When death strikes a member of the Bara people of Southern Madagascar, two huts are designated for grieving: One is the "male house" -- a bustling center of activity where for days the men organize the rituals, receive condolences from other men and take responsibility for burying the body; the other is the "house of tears" -- a private place for women where they may weep and wail and receive condolences from other female guests.
In one part of Africa there is a dramatic grieving ritual where the men line up and face the women who are crying and keening over a death. Their purpose is not to stand by stoically, or even to mimic them, but rather, to closely watch the women in order to bring forth their own sense of loss and get in touch with their feelings.
It's a sociological fact that men grieve differently than women -- and Tom Golden, a grieving counselor from Kensington, doesn't want to change any of that. For three years he tried to get a book published on how and why men grieve the way they do. Editors liked what he had to say, but the marketing people said no deal -- men don't read these books and women want to change their men, not just read about them.
But Golden, who has treated both men and women since the late 1970s, isn't out to change men; he also believes that women are open to understanding why the men they love grieve the way they do. Last month he self-published three booklets -- "A Man's Grief," "Different Paths Toward Healing," and "Gender and Cultural Differences in Grief." Each no more than 42 pages, they are designed to be read quickly.
Golden explains in the booklets that though there are always exceptions and that the sexes do interchange in their grieving behavior, women still tend to be more open about their pain and are able to cry more, while men tend to keep their suffering private and cry less.
The basis for the differences are both physical and psychological. Golden says that from adolescence on, men have less of the hormone prolactin, which gives access to emotional tears, whereas women's supply of prolactin does not diminish. Also, women are more relational and thus usually have a network of support to which they comfortably turn in time of crisis. Golden argues against the popular idea that a man's way of grieving isn't healthy. It is a man's personal choice as to how to grieve, he says, and not a pathology.
"The last thing I want to do is tell men how to grieve," says Golden. He does, however, want to explain to them why they manifest their grief the way they do and how it best serves them.
Golden honors the fact that men often handle their grief through creative or practical action: A college-age son whose mother died of cancer plants a tree in her garden; a father whose son died in a car accident becomes involved in highway safety programs. Since post-industrial society no longer requires the men in the family to build the casket or bury the dead, says Golden, men need to put themselves into action when their world is crumbling around them. Whether it be just looking through a photo album or making a trip home to close up the estate, he says, the action is healing.
He also notes that grieving men often turn to the practice of "contained space and rituals," a practical solution that goes back many centuries. Golden describes Paul who contained his grief over the death of his father through jogging, not an uncommon contemporary remedy for stress. For months he ran through the park, sometimes twice a day, often "crying buckets." Eventually, the pressure of grieving was released. Note that Paul was able to cry -- an exception to the prolactin theory -- nevertheless, he had his need to be alone and to put his energy into a contained project -- running.
"There is no recipe that can predict a man's emotional response to his loss," says Golden. "It is a very personal and individual response."
Booklets are $6.95 each, from: Thomas Golden, 10400 Connecticut Ave., Suite 514, Kensington, Md. 20895.