But let us turn the chess board around and watch this interaction from the other side. My friend (spouse, brother, etc.) just mentioned something in a way that seemed like he was looking for feedback…maybe. I don’t know. He said it without any emotion so it must not really be a big deal. So I make some comment that is non-committal and move on. That didn’t seem to bother him, so I guess it was no big deal. Emotional chicken – let’s see who flinches and shows some emotion first. But this highlights the truth that we’re wired to search for emotion in others as an indication of how to respond to them and that our emotions are neutral – not bad or good (in the sense of there are no “bad” ones or “good” ones), they just are.
We men have grown up in a confusing time. Many of us have had fathers who were emotionally distant and cut off from their own emotions, providing us with a template for being a man that looked pretty emotionless. God only knows how many of our fathers grew up hearing that “crying is for girls” and the like. To be a man is to be strong, and to be strong is to be a rock, emotionless, imperturbable…unless it means to display anger. Don’t let anyone get a rise out of you, and – this above all – whatever you do, do NOT cry.
But what do you do when your daughter dies? Yesterday was the 5th anniversary of burying Gianna Rose in a small, back corner of the Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Maryland. It was a rainy day and it felt unreal. I still remember the drive up the GW Parkway from Arlington, VA. It had been a week since we had washed her cold, lifeless little body in a hospital room before they wheeled her to the hospital morgue. We had gotten into our little white Corolla with an empty car seat in the back – the cruel gut-punch that you yourself set up days before and still didn’t see coming – and driven home to our apartment that had been mercifully cleaned of all the baby furniture, clothing, etc. by my parents and mother-in-law. The week leading up to the funeral was numb, unreal, zombie-like. What the fuck had just happened?! We made funeral arrangements (something every parent just dreams of doing), arranged the program, designed the memorial card, cried, and went to bed every night with a raw, gaping wound in our hearts and lives.
The funeral was simple. (Beautiful? What the hell is a beautiful funeral?) We did our best to hold it together, although I wish I would have just let myself mourn. As in break down, “ugly” cry, “lose it” – whatever you want to call it. Gianna deserved that. Sometimes I wonder how people think about the father who loses a child. Naturally, he’s sad, but, more than that? Could he really feel that deeply? Of course, we’re back to the game of emotional chicken. I know, because I played that game for a long time.
There was a moment after Gianna was born and I realized what had happened to her that I felt this strange sense of…I don’t know what to call it, but the best I can do is relief. It was a relief that was almost like joy. I felt so awful about this feeling because I could not understand what was happening to me. Was I a masochist? Did I enjoy this pain? It sickened me. It was years later, when I finally found a good therapist, that I finally realized that the relief was about finally experiencing something so big, so undeniably impactful and tragic, that I felt my emotions would finally matter. Now I could cry, mourn, break down, lose it… Except I couldn’t. No, I had to “stay strong” for Amy and “keep the faith,” and countless other clichés, truisms, or platitudes that we tell ourselves, as if letting some emotion out would be weakness, letting Amy down, or losing faith.
So, here I am, 5 years later, and experiencing perhaps the most intense grief of any of the previous anniversaries. I walked through the days, more aware, hour-by-hour, of where we were 5 years ago. What would she look like as a 5-year-old? What would be her personality be like? Her voice? We never heard her cry, she never opened her eyes. She’s never seen us… It’s not that I haven’t thought of these things before, but perhaps I haven’t let myself really feel these things. I’ve been angry, but I’m even more angry this year, thinking about the overwhelming magnitude of what was stolen from us by someone else’s fuck-up. I’ve been sad, but I haven’t let myself feel I don’t know if I can go on with this sad. I’ve thought of her, but maybe I haven’t let her be as close to my heart. What a strange journey. Why does emotion cause so much discomfort? In ourselves and others? Grief thrusts a person through all those emotions. And that is the terrible gift of grief – to confront those parts of me that I perhaps never would have confronted on my own, at least to the depths that I am now. To be more woundedly whole, more human, more real. So, to the men reading this: it takes real courage to feel what you feel and even more to express it to someone close to you. The idea of manhood as having to suppress emotion, doubt what you feel, filter everything through your head, always be in control… is bullshit. I truly hope you don’t have to grieve like I am to get there, but know that it is worth the pain. Keep it real, bro.