Ankit stares at the coffee going cold on the table in front of him. His eyes are bruised for want of sleep; a slight tremor runs through his fingers. “You know,” he says finally, “I feel like there are needles being pushed into my heart…”
Ankit’s wife died of a brain tumour in June last year. When she was diagnosed in 2014, doctors gave her a grim prognosis of 12 months. Ankit was assiduous with his care, monitoring every morsel of food that entered his wife’s mouth. For a time his efforts paid dividends – 12 months passed and the tumours had retreated. But after a trip to India in January 2016, the tumours returned. From there, the demise was swift.
Her death floored Ankit – and he’s yet to drag himself back to his feet. He feels guilty that he wasn’t a better husband and more effective carer. He’s angry with the oncologists he believes could have done more to save his wife. He’s furious with his wife’s family he feels failed to support him and his wife in their struggle. Above all, he’s lonely – desperately lonely. Each evening, he comes home from work, cooks dinner, then does the household chores while his son watches TV.
The passage of time is not easing Ankit’s suffering – a fact he is curiously proud of. “I don’t want the pain to get better,” he insists. “My definition of ‘better’ is forgetting her. And I don’t want to do that. I want to keep her alive in my heart; I want to keep her alive with more than just memories.”
So how does he plan to move forward? He shrugs: “My ultimate goal is to get my son a good career. He will get on with his life. I will let him go. And that will be the end of me.”
To talk to Ankit is to feel intense helplessness. He’s a polite, intelligent, likeable man. At the age of 42 he has so much ahead of him. And yet he finds himself in a hole he can’t – or, indeed, doesn’t want to – climb out of.
As I stand to shake his hand, his untouched coffee still sitting on the table between us, I desperately want to say something – anything – that will alleviate his suffering. But what can you say?
The fact is: all of us will face intense grief at some point in our lives, be it through the death of a parent, a sibling, a friend, a partner, a child. And yet, much like death itself, grief is seldom spoken about and little understood. According to psychologist Chris Hall, most men view grief much as we would a nasty dose of ’flu – we’ll feel bad, we’ll grit it out, then we’ll get better and move on. But this is not how grief works. It’s not a short-term disruption – it’s a long-term condition that often changes us irrevocably.
So is there a future for a man like Ankit?
DO IT YOUR WAY
One of Ash’s favourite picture of his daughter, Scarlett, is a photograph of her crying. “She’s bawling, just bawling,” he says. “But I love that shot because she’s so full of life and energy.”
Scarlett was born in May 2003 with undersized pulmonary arteries. Ash and his wife, Katie, were told that, although the condition was serious, it wouldn’t be fatal. Ten weeks after she was born, Scarlett went back to hospital for what promised to be a lifetime of heart surgery.
The operation was a success, but nine days later – on the day Scarlett was due to come home from hospital – things started to go wrong. Ash and Katie were summoned to the hospital with a 6am phone call.
A day of frantic surgery finished with the two standing at Scarlett’s bedside as the tubes were pulled from her body. “And that’s when she flatlined,” says Ash. “It was a pretty horrendous end.”
At the funeral, Ash carried the tiny white coffin into the crematorium to the theme song from Gone With The Wind. He felt curiously strong and in control; he felt no urge to cry. And yet he remembers feeling the expectant eyes of the other mourners, waiting to see an explosion of emotion. Finally, he forced himself to cry – an unplugging that saw the tears come at a torrent. “But it wasn’t the most natural reaction for me. I very easily could have gone through the whole thing without shedding a tear.”
Men are bad at grieving – this is the stereotype. While women are in touch with their feelings, men are not; while women weep, men will not; while women surround themselves with friends and family, men shut themselves off. For these reasons, the stereotype goes, women process their grief while men get bogged down in their suffering.
But according to Hall, who’s been CEO of the Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement for the past two decades, the stereotype is bunkum. “Gender is one of the easiest things to capture in research,” he says, “and there’s no compelling evidence that men do grieving worse than women.”
The reason the stereotype is so persistent, Hall believes, is because, as a society, we’ve feminised grief, defining it as a purely emotional response to loss. But this doesn’t reflect the complexity of grief, he says. It’s not just an emotional activity – it’s a multi-faceted experience that affects our bodies, our thoughts, our behaviour. Not only do we need to get our hearts around grief, we need to get our heads around it, too.
“Grief generates enormous energy,” explains Hall, “and grieving is about channelling that energy. Grief can be thought of as love with nowhere to go. So where we channel that love is very important.” Some men may channel this energy into teary emotions, others may channel it into writing a journal or cleaning out the family home or grinding out long, solo bike rides.
The takehome: grief comes in all shapes and sizes – there’s no correct way to grieve. “Men walk a very narrow line,” says Hall. “If they under-express their grief then they’re seen to be uncaring. If they over-express their grief they’re characterised as out of control. Ultimately, men need to do what men need to do. Don’t sacrifice yourself at the altar of public opinion or what other people expect of you.”
BUILD YOUR COMMUNITY
In the hours after Scarlett’s death, Ash went into shock. There’s no coherence to his memories from that time – they appear in his mind as snapshots only. His chief recollection is wishing to be in the future, wanting to hit a fast-forward button and travel to a time when the pain had eased.
But once the shock passed, he remembers a powerful urge to talk about his daughter at every opportunity. “I was desperately looking around for comfort, for someone to talk to,” he says, “and the one person who was always happy to talk about it was my wife, Katie.”
Come the nights, when Katie sank into long sleeps, Ash would sit in his backyard with a handful of supportive friends and talk about Scarlett, raking over every detail in her short life, chatting away until two or three in the morning. “It was almost all I wanted to talk about at that time,” he says. “And this will sound strange, but I almost look back on those days as special times; I almost think of them fondly. We were going through something huge and we experienced the best of human nature from those around us.”
In a recent Norwegian study, researchers posed the question to grievers: what has been the best self-help strategy to alleviate your situation? The number-one response: openness.
Talking about the death and showing vulnerability in front of others is crucial, says Nathan MacArthur, a grief counsellor for medical charity HammondCare, because it draws people to you. And being surrounded by people who understand your plight is fundamental to the grieving process. “It’s not about weeping and wailing,” says MacArthur. “It’s about having that connection with someone who gets you, someone who understands what’s going on.”
For this reason, MacArthur runs group sessions for grieving men at Greenwich Hospital in Sydney’s north (Hall’s organisation runs a similar group in Melbourne called Bereavement @ the Bar). The men gather and, one by one, tell their stories without interruption – grievers anonymous, in essence.
For Nino, a 58-year-old bank worker whose wife died of ovarian cancer 18 months ago, these group sessions have been a breakthrough in a grieving process that had seemed interminable at the one-year anniversary of her death. “When you’re talking one-on-one with a grief counsellor,” he says, “you feel as if you’re the only one going through it. But when you’re in a group you see other people are feeling the same way you are. I see these men who are coping with their grief and I think, well, if they can do it, I can get through it, too.”
NOT THE END
In the months following Scarlett’s death – after the funeral had passed, after he’d returned to work, after friends had stopped dropping off frozen meals – Ash truly felt the crushing weight of his grief. “I think it was the finality of the death that really bothered me,” he says. “It’s like, ‘Fuck, I was enjoying that. And now it’s gone for evermore.’”
During this time, however, he countered this finality by communicating with his daughter in any way he could. Although not an especially religious man, he used to pray to Scarlett. During his lunchbreak he would light a candle in a church close to his work. He started reading books about the afterlife, books written by people who had suffered near-death experiences. He also wrote down Scarlett’s story, from the day of the 20-week scan that diagnosed her slender pulmonary arteries to the evening the doctors pulled the tubes from her body. “I just wrote and wrote and wrote,” he says. “I didn’t stop until it was all down. I just felt this need to share her story.”
Even now, Ash continues to commune with his daughter. He no longer prays to her or reads books on the afterlife, but on Scarlett’s birthday each year he lights a candle for her and on Katie’s birthday he always gives her a small card with the inscription: To Mum, from Scarlett. “I know it’s only symbolism,” he says, “but it acknowledges she still exists in us.”
This ongoing relationship with a loved one can be crucial to the grieving process, says Hall. “I often say, death ends a life, but it doesn’t end a relationship. Grief’s not about saying goodbye and letting go. Many people will still access the person who’s died. They’ll think about them and talk to them; they’re still very much a part of their life.”
In past decades, grieving men have been encouraged to cut ties, to throw out the deceased’s belongings, scrub them from their lives. But according to MacArthur, this approach can heighten the pain and intensify guilt; it can feel to the bereft like a dishonouring of the dead.
“Now we encourage people to maintain the relationship with the person who’s died in a different form,” he says. For some this might mean doing a fun run in the departed’s legacy. Or it might mean trying to be more like the dead person, taking on their better qualities. Or it might mean conversations – whether out loud or in your head or on a sheet of paper – with the deceased. “Often people worry they’re going mad when they do this,” says MacArthur, “but it can be a very helpful way of working things out.”
GRIEF IS GROWTH
These days, Ash’s thoughts of Scarlett revolve only around the happy times, the reasons he’s proud of her – her fortitude, her bravery. When memories of those last few hours in the hospital start to seep into his mind, he blacks them out, almost as if flicking a light switch.
More than this, Ash sees the good things Scarlett has brought him. While a 2013 study published in the journal Family Science found divorce rates are 60 per cent higher among bereaved parents, Ash knows Scarlett’s death strengthened the bond between him and his wife, Katie. “I felt like I dealt with it well,” he says, “because we dealt with it well.” Then there’s his second son, born less than a year after Scarlett’s death. They named him Rufus – Latin for “red” – in honour of his sister. “And that was a huge thing for Katie and me. It really felt like a rebirth.”
Yes, grief is traumatic – but it can also be a catalyst for incredible growth. “We tend to see grief as something as toxic, as if it leaves people damaged or impaired,” says Hall. “But grief is often the beginning of a process that sees enormous development and change.”
True, people can be destroyed by grief. A raft of studies shows that the bereft face an increased risk of cardiac problems – literally dying of a broken heart. But according to Hall, this is rare, with only seven per cent of people encountering chronic problems. For the majority, grief is ultimately an empowering experience.
“I say that grief is about relearning the self: who am I now? And it’s also about relearning the world: how do I live in a changed world?” says Hall. This relearning can come in myriad ways: the bereft father discovering new strength in his marriage, the widower learning how to cook dinner for his kids, the orphaned son discovering things he never knew about his parents as he empties their house. “It’s a hell of a way to walk down the path of self-improvement,” says Hall. “But, yes, people often look back in the future and say, my god, if I can survive that I can survive anything.”
So, is there a future for a man like Ankit?
Yes. Most definitely, yes. Given time, given support, given ongoing communion with his wife, there is every chance that Ankit will be able to make meaning of his wife’s death. He may even be able to see, at some point in the future, how her death has perhaps strengthened him or made him a better father or deepened his empathy towards other grievers.
Indeed, as Ankit and I shake hands he smiles shyly and says, “Actually, I’m sort of feeling good right now. I really want to talk my emotions out…” And in that desire for openness, that willingness to talk, Ankit might just have shone a light on the ladder out of his hole.