Jun 162022
Illustration: Gavin McCarthy

I was led to Men’s Work, as it is sometimes called, by my brother-in-law. He kept putting opportunities in front of me. More often than not I would sidestep them politely. Sometimes I would pick them up, quickly decide they weren’t for me, and set them back down — like the time I went to his men’s emotional support group meeting. As genuine and warm as everyone was, well, I was already doing therapy wasn’t I? The hugs and hippie philosophy was fine for other guys, just not my jam.

But back in the summer of ‘17, one of the men in the Mankind Project was hosting a Father/Daughter weekend.

He had a farm, and was inviting men to bring their daughters to a weekend of reflection and connecting activities. My brother-in-law was going to bring his daughter, and because she was best friends with my daughter, it seemed like a good weekend away.

But upon arrival, I learned that this was going to be a unique experience. The men checked in about their immediate emotions in a circle, and one of the organizers expressed a deep sadness. One of the main reasons he’d wanted to do the weekend was to connect with his 21 year old daughter, who lived with them but who he was estranged from. She’d agreed, but just that morning they’d had a fight and she’d decided to stay in a nearby hotel instead of participate. Overwhelmed, he started to cry. 

The other men in circle nodded. One of them asked if he would like us to put a hand on him. He nodded, and we all did. He wept a bit more, then the check-in continued.

I was struck by two things in that moment: one, the way that men were able to witness this man’s grief without being phased, and that there was a process for offering empathic support rather than looking away or trying to problem solve. And two, that the organizer of the event was able to be honest and open about his feelings, rather than ignoring them in favour of being “on duty.” As someone who had repressed my feelings in similar situations, it was great to see him get support and be authentic in that moment.

The event was a mix of activities we did with the daughters, who were aged 8 to 24 or so, and ones where the dads and the daughters were separated. One of the mixed activities had us putting strips of plaster on the others face until they were entirely covered, which was a bit of a leap of faith. After they dried, we painted these form fitting masks to represent something like the masks we wear in society. It was a fun and weird activity.

Then while the daughters were picking their animal names, the dads had a sharing circle about some of the challenges they’d been facing with their daughters. Then it came to me.

“I don’t really know what to say,” I started. “I feel privileged to hear about your struggles with your daughters, it’s inspiring to hear how you’re working through really hard things. For me — my daughter’s nine, and we have a really nice relationship now. She’s kinda young for her age, like, she still holds my hand when we walk to school–”

This was the point where I started to cry. It came out of nowhere, a sudden welling up: soon she would not want to hold my hand or for me to walk her to school. That that sweet phase of our relationship would be in the past. It was an anticipatory grief that I had entirely hidden from myself.

And again these men were unphased by this outpouring of emotion. These average, ball cap wearing dads held space for me and said that all of me is welcome here. They met my eyes instead of looking away.

And I realized that I wanted more of that in my life. That I wanted to be my true self in front of other men, and I wanted to feel their acceptance of it, and I wanted to offer acceptance to other men. So I got more involved with the Mankind Project: I started to attend my brother-in-law’s group and went to the weekend intensive which teaches the basic principals and demonstrates processes which allow emotional work, customized for men. I volunteer a bit to help men find a spot in the community, and attend my men’s circle every other week.

And sometimes I find myself in the role of my brother-in-law, putting these opportunities in front of other men I feel might benefit from them. Most of them will sidestep them, or pick them up and put them down… and once in a while, like me, a man may discover that he wants more of this in his life. 

He will draw close to our campfire on a cold night, and he will sit and share something of his life with us.

Want to learn more? I liked this five minute piece about the Mankind Project. There’s an online workshop happening in the fall which is a great introduction led by inspiring men. If you feel like donating, you could do so here. And I’m always happy to chat about my experience!

Thanks to fellow dad Gavin McCarthy for his gorgeous illustration.

  2 Responses to “Holding Hands with Anticipatory Grief”

  1. As an adult, a few years might pass in a flash and just be a brief memory of a job or degree or some project that occupied your focus. But for a child, it might be an entire phase of their life that once past is gone forever. You only get so many summers, Christmases, birthdays, or even boring breakfasts.

    To get ahead of that anticpatory grief that stalks me, I remind myself to take in every moment together and appreciate it to its fullest. That’s all parents can do, right?

    Love your writing Jim!

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