The Men’s Guide To Grief And Talking About Death
Illustration by Mr Anthony Eslick
It is the one thing that we all experience, but none of us can relate to. It is what, deep down, we fear most. The artist Mr Damien Hirst knew this when he suspended a tiger shark in formaldehyde and called it The Physical Impossibility Of Death In The Mind Of Someone Living. We know, intellectually, that it is coming for us and everyone we love, yet it also feels abstract and unreal. Death is what happens to other people. Literally. We all know someone who has died. Humans have been dying for about seven million years, but we are no closer to being comfortable with it. We can’t even talk about it. People pass away, they go next door, we’re sorry for your loss.
Mr Ben May wants to change this. He has turned talking about death into a passion project and a second career. It is slowly chipping away at the hours he spends as a barber (talking is his destiny, clearly). He does not have a side hustle as an undertaker, however. He runs a charity, The New Normal, which he founded in May 2018 with one of his customers.
Mr Jack Baxter had come in for a haircut, but left with a friend, someone to share the grief of a dead father with – and the idea for a project. That idea was simple, but has proved to be extremely popular. They provide spaces for people to come together to talk about the death of loved ones and they now operate across Europe, Hong Kong and the Americas.
How do we approach this difficult topic in 2023, when it’s never been easier to say the wrong thing? We asked May for some guidance.
It’s not always good to talk
“My sister and I don’t necessarily talk about Dad,” May says of his father, who died in 2016. “My sister spends a lot of time going to the grave, putting down flowers. I feel connected to him when I’m watching the football, listening to music. If I make bubble and squeak, I think of my dad. My sister and I found a way to connect with music. I know how my sister is feeling by the music she is sharing. I’ll share something back that will evoke similar memories of our childhood. Talking isn’t always the best way to communicate how you feel. Explore different avenues that work for the dynamic of your relationship.”
“If you want to speak to someone to find out how they are, we often ask them once and then assume that is enough for them to respond with how they’re feeling. Most of the time, the first response is, ‘Yeah I’m all right. How are you?’ You need to say to someone, ‘It’s OK. You can tell me how you are. You can speak to me.’ Ask twice how somebody is. Within seconds. The second time is when people are likely to open up.”
Start a conversation when you’re ready
“If you’re worried about asking, that’s about you and how comfortable you feel about opening up that conversation. You’re deciding that you’re not going to do something because you’re worried about something you’re projecting onto them. Ask yourself if you’re comfortable to know the answer. Do I have enough emotional capacity to hear it?”
“If someone doesn’t want to talk, I say, ‘OK, that’s cool. I want you to know that I am here. If you need or want anything, you only have to ask.’ It’s about letting someone know you’re available for them. You need to be sure you can be there in the future. They might come back in a day or a week or a month. It’s no good you going, ‘Ah sorry, I’m busy, I can’t speak.’ You’re stopping someone from having the confidence to open up. They won’t go somewhere else. You rejected them.”
Don’t try to fix it
“We think we need to fix everything. When it comes to the complexity of humans and emotion, nine times out of 10, there isn’t an answer. When we’re talking to a family member or a colleague, their natural response is to tell you things to make you feel better. All we want is someone to say, ‘Are you OK? I’m here to listen to you.’ Society tells us things should be fixed because if they’re broken you throw them away. As a result, we can’t hold space for people.”
Don’t say, “I’m sorry for your loss”
“This is one of the worst things you can say to someone. They will say, ‘You didn’t know them. Why are you saying sorry? This isn’t something you’ve experienced. This is something I’ve experienced.’ When someone says this person has died, ask what their name was. That opens up the opportunity for a conversation. ‘I’m sorry for your loss’ stops it.”
Let them have the floor
“I’ve always been open to people asking if I’d like to speak about my dad. My dad was my best friend. I love talking about him. Who was he? Who was Steve May? He was a builder who loved football. He was a simple man with simple pleasures. Our relationship was a beautiful thing that I cherish. Ask me what he did, what he enjoyed. Anything. Make them feel comfortable in that space you’re offering.”