Male grief: How to cope and where to seek help

Ricky Gervais' hit Netflix series After Life explores male grief. (Netflix)
Ricky Gervais' hit Netflix series After Life explores male grief. (Netflix)

Words by Gavin Newsham.

As the third and final season of After Life enjoys number one ratings on Netflix, the tale of widower Tony Johnson and his ongoing battle to deal with the death of his wife Lisa continues to tackle some of the more difficult issues associated with the passing of a loved one.

The show’s creator Ricky Gervais said that After Life “asked the big question: if you lose everything, is life still worth living? And the answer is yes. You just have to find something to do.”

A man’s experience of grief can often differ markedly to that of a woman. Typically, women will prefer to talk through their loss with friends and family while men tend to tackle it though thoughts and acts. And while that often means the grieving process takes longer, as it does with Tony in After Life, it still means that some kind of satisfactory resolution can eventually be found.

Watch: Ricky Gervais' 'After Life' Trailer

Read more: 'There's no instruction manual' - How to cope with grief

Philip Karahassan is a psychotherapist and psychologist and a member of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. He believes that society’s tendency to look more virtuously on women’s seemingly innate ability to recognise and express their emotions actually makes it more difficult for men to open up and tackle their grief, however unintentionally. And often, that can lead to bad decision-making.

“That lack of expression can make us look for other ways to deal with grief such as destructive behaviours, just in order to defer feeling any grief,” Karahassan explains. “This can range from rage and anger to substance abuse. It can feel like it is working in the short term but leads to destructive habits and a build-up of hard to deal with emotions.”

It’s why men are more prone to deal with grief in isolation or in silence, or why they choose to lose themselves in distractions like work or even new relationships, even if they’re not quite ready for them yet.

“You have to discuss it with others,” adds Karahassan. “Just by vocalising what you are feeling, both good and bad, it allows you to contextualise the emotions whilst giving you a fresh perspective.”

Kerry Goldliman and Rickey Gervais in After Life. (Netflix)
Kerry Goldliman and Rickey Gervais in After Life. (Netflix) (Ray Burmiston)

Read more: The pandemic has changed how we talk about grief

Not only are grieving men at greater risk of dying earlier than those who aren’t grieving, largely because a lack of self-care and the build-up of internalised stress leaving them open to other illnesses and ailments, but there is even research showing that men are more likely to take their own lives than women if their spouse or partner passes away.

The fact that men tend to have smaller social networks than women also compounds matters. Not only are there fewer people for them to talk to if they do decide to open up about their feelings but there are also fewer friends around to help them make better choices about their own health and welfare as they try to come to terms with their loss. And that, says Karahassan, is key to tackling grief.

“Find someone to trust,” he says. “Grief can be a lonely place so find someone that you feel comfortable talking to so that you can find comfort and express your emotions.”

It needn’t be a friend or a family member. Bereavement counsellors such as those registered with the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy can offer a safe space where you can talk freely about your loss and begin to normalise the feelings you’re experiencing.

Since the COVID pandemic struck in 2020, moreover, the way we all cope with death, and grief, has also changed. For many people who lost loved ones over the last two years, restrictions have meant that they were unable to see them before they died or attend their funerals which, in turn, affected the way they could grieve. For men, often taught from a young age to never show vulnerability and maintain a stiff upper lip when it comes to dealing with times of crisis, it’s made a trying situation even more traumatic.

But, as Karahassan explains, the secret in coming to terms with loss is accepting that some days will be better than others as you work your way through the grieving process and what works for one person may not necessarily work for another.

“Don't beat yourself up,” he advises. “It can get really lonely as you feel you should be able to do it on your own. Everyone relates to grief differently, therefore understand what you need. This will help you to deal with your emotions and get your needs met in a constructive, rather than damaging way.

Grief is a unique experience, bringing with it a rush of new emotions you might never have encountered before and, for men, that also means having to confront feelings that they would often rather not. It also means adjusting to a new life, one without your loved one but with time and lots of talking you can find hope in the tragedy and trauma that surrounds you.

And “hope,” as Tony concludes in After Life, “is everything.”

For more information about how counselling can help with bereavement, visit the British Association for Counselling and Therapy. You can find a therapist here.

Watch: Meat Loaf's wife suffering 'gut-wrenching' grief