When Your Friends Are Hurting: On Men And Grief

If there is anything that makes us more uncomfortable than grief itself, I think it might be grief and men. This experience has made me super aware of how much men grieve too, and how much there isn’t always a place for them to do that. It has made me want to scream, “don’t forget about the guys!” a time or two. I am so excited that Dustin decided to join in the conversation and share his side of the story and his experience with grief and loss. So we’re closing out our “When Your Friends Are Hurting” series today with this one. If you missed any of the others, check them out here. [adoption loss, miscarriages, divorce, and losing your mom to cancer] I am so grateful to the friends who were willing to be a part of this. Thank you for letting us hold on to and share your stories. Let’s keep these kinds of conversations going. They’re so good and so important. Deal?

On Monday, March 24, I woke up expecting to Skype with both Courtney and our son for the first time ever.  Courtney went to Uganda a few weeks early, so I was still at home in Nashville.  For several days, Courtney was only able to go visit JT at the orphanage for a few hours a day, but on that Monday, JT was going to be able to leave the oprphange and go stay with Courtney.  Each day leading up to that Monday, Courtney would send me pictures or videos, and I was so excited about getting to talk to him on Skype for the first time.

When I woke up on Monday, I checked my phone and pulled up several emails and messages from Courtney, and I immediately knew something was wrong.  After several attempts, we were finally able to Skype, but JT was not there.  As I sat and ate my cereal, I listened to Courtney explain the situation – something happened, and we would not be able to adopt JT. Seeing Courtney cry through the bad Skype connection was gut-wrenching.  Knowing that Courtney was 7,800 miles away and had to handle all of this alone destroyed me.

Once the conversation was over, I finished getting ready for the day and went to work.  I have learned, in recent years, the art of compartmentalizing my emotions.  My daily life and all of the good things exist in one compartment, while pain, anger, regret, fear, sadness, negativity, hurt, and loss each have their own compartments.  Life goes on, and everything runs smoothly as long as everything stays in its rightful spot.  As I drove to work, I struggled to find a compartment to put this news about JT, because walking into work with tears running down my cheeks would be embarrassing.  For the first few hours, I managed to hold myself together.  Then Courtney and I Skyped again during my lunch break, and I started to realize that it was going to be impossible to bottle up all of my emotions.

I managed to hold myself together until I returned home.  JT’s room had everything in its rightful place – the toys, books, bright colored sheets, and clothes.  Everything was ready to welcome this little guy into our home and our lives.  After eating half a bag of Santita’s corn chips, a gallon of salsa, and a few slices of pizza (with the help of an adult beverage or two), I went into JT’s room.  I sat down in the rocking chair by his bed, pulled out my phone, and watched the video of JT saying “Hi, Daddy!” and “I love you, Daddy!”  Cue the waterworks.  I was flooded with sadness, and I busted out in one of those ugly-cries girls always tweet about when they are watching “Parenthood.”

On several occasions throughout the following weeks, those fits would hit me at work, so I had to escape to a stall in the bathroom or go sit in my car until my eyes were no longer red and watery.  At least once a day, I still think of JT and wonder what he is doing, and I can feel the tears starting to well up.  Father’s Day at church was especially (and surprisingly) difficult to bear.  The preacher asked all of the fathers to stand, and as he prayed for them, I had to look up at the ceiling to keep the tears from falling down my face and puddling on the floor.

Courtney and I faced the same troubling experience in two very different ways.  She was there.  She met him, talked to him, hugged him, kissed him, and ultimately had to say “Good-bye” to him.  I only saw pictures and a couple of videos, but this feeling of emptiness will always be with me. It was heartbreaking having to pick her up from the airport a few days after we learned we could not adopt JT.  The next time I picked her up from the airport, she was supposed to have our son with her.  It was supposed to be a joyous occasion.  When I thought about my future, JT was a part of it. I pictured us going to Vanderbilt basketball and football games together, and I was inches away from purchasing season tickets.  I thought about playing catch with him and teaching him how to play basketball like my dad taught me.  I thought about going to the lake with him and seeing him jump into the water for the first time.  I envisioned taking him to Texas to introduce him to my family and friends (and Tex-Mex and real bar-b-q).

The people that helped me the most through the last 4 months have been the ones who felt the pain with me in that moment or found various ways to take care of us.  They didn’t try to sugar-coat the situation or find the silver lining.  They didn’t try to convince me to move forward. No one knew the “right words” to say because the whole deal was flat out awful.  The best encouragement came from the people who responded with a sincere “That sucks,” (some even added four-letter words to that sentence on my behalf), or “We are praying for you and JT,” or “What do you want us to bring you for dinner?”

As a man who hates showing emotions, these past few months have been a struggle for me, but I’m getting better.  It’s OK to have feelings. It’s OK to be a guy and to be vulnerable enough to show emotions.  Ultimately, I have learned that I can’t keep everything safely tucked away in a compartment. To the guys in the “grief trenches,” know that it is reasonable and normal to have emotions. Keeping everything bottled up or trying to play the tough guy when everything hits the fan is not a good idea.  We need to open up and “process” things (that’s counselor-speak Courtney likes to use from time to time).  In college, Courtney nearly broke up with me because I never showed my emotions, so having an open dialogue with Courtney about JT and the rest of our adoption process has been amazing and freeing.  Going through this with her and feeling safe about sharing what’s on my heart has brought a sense of peace to what we have been through, and it gives me encouragement as we continue through the rest of our adoption process.

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