New Zealand has one of the highest youth suicide rates in the OECD, with young men having the highest suicide rate, and men being more than two times more likely to die by suicide than women.

This results in scores of youth across the country who are left to cope with the tragedy of losing a friend.

Chris Bowden, who is completing his PhD at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, has spent the last four years exploring how young men experience grief after losing a close friend to suicide.

His research focuses on that transitional period between youth and adulthood. His study included the experiences of men aged 17-25 years.

“I wanted to understand what losing a close friend to suicide was like from their point of view. And the reason I wanted to do that was because I wanted to inform the development of support for young men,” says Chris.

Chris says the results of his project highlighted the theme of silence in men’s grief. Throughout his interviews with participants, Chris found that silence, something we normally associate with negative connotations, was actually key to the grief process for these men.

The men talked about how they struggled to talk to others about their grief, silencing their own emotions and hiding their grief. They spoke about how they sometimes chose to keep quiet, but also how they were silenced by the words, insensitive responses and silence of others. The men chose to break their silence with people who understood their experience and their needs. They also found comfort and made meaning of their loss in silence. Chris says this is why understanding silence in men’s grief is so important. “We need to understand it if we are going to connect with and support them.”

Silence isn’t always negative. “Sometimes people need silence in order to process things and make sense of things,” says Chris. “And people need to show patience while others are grieving… They need to encourage men to talk, but they need to also provide space and silence.”

Chris recently visited Men’s Health Research and UBC and we were able to sit down to discuss his project:

Men’s Health Research: What happens to young men if they don’t grieve or don’t have a way to express their grief?

Chris Bowden: I think all men grieve and experience grief. It’s a natural part of being a human being and experiencing a loss. However, some young men may delay grieving in order to protect themselves and others. They may try to avoid dealing with it because it is overwhelming, or because they are not given time and a space to grieve.

Some men may struggle to express their grief publicly and openly because they fear looking weak, vulnerable and because being emotional is commonly seen as a feminine trait. Some men may prefer to express their grief in private or in ways that enable them to meet gender expectations about how men should grieve.

How people express their grief is also influenced by the ways they generally cope and adapt to stress. There are two common patterns or ways of expressing grief. For example, intuitive grievers tend to experience their grief affectively, invest energy into experiencing emotions and talk about their feelings. Instrumental grievers, on the other hand, tend to experience their grief cognitively, are reluctant to talk about feelings and tend to problem-solve. These patterns are not gender specific and some people have a blended style. However, society tends to expect men to be instrumental and women to be intuitive in how they express their grief. Grief is also dynamic and complex. The experience of grief changes over time and so people may also change the way they express their grief over time.

What I found in the study was that silence was a common and key aspect of how young men experience and express their grief. They tended to be instrumental in how they expressed their grief. At times they felt intense emotions and experienced grief affectively but they tried to control it, bury their emotions by keeping busy, and tried not to show it. They were grieving and dealing with it in a way that kept it private and conformed to traditional masculine norms. This meant they did not talk about or express their grief in ways that we would expect women to grieve.

MHR: Why do you think men tend to lean towards silence?

CB: I think the young men that I interviewed still adhered to those quite traditional gender norms and ideas about masculinity, which suggest that men should be stoic and suppress their emotion. They felt they should keep quiet, control the expression of their emotions and they should be strong for others.

One of the guys said, “We would love to be like girls and just sit around and hug shit out and cry, but we can’t.”

So what they did instead was they drove around in their cars did things they used to do with their friends. Or they played computer games, and Xbox and talked or just spent time with each other. But for them, being inactive, sitting around and feeling sad, or sitting around and talking, wasn’t going to change their situation or their experience. It wasn’t going to bring their friend back and they didn’t think it was going to help them.

Maintaining their code of silence meant they did not appear weak or vulnerable, and were able to protect their masculine status amongst their peers. It also meant they did not appear vulnerable, become objects of pity and were not seen as victims, or treated differently.

Silence also represented an internal space where they could think about their loss and integrate their grief. Taking action enabled them to do something constructive with their grief.

MHR: You mentioned that interventions for this group would be challenging. Why do you think it might be challenging to reach out and have interventions that are successful?

CB: Not all people bereaved by suicide require professional intervention or formal support and men are traditionally less likely to seek help. I do think support and outreach is important and needs to be provided over time in ways that are male-friendly.

Certainly the message that the men gave me in the research was that there were times that they did want to be left alone, to think about and make sense of their loss experience and they didn’t want to talk about it. That was usually early on but that was usually when people tended to talk to them and try and offer support.

Later on when they were ready or willing to talk—even within a month or a couple of months, and certainly by six months—people stopped offering support and people stopped talking about their friend. So it was almost like the permission to talk about their friend and about their grief was taken away. They were being silenced by others.

Outreach or support also needs to be meaningful. It needs to provide men with useful and practical information about grief, such as how to manage overwhelming emotions, and how to look after themselves and others. Men also need opportunities to connect with others who know what their experience is like, so they can share and learn from them. They also could benefit from opportunities to express their grief in non-traditional and active ways that enable them to do something constructive with their grief. Talking was not always what they wanted, so if somebody was to offer them counselling six months later they probably still wouldn’t take it up. What they wanted was some help to solve problems—problems they’d experienced since their bereavement.

MHR: What are the next steps for you and your research?

CB: I talked to the men about how they wanted this to make a difference. This research needs to start a conversation and be used in a way that is going to help people.

I think there are a couple things for me that are on the cards. One is to share and disseminate some of the findings to mental health professionals and those that are working with young men—to try to help them understand what it is like for men to lose friends to suicide. This might help them better connect with their clients and understand their needs.

I’ve promised the participants that I was going to do a public lecture where I present the findings. They want to come along to that and be a part of that because this is about them, they want to own it, and their experience. It is about honouring their stories, the friends they lost and their courage for sharing their experience with others.

And we are having a conversation about how we might turn this into a resource for other young men and what that might look like. Part of the reason they volunteered for the study was because they wanted to help other young men understand that they are not alone and they can survive this loss. They also want friends, families and professionals to understand what it is like from their point of view. Finally they wanted to prevent further suicides in young men by showing them the harsh reality of what suicide does to people.

Long-term I think I’d like to replicate the study on a larger scale with a more diverse population and continue to work with young men who have been bereaved. ♦