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.