On Grief and Masculinity

Fighting expectations and building truth 

Hassan Merali // Contributor 

“You’re the man of the house now.”  

When my grandfather died in January, hearing those words again made my blood boil. The first time I’d heard them was when my dad died. He was a healthy (or so we thought) man, approaching 44, and had a massive heart attack out of the blue. Everybody—family, friends, members of the community, men and women—said the same thing. But I wasn’t actually a man. I was 10-years-old. I am, however, a male, and with that comes expectations of strength, stoicism and resilience.  

I’ll never know how my mom moved us back to Vancouver and started a new career as the sole breadwinner for two young children all on her own. She was the one actually taking care of our family, which makes sense. She was the adult, the parent. I was told that I was the “man of the house” though, which ostensibly carried with it different duties. What were they expecting me to do? Hunt? Chop firewood? Use physical force to protect my mom and sister from robbers, or deviants? I’m sure no one meant that, but it’s the implicit directives in “man of the house” that inform our understanding of the phrase. It means you should be “manly,” and in the context of grief, that means not showing emotion. Which brings me to the other bullshit phrase that was said to me over and over after both my dad’s and grandpa’s deaths.  

“You’ve got to be strong for your mom and your sister, ok?” Strong didn’t mean anyone expected me to start lifting weights. In this case, strong means “don’t cry.” People accept when women cry, and expect them to. Men, however, are supposed to be “stronger” than that; to be above such bodily functions. In North American culture, crying is seen as the ultimate weakness, and coincidentally, associated with femininity.  

Speaking from personal experience, I know the opposite is true. If you feel like crying but try to hold back, to me that is the biggest form of weakness because it means you aren’t willing to admit to yourself that you’re vulnerable. I understand why people bottle it up; for years I tried to hold back the emotions I was feeling from my dad’s untimely death. It wasn’t until I turned 14 that I let myself cry and confront what had happened. All of the trauma came pouring out—and with it, freedom. Freedom from having to hold back. Freedom from hiding what I was feeling, of not telling people what I was thinking. But most of all, the freedom from not being honest with myself. It resolved a dissonance within me that was holding me back from being a single, unified whole. That I bottled up my emotions in an effort to be strong reflects the way we expect men to deal not just with grief, but with any of their emotions. It’s the most toxic gender norm in our society. This expectation that men don’t cry, that men are strong (read: emotionless), that men can’t or shouldn’t be vulnerable—affects people of all genders. Women and LGBTQ2S+ people try to bottle up their emotions to seem strong.  There’s a tendency to associate emotion with femininity, and by extension, femininity with weakness.  

When I see someone avoiding their emotions now, I understand it for what it really is: denial. Denial of the depth of your emotion. Denial of the gravity of your loss. Denial is an understandable thing to go through, but not an acceptable thing to prolong. Denial cripples you, and prevents you from accepting reality. When I see people crying, however, I see people embracing the pain that’s already present in their hearts but hasn’t been accepted by their minds. Embracing that pain is accepting what has happened. Allowing ourselves to feel a range of emotions builds resilience. I’ve been crying a lot lately after losing my grandpa. I was extremely close with him and loved more than almost anyone else. But unlike the last time I lost someone this close to me, instead of changing myself to fit within the confines of masculinity, I’m changing masculinity to fit within me.  

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