A Powerful Conversation About Men's Grief with Michael De Los Santos

interviews Jun 09, 2024
A Powerful Conversation About Men's Grief with Michael De Los Santos

Let's talk about something that doesn't get enough attention: men's grief.

Grief doesn’t have much room to breathe in our society, but it’s especially claustrophobic for men. Men’s grief can get swept under the rug, leaving many men struggling to find ways to express their emotions or feeling like they have to just tough it out on their own.

Recently, Grieve Leave founder, Rebecca, connected with Michael De Los Santos, the man behind the award-winning Mike D's BBQ in Durham, NC. Together, they held a Meet & Grieve focused on Men’s Grief. The conversations were incredibly powerful. 

We’re excited to bring you an interview with Michael, where he shares his personal story and insights on navigating grief as a man. It's a conversation that's so incredibly important.

Can you share a bit about your own personal story with grief and loss? How has it shaped your perspective?

My personal story is about the loss of my son, Aaron. He was born with Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome, meaning only half of his heart developed. He lived exactly 6 months, most of which was in the hospital. I held him as he took his last breath and his heart beat for the last time. This is an experience no parent should ever have to endure, and it has really shaped my perspective on grief - both for myself and others. It led me to write a book about the experience.


Can you share how building a career in BBQs has been intertwined with your own grieving journey? 

My path in BBQ is the embodiment of my grief. I wanted to find a way to honor Aaron’s memory, and his fight to live. He couldn’t make excuses, he just had to try and fight until he couldn’t anymore. I knew the way to honor him was to chase my dreams and not make excuses. So Mike D’s BBQ was born in December of 2013, a year and a half after Aaron’s passing. The growth and the struggles have both been for his memory, and it is that memory that really helps through the tough times of being a small business owner.


In your experience, why is it important to highlight and discuss men's grief specifically? What do we get wrong about men and grief?

In my experience, men get left out of the grief equation. When I witnessed others lose a child during our time in the hospital, the focus would be on supporting the mother, while the fathers were often overlooked. Everyone would check on the mother and make sure she was okay and had all the support she needed. However, rarely did someone check on the father to see how he was and if he had everything he needed. I would see the fathers off to the side, shaking a few hands, and at times just walking out to the hall to be alone. On the day of Aaron’s passing, the same happened to me, and it made me realize how lonely that was and how much harder it became to process the loss and grieve. 


I think that society expects men to be strong enough to handle anything, so we overlook them in the grief process. Since men have been taught not to show emotion and not to cry, we can appear to be okay and look like we don’t need support. What is really happening though is we internalize it and it destroys us on the inside as we are left to deal with it alone.


What challenges have you felt or have you seen other men in your life experience when it comes to processing loss?

The challenges I experienced and have seen others experience is feeling isolated and having no outlet. It becomes hard to talk to others about it, as there isn’t a lot of grief support for men. So, we feel we don’t have anywhere to turn and it becomes hard to process the grief. So we pull away from friends and family because we don’t want to show emotion or appear weak. It can lead us to find other ways to mask the pain whether it is drinking, drugs, or other vices. For me it became food. I didn’t want to become an alcoholic, so every time I got the urge to drink away the pain, I would eat. I gained 100 pounds in the year after Aaron passed as a result and it had an impact on my health.


What advice would you give for friends, family members or partners trying to support a man who is grieving?

My advice would be simple: check on the men in your life. Let them know they have an outlet to talk about and process their grief, and that they don’t have to deal with it alone. Encourage them to open up and not internalize their emotions. 

Michael’s story is a powerful reminder that society often leaves men's grief unacknowledged and unsupported, forcing so many of our brothers to put on a brave face while they're hurting inside.

But it's time for a change. We have the power to create a world where men feel safe and supported in expressing their emotions, seeking help, and working through their losses. It's time to challenge the harmful stereotypes that pressure men to "tough it out" and face their grief alone.

If you're a man struggling with loss, know that your feelings are valid and you're not alone. Reaching out for support takes courage, but it's a brave and necessary step. Remember, communities like Grieve Leave and a wealth of resources are here to support you every step of the way.

And if you know a man who's grieving, take a page from Michael's book: be the friend who checks in, listens without judgment, and reminds them that their feelings are normal and valid.

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