Michael Palin says he felt ‘lopsided’ after death of his wife: How to cope with male grief

Sir Michael Palin, pictured, has opened up about his grief following the death of his wife, Helen. (Getty Images)
Sir Michael Palin has opened up about his grief following the death of his wife, Helen. (Getty Images)
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Words by Gavin Newsham.

Sir Michael Palin has opened up about grief, explaining how he felt "lopsided" and without a "rudder" after the death of his wife Helen Gibbins.

The Monty Python star, 80, shared in May that his wife of 57 years had died after suffering from chronic pain and kidney failure.

The couple met when he was still a teenager and Sir Michael described her as "the bedrock of my life".

Speaking on Rob Brydon’s Wondery podcast Brydon &, Sir Michael said: "We were together for a very long time. We were married for 57 years and I met her before that so more than two thirds of my life was spent with her. And so you form a kind of unit.

"You don’t realise that until someone’s gone and then it’s slightly lopsided, like something tips over, and your rudder goes.

"You end up thinking it was just me but I need my partner there to sort of keep me on the straight and narrow.

"It’s not the great things that you’ve said, very often a lot of things that are unsaid because if you know somebody really, really well, you don’t have to sort of analyse everything or say everything, you just know the way they will feel. So I had to get adjusted to that."

Read more: Should we be scheduling our grief like Shiv from Succession? (Yahoo Life UK, 7-min read)

Michael Palin, pictured with his wife Helen in 2015. (Getty Images)
Michael Palin was married to his wife, Helen, for 57 years. (Getty Images)

The gender grief gap

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, it still means that some kind of satisfactory resolution can eventually be found.

Philip Karahassan, a psychotherapist and psychologist, 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."

Watch: Michael Palin unveils 'sincere' reaction from Monty Python co-stars after wife Helen's death

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."

Read more: 'There's no instruction manual' - How to cope with grief (Yahoo Life UK, 7-min read)

Experts say men and women cope with grief in different ways. (Getty Images)
Experts say men and women cope with grief in different ways. (Getty Images)

How to cope with male 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 sobering 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 encourage 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.

Another important step 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.

Read more: Why running is good for grief (Yahoo Life UK, 5-min read)

It's important to reach out for help when going through the grieving process. (Getty Images)
It's important to reach out for help when going through the grieving process. (Getty Images)

It is also worth remembering that what works for one person may not necessarily work for another.

"Everyone relates to grief differently, therefore it's important to try to understand what you need," Karahassan explains. "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.

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

Additional reporting PA.