Men & Grief: Staring Down the Eye of the Storm
By Carlos Andrés Gómez
Today is a heavy day – mere hours removed from a scary shooting outside the Empire State Building and news just now coming in of another one just south of Mexico City where my sister lives. Having lost my grandmother less than three weeks ago, it has been a heavy month. Grappling with all of the aforementioned has had me thinking a lot about how men are taught to manage grief and the extreme alienation so many feel as a result. It’s something I unfortunately know all too well.
I’ve been forced to confront a lot of grief in my life. Before I’d graduated high school, I had already lost close friends and family to gun violence, suicide, car accidents, and cancer. On most of those occasions, upon hearing the unexpected and devastating news, my focus quickly shifted from being crushed by the overwhelming grief of losing someone I loved to hastily compartmentalizing that pain and then immediately squelching how I expressed it.
I was fifteen when I heard about my closest childhood friend being killed in a car accident, and I will never forget this tremendous burden I felt to “stay strong” and “tough my way through it.” I didn’t want anyone to know how much I was hurting. I didn’t want to ask for help. I accepted it as a given that I would bottle up all of my emotions and deal with them alone. I took great pride (at the time) in the fact that I excused myself from the table to cry alone in the bathroom after my father told me the news. I never shed one tear in front of my sister and dad, and it somehow felt like undeniable proof that I was finally ready to be a man. I quietly celebrated that moment of shutting myself down emotionally, as though it were an accomplishment. I wore it like a badge of honor that I could conceal the hurricane of emotions in my chest.
Now if only I could not cry at ALL, I thought to myself, Wow, now that would be a real man.
I have watched so many men in life buy into this same misguided and self-destructive narrative. Men who I love and deeply respect, who have talent and gorgeous, epic hearts but drown all the magic they have inside in bottles of Jack Daniels or numb it away with needles or through pipes or with gambling.
I want all of those men to know that the uncontrollable, unplanned storms inside their chests are not only nothing to be afraid of but are, in fact, their greatest gifts to this world. They are the things that must be expressed and shared and, even, celebrated.
At 23 years old in an acting class, I learned a profound life lesson. Not until that moment did I realize the self-destructive pattern I had embraced my entire life.
Our teacher was having each of us get up and do this exercise where we would speak extemporaneously about a person we cared about deeply. He wanted us to introduce and invite that special person into the room.
A guy in my class rose to speak. He had been struggling with these kinds of exercises and seemed to have a hard time opening up, taking risks, and being vulnerable. My teacher had challenged him on multiple occasions to “Let go!” – but he just couldn’t. The power of habit, it seemed, was just too strong.
When he talked it was as if he was reading from a bad script, as his disconnected, carefully controlled tone dragged monotonously through anything he was saying as though it were a grocery list. This time as he spoke, it was no different. He listed off a wide range of observations and uninspired details about his mother, his flat cadence nearly putting me to sleep.
Then the teacher cut him off, challenging and then pushing him to dig deeper, to really connect with what he was saying, who he was talking about –
Imagine your mom is standing next to you. Do you see her? Yeah…? Really?!
Well then, what is she wearing? What does she smell like? Is she sad or smiling or laughing or singing?
Suddenly, I could barely recognize the voice and expression of the man standing in front of me. It was as though his face had burst open with joy and love and tenderness and playfulness and LIFE, as if the curtain had been completely peeled back for all of us to see. A warm, nostalgic smile broke over his face and he even chuckled to himself a few times, recounting memory after memory with his precious mother.
Then, he unexpectedly stifled his inhale mid-breath, seemed to awkwardly cough, paused, looked down, and abruptly retreated from the carefree form of before. He moved back into his original stoic, closed off demeanor and said: “She has cancer.”
You could feel the entire room pulling in towards him, the air sucked out, as if we’d just been given the news about someone we had all loved and known our entire lives.
And then, just as abruptly as he’d shifted his tone, he broke down into sobbing. With his right hand shielding his face, he apologized over and over and over again, as though he had just committed some mortal sin, had failed in some unforgivable way.
“Hey, man,” our teacher said, “it’s okay. You never need to say you’re sorry. Everything you’re feeling right now is your greatest gift to this world. It is the reason we are on this earth. How lucky your mother is to have such a loving son.”
And right there, as those words left my teacher’s mouth and we all got up and put are arms around our classmate, it was the first moment I realized something profound: I had been hiding my face and apologizing for crying my entire life. More than that, much like he had, I was afraid of accepting help or welcoming the comforting arms of a room full of people wanting to be by my side. My sensitivity had always been one of my most shameful attributes. It had been something I had gone to painstaking lengths to conceal from most people I knew. Which helps to explain why I would rarely reach out for comfort or support from those same people when I needed it most.
Something else happened immediately after that realization: I started to take all of that misplaced and unnecessary shame I had felt, over an entire lifetime, and began to convert it into a source of pride. In fact, it was after that day that I did my best artistic work and became a much better version of myself as a man. I took all of my vulnerability and fear and insecurity and converted it into something empowering. I peeled back my curtain, tried my best to remove it altogether, and proudly took ownership of those delicate parts of myself I had always hidden. I wanted to finally share them with the world. My sensitivity and vulnerability became the fuel of everything that meant something in my life: creativity, purpose, connection, and, above all, love.
As the great Jane Eyre quote goes:
“Crying doesn’t indicate that you are weak. Since birth, it has always been a sign that you are alive.”
And now when I do cry, and the storm is overtaking my body, I simply submit, let go, and open up my arms to those around me, fully embracing the depth of those feelings, and leave the tears on my face…like a badge of honor.