Some differences in grieving styles between men and women

December 16th, 2012 § 16 comments

Yesterday a follower on Twitter wrote: I am interested to know what the differences are between grief of men and women.

I fired off a series of tweets. Each statement, 140 characters long or less, told one of the many important things I have learned through the years. My mother, as many of you know, spent her career as a psychologist specializing in grief and loss. One of my childhood memories is occasionally going to night school with Mom and sitting in the back of the classroom. I always loved the campus bookstore and was able to milk a few treats out of her along the way for behaving well while she attended class.

When she finished her dissertation I read it. It was an in-depth analysis of families who had experienced the death of a young child and what happened to the family dynamics after that tragic loss. I think her work in the 1980s was ahead of its time. Publishers were not interested in manuscripts about children and death. I still wish she had been able to share her insights with more people. Fortunately, she did (and still does) share her insights with me.

I understand that these are stereotypes, generalizations. I know that “not all men are like this.”

One way of dealing with grief is not better than the other, but realizing that there are differences (not only in adults, but also in children) in grief is important.

In general, women talk their way through grief. They need to process it by verbalizing their feelings. They want to talk about the child that has died. They want to relive memories, talk about what events will be missed in the future. Women often need to say the same thing, (re-hash) what happened; they are trying through words to make sense of act that doesn’t make sense.

In general, men do not want to do this. Most men do not like to talk grief out in the same manner. More often, men usually are focused on acts. On doing. On fixing things. The death can’t be fixed. They feel powerless and do not want to rehash same sadness. They are often more hesitant to seek counseling or support from others. “Talking won’t change what happened,” they might say, and therefore resist sharing.

If the death was of their own child, this difference can drive a wedge if the mother of the deceased child feels the father is not sharing her grief. She may not recognize that he is, just in a different way.

The mother may withdraw, feel her partner doesn’t understand or share her grief even though they are the ones closest to the loss and should therefore be united in their emotional devastation. She may be more emotional about the loss, crying a lot, for example. The man may be unsure how to respond to the displays.

The mother may feel the father wants to “move on” too fast after the death. Often this is interpreted as not caring, not loving. But that is not true, of course. The parents are each grieving, but in different ways.

There may be blame issues as well. Blame issues could mean, in the case of Newtown shootings, that on the morning of the death, the child had a cold. One parent said “s/he is okay to go to school” and other said no. Tragedy happened. “If only my spouse had listened to me” can easily spiral into “it was your fault.” If child died while in care of one parent, the blame negotiation can be a stumbling block between parents as well. “You should have been watching,” for example.

Finally, women more often want to use counterfactuals in times of crisis. Women frequently play the “what if” game as part of their talking through the loss, even if the death was not in their own family. “What if that had been our child?” “What if we had moved to that town last year when you switched jobs?” “What if that happened here?”

More often than not, men will say, “but it wasn’t/we didn’t” and stop. In most cases, men don’t want to indulge hypothetical discussions that spiral. They frequently have different processing styles.

These differences may come into play if a person seeks grief counseling. The counselor that is right for one person will not be the best fit for another. Finding a counselor who is aware of these differences and is more consistent with your own methods of working through grief will lead to a more successful outcome.

There is so much more to say on this topic. These differences don’t just apply to grief. I do think that they can help to explain some of the distance that a death in the family can create at fragile time. This may be one reason why families so often unravel after the death of a child. Family dynamics are necessarily thrown into turmoil and the surviving child/ren (if any) will find their role in the family may undergo significant change as well. Those issues will be material for another post.

I’d be interested to hear in the comments if you and your partner have different styles of coping, and whether you think these generalizations ring true. I’m tossing these ideas out there for you to consider in light of how we all have been thinking about the Newtown families this weekend.

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§ 16 Responses to Some differences in grieving styles between men and women"

  • Janet says:

    Sage insights Lisa. I think ring true much of the time. But can change w time: she then becomes the “doer” and he eventually realizes the need to be the “talker”, but to whom? The” waves” of each parents grief may “crash” at different times.

  • Louise G. says:

    I have always been a ‘process through talk’ person. My partner, is a ‘process through silence’. Where it creates havoc is when I interpret his silence through my filter without giving room for his silence to be ‘ok’ — just as when he interprets my speaking up to be too much. When we judge the other’s process as ‘wrong’ or see it as, how I wouldn’t do it, then we have issues.

    It is about being heard — in the fashion we need to be heard, which includes silence.

    Great post Lisa. Thanks!

  • Alana says:

    There’s a wonderful book, meant for mental health professionals, that goes into detail on the research on this topic. They use the words intuitive and instrumental because they’ve found that while tendencies often run down gender lines, when they don’t, it creates more harm to use the female/male distinction. When I teach this information I can almost hear the lightbulbs going off in people’s heads. It’s vital to understand just what you’ve said here – there is no right or better way to experience grief. There are different ways. I wish your mom had been able to share her insights too. The world needs them. Thanks for contributing to the conversation in this important way.

  • Alana says:

    Oops. The book is called “Men Don’t Cry, Women Do…” By Doka and Martin

  • I really appreciate this post and will share the link with my dog grief loss listserv.

    I think the most important thing that you said, and it bears repeating, is that people grieve differently, and there is no one right way. And in the case below, I think I grieved more like the men you describe than like the women (and I’m a woman).

    I went through several losses in a short period of time about three years ago: one of my best friends died, as did my service dog; I lost a lot of mental and physical function due to illness; I lost my closest friends as a result of that; and I went through a natural disaster. The last and most devastating of these was my service dog’s death, and while I used to be very much a talker, an external processor, someone who showed emotion, I just went numb. I shut down. It was too much. That lasted a couple of years, during which I experienced a lot of pressure from others to cry, to journal, etc., especially in the immediate aftermath. I tried, but I couldn’t make myself cry. I felt a lot of guilt: “I’m grieving wrong. I must be cold and uncaring. What’s wrong with me?”

    Fortunately, my therapist kept telling me again and again that I *was* grieving, and it’s different for everyone. She was really the only person who understood that. I just wanted to share my experience because it both matches with what you’re saying about people grieving differently and also is a counterpoint, because I’m a woman who did a lot of grieving in silence for quite a while.

  • Ginny says:

    I’ve had a lot of years to think about this–9, specifically, this NYEve since our son was stillborn at full-term, absolutely beautiful & perfect. 80% of parents who lose a child, or thereabouts, will split because of the stresses involved. I didn’t believe it when I heard it, but now I do–even though my marriage is still together. Losing our son was the worst, hardest, most difficult thing for us to navigate. We are still navigating it, quite honestly. My grief was out there: tears everywhere, anywhere: out to dinner, in church, in the car, walking down the street. His grief: numb, quiet, shock. The world’s reaction was to ask how I was doing, as I was the one who carried Ben within me, and they did not ask about my husband. That hurt. What hurt more (and still does, as it is ongoing) was the expectation from (some) friends and family that we “get over” our child’s death and not speak his name in their presence, pretend he never existed. Mind boggling and impossible.

    As Ben’s mother, I wanted my grief to be the only grief–I’m not proud of that, but it’s true. I have felt very much that he was MY son, because I carried him for 9 months, labored to deliver him for 12 hours, I felt him kick, hiccup, turn, I was the one who sat in the appointment, alone, begging god to let us hear his heartbeat. None of this was my husband’s fault, but I blamed him anyway. Our grief has been so, so different, and that has been an incredibly difficult river for us to navigate. It has been a very lonely place for both of us.

    I don’t think we’ve figured it out yet. I stopped relating for a long time and still have trouble being present for my husband. I feel very much that my life stopped the day our son died, and a big part of me has never rejoined the world. And yet I look at all I (we) have done since that time and think, no, that can’t be right. I’m not always sure.

  • ultramagnus_tcv says:

    I am a man. So, I am sorry.

    (I’m kidding.)

    I see several facets of myself in your descriptions. Some of them are the way women might cope. Some of them are the way men might cope.

    Emotions are difficult for me, but not in the traditional sense. As a man, I am expected to be stoic, to not react to emotions, to use facts and to barrel ahead to force a round peg into a square hole.

    But I’ve never been that way. I am very emotional and have been ever since I was a child. My mother claims that I was “born scared” and most of my earliest memories are of anxiety and depression. (Clinical.) Down to the bone, emotions hit me. I’ve tried to ignore them. I can’t. It makes my life oftentimes difficult, especially when dealing with other men who have been able to become more traditional. It’s hard to express the embarrassment I feel when another dude will shrink away from me because I expressed emotion. Boy, do I feel broken in that moment. (But I get over it.)

    I see myself needing to talk out grief. I have to. My wife, on the other hand, sometimes does and doesn’t. Sometimes we’re off-kilter that way. Usually we have to dance around things to be able to talk about them at times, but we always get there. When I’m in a depressive mood, I need to talk and I will wear someone out. This is why I go to a therapist!

    So, I am unlike a Man that way.

    On the other hand, I am a Man in that I don’t like arguments that can spiral down. I especially am not fond of offering or hearing opinions not based on some kind of fact. My wife is spirited and sometimes argumentative. She’ll pepper me with questions and often I will feel (that word again) assaulted by that questioning, as if I need to know The Truth. I realize she doesn’t mean it that way. I realize I don’t need to know the truth, but my sensitivity rears up and I want to shut down the conversation. “I don’t know what’s best for gun control. I don’t. Honest. Neither of us know the facts about any of this! Let’s stop!”

    None of this is, of course, designed to yell at you, “See! Men aren’t all alike. God! Stop oppressing us!” I thought I’d show you my side of it. I am fascinated and irritated by my differences.

  • There has been much wisdom shared in both of your last two posts on grief Lisa. Thank you for the insights and the food for thought. The keys are that grief is a process with no set timeline and that everyone grieves differently. Including the same person grieving differently depending on the type of loss and time of life it happened. Cookie cutters are for Christmas treats, not describing how people grieve. Louise G. said it so well above…
    “It is about being heard–in the fashion we need to be heard, which includes silience.”
    Thanks Louise and thanks Lisa for great posts at a time when people so need them.

  • Qurban says:

    Thanks for your post – not everyone has the willingness to go into this issue. Our son Ryder died at 20 months from cancer and I find your thoughts loosely fit us as we have grieved him. Having said that I think my wife and me have taken from both “male” & “female” ways of action and talking. One thing I didn’t see written about is addictive tendencies though that was probably more then can be covered in a blog post. In short whatever unprocessed say “garbage” we had before Ryder died was accentuated greatly in our grief and has been difficult to deal with. I’m talking about stuff like Alcohol/drugs/eating disorders/ workaholism/ shopping/ gambling – you name it and I’ve seen grieving parents do it. We’re working our way through the unprocessed garbage and figering out how to live on without him. Thanks for your writing

  • anonymous says:

    Shortly after my husband and I got married (many years ago), my 10-year-old cousin, whom we were hoping to adopt, died suddenly. She had been neglected by her parents for most of her life, had been placed in foster care, but then returned to her mother. It was especially frustrating because her family lived on the opposite side of the country from us. I was, on one hand, very grateful that my husband was able to see the magnificence in this child and want her to live with us; but I was frustrated that he didn’t see the urgency in getting her away from her precarious living situation sooner. (He believed that if we were patient with the process, goodness would prevail.) One week before she was going to come stay with us, she died; her mother had been drugging her, and the child over-dosed. I was absolutely devastated, and went into a pretty bad depression for two years. I had been afraid something like this could happen. My husband was also terribly sad and traumatized but did not want to talk about it with me or anyone. We are still married, but our marriage was never quite the same after this loss. I worked extremely hard to come out of the depression; and when I did, my husband was unable to share my sense of accomplishment in overcoming such darkness because he had been unable to share the grief. Your statistics reflect perfectly the differences in how he and I grieved.

  • Laura says:

    I’m grieving the loss of my mother right now, she died in August. And while my husband is grieving a smaller loss, his mother-in-law, who he was not very close to, he knows I’m having a hard time, but sees no point in talking about it. “What is there to talk about” was his reply when I told him I felt so alone at home because I felt I couldn’t talk about my grief with him, and didn’t want to burden my children with it either. I absolutely feel that these gender differences are at play here in my home. It helps me understand a bit better his thought process, but it makes me feel no less alone.
    Thank you for these posts about grief, they are thoughtful and helpful.

  • Next week will be two years since James died. Two weeks after his death, his 25-year-old son, said he didn’t want to be around me because I wanted to talk about Dad. His son said he’d cried that first night and had gotten it out of his system and had moved on, and I was a reminder that Dad was gone.

    Subsequently, his anger over James’s death became misplaced and compounded by the fact that he hadn’t received counseling after he returned from Afghanistan, plus he married too young to a girl who’s doctors, after five years, still can’t get her bi-polar meds right. If that wasn’t bad enough, three weeks before James died, the son and his wife returned home & moved in with his mother because he couldn’t cut it at George Washington law school. He was counting on Dad to help him find his way.

    The boy I helped raise made me the focus of all of his rage because I needed a little more time before I gave him James’s truck. I wanted to go thru it & I wasn’t ready, but offered the son my car for the next couple of weeks. That was the end of our relationship. In essence, I lost my whole family the day James died, and it’s been devastating. Yes, men do grieve differently than women.

    Yesterday, I posted my last blog, but I will continue to follow everyone, especially you.

    Love to you and your family,
    Brenda

  • Laura says:

    Some of it might also be influenced by what kind of family you grew up in. In my family it was never ok to show overt emotions, because it was interpreted as childish. Not sure if this was because my parents are naturally reserved people, or because it was a more “male dominated” type of family structure. Or I could’ve interpreted the message completely wrong, and my grieving styles are simply part of my personality.

    I also wonder about the reasons behind male reticence in grieving. Are they quiet about it because they’re men, or are they quiet because they’re afraid society will reject their show of grief as not valid or not manly? I’m sure that we would see grieving differences between men of different cultures.

    • Dee says:

      I agree, my relatives were very reserved and rarely showed emotion and I thought it was pathetic to be honest. Once when Dad was very ill in hospital I lost it and chucked my purse against the wall, the nurse came over and asked if I was ok, my boyfriend back then who now my husband he had to calm me down, cause dad was in and out of hospital constantly I was just exhausted and upset, while I got upset my uncle stood there like a stuffed parrot saying, oh she to emotional, that just made me angry at my uncle. He was more concerned about being shown up in public by my emotion then the situation at hand. It just made me see them for what they really are. Lets all be quiet and not make a fuss. I am not them I am me, and if I want to make a fuss I will, they can like or lump it.

  • Dee says:

    I think men some times like to go off and cry alone and want to fix it and cant so feel powerless, where as women want people around to cry with and understanding but maybe this is not always the case. Everyone is different. Although saying that I am quite a private person and I am the one who shuts down and speaking from experience of the loss of my Mother when I was just 16 years old which was tough for me to deal with being only child, and my Father died last year from dementia, I am now in my 40’s, you dont get over it, as some might think that have not even experienced this, you just learn to process your feelings the best way you can for you, its a coping mechanism to get through life. Unfortunately it can break up relationships as those who lost someone together do not know how to respond to each other. Rarely are family there either to turn to or talk to. The relatives just go off with their life and there you are left to get on with it, thats how I have felt over the years with my experiences. If you have good partner and or friends that helps. I personally have found little comfort from my relatives. When my Mother passed me and my Father were kind of left to deal with it. there was no knight in shining armour as it were even offering for us to talk to about it. But that is the way its been. After my Father passed last year that was the last time I heard from relatives. So its not always about how you grieve but also who you have around you for support that counts a lot to. If it want for my husband I would have probably just grieved alone for my Fathers death. But it is what it is. You either have a good supportive family or you dont. Everything counts.

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