This weekend, Liam Neeson opened up to interviewer Anderson Cooper on “60 Minutes” about the death of his wife in 2009. In doing so, he gave the parents of boys a window into how differently boys and girls cope with grief.
Over the past five years, since Mr. Neeson’s wife, Natasha Richardson, died while on a ski vacation in Quebec, Neeson has remained silent, showing the world a stone face, not discussing his feelings publicly until now.
This story caught my attention on various levels: celebrity, lost love, but mainly as the parent of a son who recently lost a friend to suicide and grieved in a way I couldn’t understand at the time.
When a neighbor of mine, Sarah Peterson, 14, committed suicide last month, girls in her hometown were devastated, red ribbons were tied around trees, vigils were held, and grief poured over them all like a hard rain.
However, as I wrote at the time, my son Avery, 15, stood high and dry, aloof from grief. So, I worried.
I worried on levels from the reasonable to the absurd: Would he too become depressed from holding it inside? Should I be doing more to help him? I even briefly worried that I had raised an alien boy with ice water in his veins.
Had Mr. Cooper spoken with Neeson a bit sooner, I would have worried far less about my son and perhaps handled it better with him, as well.
However, I am grateful to Neeson for granting the interview at any time because it gives moms something they actually can do to help grieving boys – show them the interview.
It’s interesting in retrospect that I had similar worries about Neeson as I did about my son Avery.
Because Neeson and Ms. Richardson were a couple I always admired and Neeson is one of my favorite actors of all time, I worried that either their romance was just another Hollywood fable or he was heading for a breakdown.
However, as he showed in this interview, people grieve differently and just because someone isn’t grieving the way you or I would doesn’t mean they aren’t feeling the pain of loss very keenly.
While his craggy, Irish face remained as unmoved as a mountainside, you could see in Neeson’s eyes the depth of his emotion and loss.
What struck me was when Neeson uttered words so similar to what my son Avery told me when I asked him how he was doing after Sarah’s death.
“It was never real. It still kind of isn't,” Neeson told Cooper of the loss of his wife.
Neeson didn’t talk about his wife because, like all four of my sons, it seems that the males of our species often tend to prefer to process deep feelings internally.
As a woman, I can tell you there is never any mistaking when I am sad, angry, or grieving, because you can follow the trail of discarded tissues right to my face where my feelings are on display.
This is generally true of little boys, as well, until they hit tween-age, at which point I have seen a clear departure from anything I can relate to in the grief and upset departments.
Ask a girl who is upset what’s bothering her, and you get a tearful earful.
It’s been my experience that boys brood and wallow.
Ask a boy if he’s OK after something bad happens and be prepared for “I’m fine. There’s nothing to talk about.”
I notice that all too often in my house I hear my sons or my spouse say, “There’s nothing to talk about,” just before whoever is upset throws himself into a project, game, or bike ride.
It seems that when girls are upset they need to openly process with others, while boys and men prefer to literally work it out via exercise or projects.
I could see past Avery's words into the conflict and hurt in his eyes. Moms tend to be eye readers.
We look into our kids’ eyes to see the truth they are trying to disguise with a stone face or cool look. It’s how we can spot a lie, a worry, and anything else our kids are hiding.
From his eyes, I knew something was wrong but what I didn’t realize was that it wasn’t something I could fix with a hug and a talk.
He needed to bike, walk, and game his grief away. Talking only made it worse. What looked like avoidance was really just emotional processor lag.
Neeson confirmed this in the interview, telling Cooper, “I'm not good with – without work. I just don’t – I wallow too much. You know? And I just didn't want to – especially for my boys, to be – seem to be wallowing in sadness or depression or…“
"The actor added that work and a schedule have gotten him through the past five years in which he has made more than 20 movies, according to CBS.
Recently, Avery began talking about his friend Sarah, her suicide, and how much he really did care but had been unable to show.
“Too many people were asking if I was OK – at school, at home,” Avery explained last week. “It was like it was everywhere and too big to be real. The only way to make it real was to keep my feelings private. Grief is private.”
It seems that for men and boys alike, the best way to help them is to let them know you’re there if they need you and then leave them alone.