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A Father's Journal > Columns > A Father's Journal Index

On Jeff's Death: Men & Grief
by Forrest Seymour

Already, though September's only begun, some of our maples are edged in orange and gold, a few leaves dancing in the streets. Fall comes early to our corner of northern New England. Despite the unseasonable hot weather, the trees know that winter's coming.

It has been only two weeks since I learned that Jeff had died. Even so, it is hard sometimes to remember to mourn; or to remember that the inner disturbance I keenly feel is simply grief, and not something else more mysterious. Taking in Jeff's death is a reminder of how poorly I have learned, as a man, to grieve.

One advantage to the warm weather is the excuse it provides for gathering at the ice cream shop in the evenings. We've taken to riding our new set of bicycles there (as if this justifies the calories), Jakey in the child seat behind Nancy, and Emily on the tag-a-long behind me.

The other night another cyclist arrived on a bike of identical make and model as mine, a fairly unusual hybrid city bike. Emily and Nancy enjoyed this coincidence, and I did too, but as I and the owner of my bike's twin met at the bike rack, neither of us acknowledged the minor serendipity of the situation. It was as if we colluded to undermine the coincidental joy of the moment, agreeing in the briefest of eye contact that men don't care about such silly things.

I regret this collusion, but I am very familiar with it. As I feel the loss of Jeff, a father-like figure to me, my therapist, mentor, colleague and friend, I begin to understand some of the distance I feel between my father and myself.

Dr. William Pollack, Director of the Center for Men at McLean Hospital and author of "Real Boys" and "Real Boys' Voices," who has well earned a reputation as an expert on boys' and men's mental health, notes our society's expectation that boys separate from their parents emotionally. It is a part of what he calls the Boy Code, the strictures that tell us that boys don't cry, etc., and he notes the first signs of this emotional disconnection in some of the earliest interactions between infant boys and their parents.

Despite the severe fallout from this disconnection that Pollack explores, I think I can see at least a part of why we do it. It has to do with a fear of death. Not our own, perhaps, but of those we love. As I experience the loss of my surrogate father Jeff, I realize that I feel some relief that my real father and I are so distant. It is as if he and I have been planning for his death for 20 years. And I realize I don't totally regret this preparation. I'd rather not feel the pain I do today again, thank-you very much.

Of course the physical and emotional distance between my father and myself is no real protection against grief. In fact, a good argument could be made that this distance only adds to grief. But like many of our strategies to cope with life, this one's flaws aren't necessarily enough to stop me from relying on it, especially when the alternative is too tangibly painful.

Pollack locates the beginnings of this misguided strategy of separation in our earliest experiences of disconnection, when our parents decline to share in our infant emotions, the outrage, anger, sadness so regularly experienced by babies. It is indeed exhausting to be "with" a baby as it lives the typically roller coaster emotions of its day. I can see why we avoid these feelings, especially if we aren't quite sure what to do with them in ourselves. Yet Pollack would argue that the infant needs its parents to mirror and respect its emotions in order for the baby to come to know and understand who it is and how it feels.

I wonder if Pollack grasps just how radical his denunciation of this Boy Code is. To loosen the strictures of emotion regulation in our communities suggests the need to tolerate all sorts of emotional expression we typically confine to the privacy of our own homes and bedrooms, psych ward and prisons. I agree with Pollack that this societal dampening of boys' feelings has a direction connection to boys' high levels of violence, alcohol use and depression, but I wonder if we're ready for the alternative.

Ultimately I believe that the purpose of the Boy Code is to teach men the skills necessary to fight wars; wars on the battlefield, on the athletic field, and in the business world. It is the code by which the vast wealth of our world is kept in the hands of the few. Without the Boy Code we might become a more pacifistic and egalitarian, less competitive and capitalistic society. Heavens!

Thankfully, Pollack doesn't seem to worry about these long term consequences; he is focused on enlightening us to the damage done to each boy (and girl) in our culture by the strictures of the Boy Code, and helping families and schools learn how to combat it. His writings and stories are moving and inspirational, full of examples of individual and community successes at healing and raising thoughtful, kind young men.

Ironically, I can feel the Boy Code in me now, urging my care in how much emotion I dare let spill from my pen. Will people still love me if I show my heart, or will they pull away in disgust or confusion as I bend or break this code?

From within my grief I can see that what I desire, what I need, is the same gift I try to give my son. I try to be there, hear his contorted wordless cries when things just aren't right. To accept that this pain he feels, no matter how illogical (when he can't have that thing he wants with all his heart, when he can't have his mother because she's out, when he can't be in my arms because my back hurts and I've got to fix dinner), this is his version of pain, is as real as pain gets for him.

It hurts to be with him at these times, but I think it is worth it. Remarkably, in the midst of his pain, and my grief, there are moments when this toddler boy spontaneously hugs me, give me a kiss, unconsciously repays some of the empathy I try to give him. The emotion of these surprise moments is almost overwhelming. Maybe this is why I collude a the ice cream shop to ignore the unexpected.

Certainly death is about the unexpected, unexpected loss, unexpected emotions, unexpected needs. My son, with his volatile emotions, is teaching me a new way to be with my pain, and i seek to learn how to simply be with him. Together we're rewriting the Boy Code, and it hurts.

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