In my thirty something years on this planet, I’ve never seen my father cry. I think part of me assumed for a really long time that men simply just didn’t feel things as intensely as women did, which of course is not true at all. As a society, men are pressured from the get-go to bottle up any sort of sadness or grief, hammer it down, force it inward. The very word “man up” sums it up: outward signs of sadness are feminine, wussy, and will get you devoured.
I don’t think it’s inherently this way. My seven year old son wears his heart on his sleeve: laughter, tears, frustration, the opposite of stoicism. I look at him, going through his first boot camp experience with a Marine for a football coach and see it beginning already, the pressure to stuff it all down. I feel sad about that, which as a woman is perfectly socially acceptable to express.
My job puts me in a unique position of guiding a lot of men and women during a really rotten time. When it comes to losing a pet, I’ve seen it all in terms of reactions. Everyone is different, and no one can really predict how they are going to react until they are in the situation. I honestly think the intensity of the experience takes a lot of men by surprise (women too, but they seem to be more comfortable experiencing it). Then, when the time comes, they are so worried about being embarrassed in front of me that they feel they can’t express what they are feeling and just be in the moment with their beloved companion.
I’m not a psychologist, just someone who has tried to learn what I can to make a hard time just a little bit easier. So, with a combination of my own experience and my research into how grief works, here is my completely unscientific Dude’s Guide to Losing a Pet.
If you are a guy who is losing a pet
1. I swear, pinky swear, that I will not think less of you for crying/cursing a lot/wearing sunglasses for the whole appointment.
I once had a soldier, in uniform, come running into the office with his dog in his arms. When his beloved companion died, he cried, and I had to choke back a few tears myself as he told me about what his dog had helped him through when he returned from Afghanistan. He is about as tough as it gets, and I am SO GLAD he allowed himself to experience that moment, even if it only lasted a minute. He’s still a badass, by the way.
2. You may not expect it to hit you as hard as it does, and that’s OK.
That’s one thing I’ve noticed, and it’s not every time, but I’ve had many men (and some women too, but less often) say to me “I just didn’t know it would hurt this much.” You are not alone in that. All it means is that you didn’t realize how big your heart is.
3. There is no one right way to grieve.
I think many people have this expectation: you either grieve by reading Rainbow Bridge over and over while sobbing over pictures of your pet (this is my way of doing it) or you don’t grieve at all. And it just doesn’t work that way, does it? Some people need to talk about their pet, write blog posts and seek support from others. Others need to keep a tag that they touch in passing here and there but prefer not to talk. Some people like to go to the beach and think. And others like to smack a punching bag around.
When my grandfather passed away, my father became the busiest bee I’ve ever seen. He did not cry, but he lifted furniture, drove people back and forth to the airport all week, grocery shopped, swept, refilled everyone’s drinks. He became the Uber Host. I am told by people who know better than I that this need to have something to do is a very normal grief response. So if you find yourself suddenly needing to refinish the floors after your dog passes, go for it.
If you know a guy who is losing a pet
1. Offer to be there when the time comes.
When I go to a home visit, often the person is alone signing paperwork, and while they are sitting there pondering how sad they are, a friend will pop in. “Oh, not yet?” they say. “Should I go?” And every single time, the person says, “Please stay.”
He may not ask for you to be there, but I have seen the shoulders relax when you arrive. Offer to come. It stinks to go through it alone- which I had to do with Kekoa, because my husband had to leave with the kids.
2. A simple “This is the right decision” means more from you than it does from me.
And for whatever reason going out for a beer afterwards is a common thing as well, if you’re a beer person. When my husband’s BFF Kevin died, his friends went straight from the ICU to Kevin’s favorite Mexican restaurant and had a margarita in his honor. (I, on the other hand, was unfit to be seen in public for days.)
3. If I catch you doing the “buck up! It’s just a dog” talk I will hunt you down.
If a guy trusts you enough to share his grief, for the love of Pete please don’t minimize it and reinforce every stereotype out there about bottling up sadness. Give a pat on the back, an “I’m sorry,” the aforementioned beer run, charge up the Xbox, whatever you want as long as it’s not that.
I’m not a pro grief counselor by any means, just a vet who tries to be somewhat sensitive to people’s differences in a rough time. I’ve seen a lot of talks about pet loss but they all seem geared towards people like me who already kind of know we’re going to be a hot mess and are OK with it, but my work lately has really got me thinking about all the amazing, animal loving guys who seem to get left to their own devices. If I’ve missed something helpful, please do share- I’m always looking for ways to be a better support.