Fixing a Hole: Grieving With Other Men
by Tom Golden, LCSW
There I was dripping in sweat, the kind that rolls down the side of your head and innocently into your ear. The still summer evening was allowing me to hear my own breath and my own thoughts. I was determined to make this a great hole and I kept digging—probably farther than I really needed to, but on I went. What seemed like a great deal of sweat was swallowed effortlessly by the hole, absorbed as a matter of course by the dirt in the bottom. The hole and the dirt were equally unmoved by the tears I shed.
This hole was to be the home of a tree that was being given as a memorial to my father who had died the previous November. I had known the hole needed digging, but had put off the task until now—now being just about the last possible moment it could be dug. As I continued digging, I found myself flooded with memories of my father. My thoughts moved back and forth between recent events leading up to his death and childhood experiences. I remembered his engineering talents and nature and tried to dig the hole in a way that would please him.
As I dug, the feelings flowed through me: the sadness of missing him, the gratefulness of having been his son, and the anger and frustration of my powerlessness. All of these feelings found their way into this hole. The act of digging became an avenue for the various thoughts and feelings to arise. Through the action I was opened to my own inner world.
I started wondering why I had put off this job, then realized that I hadn’t, and didn’t, want to do it. Actually digging the hole brought the death more into reality, and a part of me didn’t want that. I’ve learned to accept this part of me that wants to deny things. Denial is not really such a bad thing, and it doesn’t go away as quickly as some people seem to think. I’ve noticed it has a slow, zigzag decay that can last a long time. In a way, denial can be our friend, allowing us to slowly accept the reality at hand. I became aware of the battle going on between the denying part and the digging-the-hole part. As a friend of mine says, "We have wetware, not hardware."
The tree was planted in an emotional ritual attended by myself and the six men who donated the tree. The activity became an avenue for all of us to delve into our interiors and connect with a variety of issues, from relationships with our fathers to the finality of death. The activity of buying, digging, planting, and gathering together became a hub for a wide variety of spin-offs. As we stood around the tree, we all had a chance to speak and to listen, and somehow having an activity made this process flow smoothly. It would have been much more difficult to simply sit in a circle and talk about our feelings. It was through the doing that we could connect.
Death professionals have long been confounded by the difference in men and women in visiting gravesites, which is that the men tend to visit more often. My own experiences have given me a deeper understanding of why this takes place. Men tend toward linking their grief with a place, action, or thing. There have been many examples presented in this book: the man who wore his deceased daughter’s ring as a remembrance of her, the man who carved a bust of his wife after her death, the man who built a pond in memory of his murdered brother, the man who wore his father’s watch, and so on. These activities are often quiet and unseen by most people. The casual observer might assume that the man is "not grieving," but that is many times not the case.
Excerpted from the Epilogue of the second edition of Swallowed by a Snake: The Gift of the Masculine Side of Healing.