On Saturday 8 January 2022, BBC News reported more than 150,000 people in the UK had died within 28 days of a positive Covid test since the pandemic began. Under normal circumstances there are around 600,000 deaths every year in the UK, leaving some 6 million people of all ages significantly bereaved. Bereavement is known to be one of the hardest times in life. Unsupported, it can lead to mental ill health, relationship breakdown, job loss, debt, addiction and more.
Worryingly, the pandemic has exacerbated bereavement problems and complicated the grief journey for almost everyone bereaved in the period. Families of over a million people who have died have not been able to say goodbye to their loved ones or process grief in their usual ways. There have been restrictions on numbers attending funerals, hugs and close physical contact to provide support has been discouraged, and there have been heart-breaking stories about family members unable to see relatives who have died in hospitals around the country.
Add to all of this the stigma that ‘big boys shouldn’t cry’ and we can begin to appreciate why there are particular pressures on men in our churches and communities. The subtle or overt messages of to ‘be strong’, ‘stiff upper lip’ and ‘don’t make others feel uncomfortable’ are gradually being consigned to history but we still have some way to go.
Men and women often cope with grief and loss differently. The Bereavement Journeysessions that we run to talk about bereavement and loss are normally attended by 90%+ women. Also, anecdotally, we see that men will try to avoid their pain by keeping busy or working hard, masking their pain with alcohol, or they try to fix their situation by, for instance, quickly re-marrying – without addressing the issues and often leaving anger and guilt suppressed. Much of the aggression in our society will be rooted in unprocessed loss, as is crime. The way our society defines what is ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ plays a part in these differences. Some men may feel their role is to:
• Be ‘strong’ and support others
• Be self-contained and independent
• Take charge and solve problems
However, back in 2017 England and Man U footballer Rio Ferdinand, Princes Harry and William, all acknowledged the difficulties they had faced by being bereaved. Then in 2018, England cricketer Andrew Strauss, started talking about the death of his wife, Ruth, after a battle with cancer. These men’s honesty marked a change in culture with the media. There was an increase in demand for bereavement support as the lid started to come off the unprocessed grief of decades. More recently, Ricky Gervais has blown away some of the myths about men and bereavement with his latest comedy, After Life. Set in the fictional town of Tambury, After Life follows newspaper writer Tony Johnson, whose life is turned upside down after his wife dies. He contemplates suicide, but instead decides to spend his life punishing the world for his wife’s death by saying and doing whatever he wants regardless of how it makes other people feel. In 2021, Angels United, a football team in Manchester helping bereaved dads cope with grief gained national attention for its work. So there are signs that things are beginning to change in society.
From a Christian perspective, Simon Thomas talks about the challenges of coming to terms with the loss of his wife in his book, Love, Interrupted: Navigating Grief One Day at a Time, and he reveals how grief nearly destroyed him. When Simon lost the woman he had loved for 16 years, the future he’d imagined for their happy family disappeared forever. Simon is brutally honest about his journey through grief and opens up about how close he came to ending his own life. Simon didn’t know how to carry on without Gemma; he just knew that, for the sake of his eight-year-old son, he had to find a way.
We have an increasing number of male role models who are showing us that there is no shame in big boys acknowledging pain and crying, that, in fact, it’s the brave thing to do. We also have a good model in scripture about how to support each other as men, when we may not be sure what to do when confronted with a friend in distress. It is okay just to be present and listen. Job 2:11 and 13 tell us, ‘Now when Job’s three friends heard of all these troubles that had come upon him, each of them set out from his home… They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.’
To find out more about the bereavement support available please check www.ataloss.org