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Five Lessons I've Learned About Navigating Grief and Mental Health As a Man

December 12, 2023 – 5 min read

By Jonathan Friedman

The author, Jonathan Friedman, with his brothers. His brother Gregg is on his right.

I have lost multiple loved ones to suicide, and while I have never contemplated suicide myself, I have had my own challenges with mental health. In 2015, just before Thanksgiving, my best friend Dean took his own life. In 2019, my dear brother Gregg did the same. At the time of their deaths, both were going through divorces. In December of 2015 my own marriage fell apart, too, and I experienced the darkness that can often be brought on by a failed relationship. I experienced so much loss over a few years, and it made me realize that no one should have to endure dark moments alone, or without hope not Dean, not Gregg, not me, and not any guy thinking about suicide or struggling with mental health.

While suicide never comes down to just one thing, and a difficult life experience like divorce can be one of many possible factors, my goal in sharing this essay is to offer some hard-earned wisdom to men experiencing mental health challenges. Below are the lessons I've learned about navigating mental health struggles as a man, through life challenges that have come my way. The main struggles in my life have happened to be suicide loss and divorce, but for you it could be something else. Some of these lessons I learned on my own. Others I learned from reading about other people's experiences, or in conversations with friends, and then applied to my situation.

1. Time helps us heal. After my divorce, I felt like a failure. I was devastated, and there were times when I wanted to get in bed and crawl into a ball. I couldn’t believe this was my life. Surreal moments would strike without warning. I would be walking through the supermarket, sitting at my desk at work, or waking up in the middle of the night thinking, "This is my failed life."

To stop from sinking, I had to find something to keep me afloat so I would call a good friend, listen to music, write in my journal, read something inspirational, or go for a run. These glimmers of positivity helped get me through the day.

Eventually, what seemed unbearable got better. The difficult moments still occur, but they come less often and less intensely. Part of the healing is recognizing that whatever you may be going through is not your identity. In my case, “divorced” did not define all of who I am. I tried hard to avoid thinking about how to get through tomorrow or next week. Instead, I put my energy into just getting through today. Life is now. And as you emerge from this stage, you will be stronger than before. Years later, I realized this habit was the act of practicing gratitude.

2. You are not alone. Men are often uncomfortable showing weakness or talking through their issues, but vulnerability is a part of healing. It was a huge relief when I was able to find other guys going through the same thing, and we were able to keep each other afloat. One of my oldest and closest friends, Mitch, had been through divorce years prior and continues to be an amazing friend during the darkest times. Another buddy, Jeff, was a casual acquaintance who happened to be going through the same thing at the same time. We would send each other the occasional text as a digital “hand up” for support, and it would often turn into a helpful phone call, or we’d get together and talk it out. Whatever I was going through, it was often helpful to find others with similar experiences who “get it.”

3. Taking care of your body can help your mind. In the aftermath of a suicide loss, divorce, or other painful life crisis, many people look to alcohol or other substances to numb their pain. A year after my best friend Dean died and my marriage had crumbled, I did exactly that. Eventually, I realized alcohol was only a temporary escape from my grief, but that in the long term, it wasn't helping me feel better at all. I was burying my hurt instead of addressing it. To start healing, I had to stop drinking. Once I did, I started feeling healthier mentally, physically, and socially. Instead of trying to escape my life through substances, I allowed myself to feel present in each moment, and re-discovered what brings me joy, like music and exercise.

4. The only way to process painful emotions is to let yourself feel them. After my divorce, I was angry. But in order to deal with my anger, I first had to acknowledge it. When I took a closer look at my anger, I understood that it was masking other feelings feelings of confusion, shame, rejection, self-loathing, hopelessness, and depression. As I reflect back, I realize that simply recognizing my anger, instead of ignoring it, was a big step toward overcoming it. This is a deep and powerful road of self-discovery that will change your life. Have the courage to be vulnerable and take the first step down this road, fellas. That is real strength.

5. It's okay to embrace moments of joy, even when you're grieving. On the day of my brother Gregg's death, I was at a work event when Gregg's former wife, Vikki, called me to let me know the terrible news. I crumbled to the ground. That night, though, I was lucky to be with two close friends who supported me in my grief. After dinner, we walked past a restaurant with live music, and went in to find an acoustic guitarist playing a stirring rendition of "Hallelujah." It was an emotional moment the three of us will never forget, and an example of the inexplicable way life’s energy can sometimes rise to touch you with amazing timing. It reminded me, even in the depths of my grief, how precious life is.

To be honest, I'm still processing the multiple suicide losses I've survived. But the important thing is, I now have incredible tools to help me understand and work through those losses, especially during my darkest moments. And I want to share those tools with any man who might need them.

If you or a loved one is in crisis, please call or text 988 for the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline, or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741 to talk to someone who can help. 

To learn more about suicide and resources available to survivors of suicide loss, such as Survivor Day and the Healing Conversations program, click here.