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  • Writer's pictureMark McMinn

How to Make a Grown Man Cry

I’ll answer, but circuitously.


Several decades ago, I failed my first attempt at a board certification exam, so I arranged supervision with an older, better psychologist. Jim met with me weekly, reviewed my therapy records, and helped me become an adept (and board-certified) psychologist.


Sitting in Jim’s office one day, he spoke words I have never forgotten:

“Mark, all therapy comes down to grief.”

After studying psychology for many years and teaching for quite a few more, it seemed shocking to hear such a pithy one-sentence summary. Could it really be this simple?


Maybe. Maybe not. But I will never forget his words. They show up again and again in the therapy room whenever I’m unclear how to do this complex work.




We grieve when a person goes away. In my small rural community, there were four memorial services yesterday, each holding grief. I went to David’s service. He was a good man; his family and friends will miss him terribly.

Grief doesn't require death. Inside our closest relationships, we grieve with and for those we love. We feel their pain, holding it close enough to our own hearts that we hurt alongside them.


Sometimes we lose relationships for reasons other than death, and that’s painful, too. Our hearts yearn to attach, to be connected, and when strong bonds are broken the anguish is palpable.

We grieve for a broken beautiful world where things can seem so harsh and unwell.


Sometimes we grieve for ourselves. Our bodies aren’t capable of what they once could do, so the basketball and tennis racket sit untouched in the bedroom closet. Finitude stinks. So does failure. We grieve when we fall short of who we want to be and for the people who get hurt in the mess.


Jim was probably right about grief.




Now that I’m an older, experienced psychologist and Jim is long passed I want to tinker with his words a bit, to add compassion to the mix. Here’s how I might say it now:

"Psychotherapy is a tender relational space where grief meets compassion."


And not just psychotherapy. This same definition works for the long love of stable marriage and friendship. I suspect it is true in other helping professions also--pastoral counseling and spiritual direction and mentoring of many sorts. When compassion sits alongside grief we find transformation, growth, and hope.

We need compassionate spaces because elsewhere our grief is so often met with apathy or even antipathy. Psychologists study the just world fallacy, meaning that we bend our perception of reality so that the world can seem just and fair to us even when it’s not. “You’ve fallen on hard times? Well, you must have done something to deserve that.”

And when grief involves personal failure it is sometimes met with vicious aggression excused under the guise of justice. Amy Fleming, a writer for the BBC's Science Focus magazine notes, "outrage has become the defining emotion of the 21st Century, worn righteously, as a finger-pointing badge of honour."

When Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn spoke his oft-quoted words, that hastiness and superficiality are, “the psychic diseases of the twentieth century,” he was speaking of the western media.1 How much more now in the twenty-first century, where we all deem ourselves reporters with a media platform, are we prone to these psychic diseases? We chew people up and spit them out along with inane oxymorons such “disgraced.” If grace is grace, how can one ever be dissed in its grip?


By the time people limp into the therapy office it’s because they yearn for a safe person to hold their grief.


The Five Words


Much of my therapy practice is with men, most of them older, probably because I am, well, that.

Society has its adages and memes about not being defined by our worst mistakes, but deep down most men know that's not true. Others often define us by our mistakes and successes, and rarely for the less visible human qualities we spend our lives trying to nurture.

So how do you make a grown man cry?


  1. Sit with said man and hear his story. Listen to his sadnesses, his dreams, his disappointments, his failures.

  2. Discuss with him the pressures of being male. Don’t ever discredit women, because women have their own pressures and challenges, but sink in deeply to what it means to be a man and the weight of expectation he feels.

  3. Repeat #1 and #2.

  4. If warranted, look him in the eye, and say these five words with tenderness, sincerity, and genuineness: “You are a good man.”


If you’re not ready for #4, then go back to #3. You may never be ready to say the five words in sincerity, and that's okay, too.

But if those words ever seem right to say, and you mean it will all your heart, be sure to have a box of tissue handy. The man you’re sitting with will almost certainly need it. You may also.


  1. Solzhenitsyn's words were part of a commencement speech he gave at Harvard University in 1978.



Thanks for these words. They are timely, as I have been pondering grief and how to manage a sense of loss. Your writing also makes me grateful for a men's group I've been part of and the ways we work to listen and affirm one another.

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