of his mother, he wept openly with a mixture of joy and profound grief. We can’t know whether he was trying to suppress his tears, but they flowed freely and he made no apology for them. I was moved by his emotion, of course, but also grateful that he appeared to weep unabashedly and free from shame.
Not many men can do the same. I have been honored and fortunate to be in the presence of men crying on a regular basis. As a volunteer facilitator for a grief support group, I see men seeking support after the loss of their children, spouses, or other loved ones. Although a few manage to suppress their tears, most of the men weep, and almost all of them apologize for crying like a child. Fortunately, other men who have experienced a traumatic loss are quick to offer a reassuring, “Don’t worry, I’ve spent many hours crying my eyes out, too” or something similar.
It is disappointing, though, to learn how many men do not feel comfortable crying in front of their own families and partners. I hear stories of men crying in the middle of the night or in cars, closets, and bathrooms. Some men schedule time to let their tears flow as they try to put on a brave, unemotional face for the world.
I wish I could say their efforts were unwarranted, but too many men have been criticized for their tears. One distraught father who lost his son to suicide told me people at the funeral told him to “pull himself together” for his family. Other men tell of supporting their wives through extended fits of wailing only to receive a cold shoulder when they break down. Often, I hear laments along these lines. “I know I’m a strong person. I have to be strong. But this is too much. Is there nowhere I can get support?”
It is commonly held, even by some therapists, that men naturally grieve differently from women. Allegedly, men process their emotions through actions rather than emotional purging. Men may bury themselves in work, start organizations in the name of the deceased, build monuments, or fight for legal changes to prevent future deaths. Of course, many men do this, and so do women, but this does not mean that men’s biology prevents them from accessing their tears. Men and women both grieve through actions and tears.
If anything prevents men from grieving openly, it is social prohibition, not biology. Whether you are a man or a woman, please know that most men are capable of crying, need to cry, and should not be ashamed of their grief or their tears. If you need to support a man in mourning, please let him cry. If you are a man in mourning, please follow the example of John Orozco and cry without shame or apology. You are not crying like a baby; you are crying like a man.