It’s no secret that a large proportion of men feel uncomfortable or unable to show emotion, even in front of those they love.
But when it comes to grief, whether it’s around divorce or bereavement, the unspoken equation of ‘being a man = being silent’ comes at a hefty price.
Graham Edgington contemplated taking his own life after his wife Jennifer died in a “horrendous car accident” in 1985. Her death left him broken, raising their 16-month-old son alone.
“I think I would have ended it had I not had James,” he told HuffPost UK. “I was in a very dark place and couldn’t see any way forward.”
After growing up and witnessing firsthand how his father struggled, James, now 33, launched a charity with the help of his dad, offering support to young widowers and their children.
To this day, The Jennifer Charity has helped hundreds of men come to terms with their emotions and seek support after losing a loved one. In some cases, it may have even saved lives.
For men, the grieving process can be incredibly difficult to navigate and, often, they don’t seek the support they so desperately need - resulting in damaging decisions being made.
A large-scale study of suicide trends between 1982-2005 in England and Wales found that suicide rates among widowed men aged 45-74 were much higher than that of widowed females.
Graham, 60, said that following Jennifer’s death, he didn’t really have the chance to grieve. Instead, he threw himself into working full-time while raising a very small child.
Occasionally, when he heard his son crying out for his mum at night, he would sit on the stairs outside and allow himself time to quietly sob. Now, he recognises that those tiny snippets of sadness were not enough.
“It probably took me between 20 and 25 years to admit to myself that I hadn’t grieved properly,” he said.
Graham added that the 1980s was a particularly troublesome time to be a single father: “Society was against men at that stage, it was strange for men to be single parents. In fact, the social services arrived with adoption papers for James not long after Jennifer died.
“Thankfully I was strong enough to say ‘no’ to them, but there was a lot of societal pressure to give him up.”
Divorce is another issue which affects men greatly. A study by researchers at the University of California found that divorced men were twice as likely to take their own lives compared to married men.
When Mark Bowness’ ex-wife left him, he attempted suicide. “At the age of 26 my wife had walked out the door on our three year marriage,” he wrote in a blog post on The Huffington Post UK.
“As I sat in our apartment surrounded by the life that we had built together my thoughts turned to a dark bleak future that I did not want to face. In a severe state of depression I turned to Google and typed in the search term, ‘most painless and quickest way to die’.
“I will never forget waking up in hospital the next morning with a dark cloud over my head re-calling the events of the day before. Less than 24 hours earlier I had been at my darkest place, I had tried to wipe my existence off the face of the planet.”
For men like Mark and Graham, the loss of such an important person in their lives, whether through separation or death, can become almost too much to bear. In these moments they need support, but it is often hard come by.
Graham said that following the death of Jennifer there was no assistance for men like him. And it’s something he believes is still an issue today.
“Men don’t have networks or support groups, and are often very isolated,” he said. “Men will struggle. I was one of them. I was strong, I had family around me, but it didn’t necessarily help.”
While Graham didn’t feel like he had access to the support he so desperately needed, there are also cases where men simply don’t ask for help. Charity Widowed and Young (WAY) said their membership is made up of 75% women and 25% men. So why are so few widowers seeking support?
Stuart Scarbrough, a WAY trustee, said: “People might think the term widow solely refers to women, not men, which makes them less likely to join. They also might be too scared to join, because it’s them actively saying they need help.”
Stuart, 35, heard about WAY after his wife Katie died from bowel cancer. But he didn’t join immediately. “I think I was trying to carry on with life and I thought I didn’t need help and was possibly a bit unsure about whether I needed help,” he explained.
“You try and carry on with life, especially with children, in order to keep normality.
“It’s difficult because a lot of guys are breadwinners, but it’s important to realise there’s more to life than work. Your priorities change.”
Benjamin Brooks-Dutton’s wife Desreen was killed in 2012 after an elderly man confused the accelerator and brake pedals of his car and ran into her. Ben believes there are a number of reasons why men don’t seek help, but said it’s predominantly because they aren’t brought up to show emotion.
“Men are often told they have to be strong and ‘man up’, and a lot of that means not talking about their feelings,” said Ben, who set up the blog ‘Life As A Widower’ to help him deal with his grief.
“You see a little boy fall over in the park and their parents will say, ‘Don’t cry, pick yourself up’. We are conditioned to not face and express our feelings, so when something terrible happens this behaviour continues.”
Following Desreen’s death, Ben grieved privately and tried desperately to hide his emotions in front of his son, Jackson, who is now six years old. “I needed to be strong but exhausted myself by trying to keep him happy,” he said. “Then I’d go to my room at night and it would all come out.”
One day, Ben left Jackson with his maternal grandmother and when he came to pick up his son at the end of the day, he was shocked to find that Jackson had been chatting to his grandma - not about the death of his mum and how much he missed her, but about his dad and how visibly sad he was.
“He had reached out, held a picture of me and said, ‘Poor Daddy’,” Ben recalled. “He knew I was sad. He knew what I was going through and knew I was hiding it. But he had that conversation with my mother-in-law instead of me. I thought, ‘I need to change and grieve with him’.”
Ben said that being able to grieve with his son has been an important part of his journey. And this is a belief that Elliot Choueka, who lost his wife Rosie to secondary breast cancer in 2015, echoes.
Elliot said there have been times when the loss of his wife has been so overwhelming that all he could do was cry or scream at the top of his voice. But during these deepest, darkest moments, it was the prospect of caring for his children that helped him through it.
“Knowing that my children depend entirely on me now is enough to make me pull myself together and carry on,” he said.
“And that’s still the case now. In my life, just as with anyone else’s, there continue to be challenges which frankly make me want to curl up in a ball and tell the world to go away. But when you’re a single dad you just can’t do that. That’s got to be a good thing.”
Ben said another way in which he sought out support after Desreen’s death was through a private group of 150 widowers, all of whom regularly open up about their experiences and even go on holiday together.
“In Easter, 12 of us went away with our kids for the weekend. It was really nice, we can talk openly about what life is like,” he explained. “Then the kids can get on with it knowing they’re not the only ones who have lost a parent.”
Ben said this group of people, whose lives are all inextricably linked by widowhood, has been fundamental in helping him cope with his grief.
“Women are more comfortable being open with one another, they may turn easily to friends they already have and make communities and be supportive,” he said. “But with men, our needs are different. I like that I can go into the group, make a joke, have a laugh but also talk about my awful problems.”
While humour has been a key part of Ben’s journey, that’s not to say everything has been an easy ride. The now 37-year-old hit an all-time low after the court case surrounding his wife’s death came to a close.
“There’s was a period of depression where it was really hard to get out of bed in the morning,” he said.
“I was very productive in my grief during the early stages after her death. It’s quite common actually, people tend to be almost hyper at that stage.
“But after the court case, it was awful. I realised it still hadn’t made any difference and she still wasn’t coming back.
“Jackson was telling me: ‘I need you.’ So I went and got some help, I talked to the doctor and said, ‘I really need to find a way to pick myself up’.”
Ben attended counselling sessions, which he admitted was mainly for Jackson’s sake. “We protect our kids from things but actually we need to be open to them,” he said. “Shielding kids isn’t healthy. One counsellor basically said that the sooner Jackson discovers life is disappointing, the better off he’ll be.”
Elliot also sought support for himself and his children through the charities Chai Cancer Care and Grief Encounter. “Their counsellors have helped and continue to help us to deal with and readjust to Rosie’s death,” he said.
“My friends and family have also been unbelievably amazing throughout. They still are. From the moment Rosie received her primary diagnosis in June 2014, secondary diagnosis in November 2014, her final days with us, her death and the time since she left us, we’ve had unwavering support.”
For Ben, friends and family have played an important part in helping him while he has grieved, but he added that sometimes what loved ones believe is helpful advice can also turn out to be quite harmful.
“Your mates will say, ‘You need to be strong for your son’,” he said. “But you’re at your weakest and people are there giving you this advice and these recommendations on how to behave. It gradually gets bottled up and results in men feeling alone because they just can’t cope.”
The Jennifer Charity acts as a way to help men un-bottle these emotions in an informal, less pressured environment. James, a vocalist, and Graham, a consultant psychologist, answer phone calls, respond to messages and help fundraise money, which is then channeled into projects supporting widowers and their families.
“We put things in place for people or just stay in contact,” explained James. “It’s not a case of wanting to sit in a group or socialise - because you haven’t got time and it’s often not a thing men want to do.
“It’s important that these men are constantly spoken to as human beings while also being reassured that they are doing the right thing.”
While their outfit is only small-scale right now, the pair have big plans for the future, including raising funds to one day open a respite centre for grieving families.
When asked what his wife would think of the charity and how far it’s come, Graham’s voice wavered. “She’d be thrilled,” he said, before starting to cry. “She would be so, so proud of James and really pleased that we’ve made this journey together.”
“I loved her dearly,” he added softly.
Even 30 years after Jennifer’s death, Graham is still mourning his loss. But he’s bravely shown that conveying emotion and talking about it is okay - and surely that’s what it means to be a man in 2017.
Useful websites and helplines:
- Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393
- Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill.)
- Jennifer Charity offers support to widowers and their children. Call 01204 361723 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Widowed and Young is a peer-to-peer support group run by a network of volunteers who have been bereaved at a young age. Register to become a member here: email@example.com. Membership costs £25 a year.
- Grief Encounter provides support for bereaved children and their families. Call 020 8371 8455.