Like most men I know, I was raised to be “strong,” and when things became difficult, you either dealt with it on your own, headed to the bar or a combination of both. I subscribed to this way of thinking for most of my life. I can honestly say I never saw a grown man cry while I was growing up. I’m sure they did, but they did it when they were by themselves out of fear of being perceived as “weak.”
As a result of this, I had always fought off the temptation to cry during sad times. Even after the loss of my first child, I tried to fight it off every day and when I couldn’t hold it in any longer, I would let my emotions breakdown when I was by myself. About eighteen months after the loss of our first baby, my wife and I lost another baby. I couldn’t hold in the pain, and I couldn’t be “strong” anymore. I had become a broken man.
I was at the point where the burden of carrying so much pain became too much for me to manage. I began thinking I had something physically wrong with me. I was having various physical symptoms that were unexplained. I would wake up crying, having feelings of dread, nervousness, headaches and loss of interest in things I used to find intriguing. I decided to make myself go to my doctor to tell him about my conditions to see if he could run some tests on me to find out what was going on.
As soon as he closed the door to his office and asked me how I was doing, I started to bawl. I couldn’t get my words out and it took me a minute or two to compose myself. I told him about all of the physical symptoms I was having and asked him what he thought it might be. He responded with a word I never thought I would ever hear as a description of me. “Depression.” I told him I didn’t believe him, and I wanted to have him run some blood tests on me. On my way out of the office he gave me a card for a counselor and told me to call them while he ran the blood test. The blood tests came back normal. I made a call to the counselor’s office for an appointment the following day.
I remember the sense of embarrassment I had the first time I walked into the waiting room of the counselor’s office. I didn’t make eye contact with anyone sitting there out of fear of being recognized by someone I knew. I didn’t want anyone to think that there was something “wrong” with me. Even though I knew that there was something desperately wrong going on inside of me. I didn’t tell anyone other than my wife how I was truly feeling.
It took several months of weekly meetings before I had the courage to tell someone other than my wife and the counselor how I was doing. I was starting to see a correlation between telling my story over and over again and the fact the anxiety was starting to lift. I cried every time I told my story. I even got to where I was telling strangers, but I noticed compassion from others. I wasn’t looking for sympathy, but I realized some people were more than willing to listen—truly listen.
One of those people was a woman that I was going to hire to do some public relations for a small business that I owned at the time. We met for breakfast and we became sidetracked in our discussion and we started talking about things both of us had recently gone through. She was dealing with a very bad divorce and a child with special needs, while I was dealing with the loss of my two children. We shed tears as we told each other our stories, and she asked me if I would mind if she gave my name to a group of men that held yearly weekend retreats for men dealing with difficult circumstances. I was hesitant, but she assured me she thought I would really benefit from the event. Reluctantly, I agreed.
A few days passed and I had forgotten about her offer when I received a phone call and an official invitation to the event. Within a couple of weeks I found myself gearing up for it. I had no idea what to expect and was a little uneasy about spending a weekend with a bunch of guys talking about their “feelings.” The event was held at a local church, which also made me a little uneasy. Was it going to be a bunch of men sitting around all weekend reading the Bible? The thought of going away for a weekend retreat at a church was a little outside my comfort zone. However, I had made a commitment to go, so I went.
That weekend, I met other guys who were dealing with all types of issues, and I realized I wasn’t alone in my emotional pain. I decided to attend weekly meetings in order to start preparing for the following year’s retreat. During that time, I was asked to be a facilitator and presenter at the next retreat.
For an hour, as the opening presenter in a room of about thirty men from all walks of life, I told my story of heartbreak and circumstances surrounding the loss of my two beautiful babies. There were times I sobbed, but to my surprise, I noticed many of the men wiping away their own tears.
When I finished my presentation, I left the room and walked into a vacant room next door where most of the refreshments were. I walked over to a window that was open to get some fresh air and compose myself. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see that someone was rapidly approaching me. An elderly man grabbed both of my hands as he stood sobbing, tears streaming down his face. He said, “You’ve been to hell and back haven’t you?”
just shook my head and said, “Yeah,” There it was; a gift from another father acknowledging what I had been through. He wasn’t telling me that I would get through it, that everything would be fine, to toughen up or to hang in there. He wasn’t trying to run from the uncomfortable discussion. He engaged me in the conversation. He was being human without societal rules on how you should converse with another man. He was simply acknowledging the pain and the journey I had traveled and survived.
What he gave me that day was the gift of acknowledgement, empathy and compassion. I suspect it had someing to do with the fact that he had lived many years and had figured out that we do not have to travel difficult journeys alone; he also figured out that we shouldn’t let others travel alone either.