Written by Christen Bradbury, BS, CTRS, CCLS on September 3, 2019
There are many factors at play that determine how we react to grief and recover from loss. One such factor is machismo, the expectation that men must be stoic and unemotional in the face of tragedy. But how can men process their grief when society tells them to suppress their emotions? More importantly, what do we do to better support men who are experiencing grief?
To gain further perspective, we spoke to Feike Van Dijk, who shared his strategies for coping in a society that encourages men to hide their feelings.
Feike and his wife, Noelle, owned a log home in the mountains of Lander, Wyoming. They spent much of their time gardening, fishing, and playing with their children: Able (5), Zephy (4), Noah (2), and 9-month-old twins Ephraim (Remmy) and Sabine (Beanie).
On the day of the fire, Feike came home from work and fed the twins. He and Noelle were catching up when Able alerted them to black smoke outside coming from the porch, which was on fire. Feike grabbed an extinguisher and ran to put it out. As he opened the door, a heat flash burst through the house, knocking him back and catching his arm alight.
Knowing the fire was too hot to put out, the parents picked up the twins and rushed everyone out toward the road to find help. When Feike reached the road, he turned around to see that no one was behind him.
He ran back to the home and found Noelle, hair singed and covered in soot, screaming for Zephy and Noah. The boys had gone back inside. Feike covered himself with a blanket and tried to run back in for the boys, but smoke poured from the door and heat pushed him back.
Behind him, a neighbor yelled, “Don’t go in there. You won’t make it out. They are already gone.”
At the hospital, the extent of the family’s injuries were made clear and the devastating reality began to set in. Feike and Remmy were airlifted to a burn unit in Utah, where they underwent months of surgeries and rehabilitation. During this time, the family began grieving for the two boys they had lost and started the process of rebuilding their lives.
After the fire, Feike sometimes blamed himself and wondered how he could have changed things. A news story falsely reported that the fire was started by the grill that was left lit and unattended, an inaccurate accusation that led to neighbors and strangers shaming Feike for being irresponsible. To make things worse, Feike lost his job as a social worker not long after the fire. He began experiencing symptoms of depression and PTSD, and his daydreams and nightmares became unbearable.
The pressure to deal with everything like a man was overwhelming. At his lowest point, Feike wanted to push people away. “I could have easily numbed myself at the bar, or spent all my time avoiding my family and my life, but I didn’t.” Instead, Feike pushed against social and cultural expectations and reached out for help.
“It’s a cultural thing to be the Amazing American Dad who doesn’t show any emotions, but it’s not easy after experiencing something like this,” he said. “Men need to be capable of talking about loss and grief. Crying is such a relief. It’s freeing. It’s so easy for men to wear a mask all the time, but you aren’t reflecting who you are. Crying is a powerful tool of expression that your body has given you. It heals a lot.”
“There is no use in imagining what you could have done differently,” said Feike, “because you can’t change it. You need to forgive yourself. Noelle and I needed to honor the boys we lost and the children who remained.”
Feike and Noelle make it a priority to involve Zephy and Noah in day to day activities, keeping their memories alive and allowing the remaining children a chance to reflect. “We talk continuously about the boys. We have their pictures and some of their belongings around. The twins are three, and I don’t know if they remember their brothers, but they know a lot about them. To initiate talking about them was such a painful experience for me, but I know it was the right thing to do.”
Feike’s ability to show emotion has positively influenced his children. “I have a better relationship with them because of my openness. It would be easy for me to pretend I’m not vulnerable or that I’m invincible. It’s not true. My children are very compassionate and considerate, and I think that’s because of this.”
A year after the fire, Feike and Noelle attended a retreat for adult survivors. It was the first time they had met other survivors, and they were relieved to learn there were support networks like the Phoenix Society that they could rely on. The healing that Feike and Noelle experienced at this retreat inspired them to attend the Phoenix World Burn Congress in 2016, for which they received a scholarship from the Phoenix Society.
“It was amazing,” said Feike. “We heard so many encouraging stories and met so many people. There is no burn unit in Wyoming, so finding people who are burn survivors and spending time doing real life things with them…it blew my mind. The impact of being with survivors in person...it’s amazing how healing it is.”
To men who have encountered shame or judgment for expressing themselves, Feike says, “It can’t be about what other people expect from you. It needs to be about you—you need to be healthy. Being vulnerable and expressive is very respectable. Be open with your loved ones and share what’s going on with you emotionally, spiritually, and physically. Try not to point fingers. Instead, look forward to the next step.”
Feike’s own next step is completing the training to become a firefighter. “I had to turn this negative experience into something positive,” he said. “Becoming a firefighter lets me help others and overcome my biggest fears. I was blessed to come out of that experience with a body that functions 100%, and I want to use it.”
Christen Bradbury began her career in the burn community in 2011 working as the Senior Child Life Specialist/Recreation Therapist at Shriners Hospitals for Children – Boston. She has been involved with the Phoenix Society and Phoenix UBelong program at the Phoenix World Burn Congress since 2012 and this is her second year working in the role of lead facilitator in the Phoenix UBelong program.