Have you ever noticed how a mother and father sometimes grieve differently after the death of a child? Has this lead to misunderstandings that prove hurtful? During the first year of acute grief after our daughter died, Jim and I expressed our grief very differently, so I was intrigued when researchers Kenneth Doka and Terry Martin’s book came out on Grieving Beyond Gender: Understanding the Ways Men and Women Mourn. For years, the typical stereotype was that women are more emotional and men hold their emotions within. Men hold more anger, women cry with more guilt.
But these authors used a different lens, and identified two distinct grieving styles. Though commonly associated, they are not restricted to gender. Doka’s observations began over 40 years ago as a pediatric chaplain at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer hospital.
He gives an example of a bereft father, on the morning of his daughter’s funeral, fixing the picket fence through which his daughter crashed. Several families I interviewed spoke of similar responses. JD (Joshua Dean) Hillis, a healthy, sports-oriented seven-year-old boy collapsed suddenly after a fast game of basketball. He died shortly after, leaving the family reeling in grief. When his ten-year-old cousin Jordon overheard adults talking about planting a tree in JD’s honor, he protested. “JD would think a tree sucked.”
JD loved basketball…day in and day out. Thinking about the run-down gym with the hazardous chipped linoleum court where they spent hours playing, Jordon said, “We should build a new court and name it after him.” An idea was born and his father and two uncles, who all lived and worked in Tacoma, Washington’s inner-city, vigorously raised funds (ranging from 25 cents to a $20,000 grant) to restore a Boys and Girls Club basketball court/gym in Hilltop. “It gave the men in the family a concrete project to work on that would honor JD.” recalls his mother, Cheryl. She enjoys the annual JD Hillis Memorial Tournament and seeing so many energetic kids having fun.
Doka observes that women tend to be more “intuitive” grievers, more feeling-oriented, with waves of emotion and verbalizing. They often find ways to express feelings in a group, or with a therapist or friend. Since grief counselors historically have privileged expression, men or women who work out pain “instrumentally” often wonder if they are “grieving”enough. Other family members may also express frustration over someone’s lack of emotional expression over loss. These judgements hurt everyone. Obviously, some women may grieve instrumentally, like when they design and plant gardens; and men grieve intuitively, like the father whose college son committed suicide who found that joining a bereavement group and writing a letter to his son proved so life-giving that he now helps lead one.
My sense is our ways of grieving also varies simply by one’s temperament and the relationship with the child. It can also alter over time, and many parents experience both styles. I value author Isabel Allende’s insight that “sorrow is a solitary road.”
What can help couples during these most difficult days? One key I heard from parents was the importance of respecting our differences. When George and Lila Girvin’s 34-year-old son died in a helicopter crash while serving with the United Nations in Mongolia, they found they had radically different responses to returning to a little cabin in the woods that Matthew helped restore with his father. “I felt I was going to this place and continuing to care for something he loved,” says George. “I can go there, see his tree he brought from Mongolia, and remember him. And give thanks for his being in our lives. It’s so quiet, with red tail hawks, raven, the creatures that Matt would talk to and I envision they are his messengers…the land is so alive.”
Not so for his wife Lila. “I find it almost impossible to go there for long. These wonderful family memories still create too much pain.” They understand this difference in one another and respect it.
Does Doka’s description ring true to your own experiences, or not? What have you observed about the differences or similarities as men and women grieve?
Novelist often give words to our deep longings, especially in loss and grief, and our hunger for hope. The day I launched this blog, Nils Ringo wrote me about his recent reading of Wendell Berry’s novel Hannah Coulter. In his twenties, Nils volunteered in Honduras for two years at Farm of the Child, and is part of our program in the Krista Foundation for Global Citizenship which encourages young adults engaged in service. His mom works with parents who lose newborns in our local hospital, so he has exceptional awareness of loss. He wrote, “I highlighted these sections pertaining to grief” and then sent them my way. Berry writes of the fictional town of Port William, Kentucky, where love and memory, grief and strength abound as the deaths in World War II so greatly impact lives and communities.
Berry writes, via the fictional character Hannah,
I began to know my story then. Like everybody’s, it was going to be the story of living in the absence of the dead. What is the thread that holds it all together? Grief, I thought for a while. And grief is there sure enough, just about all the way through. From the time I was a girl I have never been far from it. But grief is not a force and has no power to hold. You only bear it. Love is what carries you, for it is always there, even in the dark, or most in the dark, but shining out at times like gold stitches in a piece of embroidery.
I don’t think grief is something they get over or get away from. In a little community like this it is around us and in us all the time, and we know it. We know that every night, war or no war, there are people lying awake grieving, and every morning there are people waking up to absences that never will be filled.
And yet the comfort somehow gets passed around: a few words that are never forgotten, a note in the mail, a look, a touch, a pat, a hug, a kind of waiting with, a kind of standing by, to the end. Once in a while we hear it sung out in a hymn, when every throat seems suddenly widened with love and a common longing:
Along our own pilgrimage, many friends gave us comfort by sharing poetry and music that especially proved healing. During the first couple of years after Krista died, my husband Jim often stayed up late just listening to Eric Clapton’s Pilgrim album. He gives voice to grief, heightened by the death of his four-year old son Conor.
What writers, poets, or songwriters have spoken to you on your own journey? I’d love to hear and share these. One day a week, I will be including insights drawn from literature, music, or art.
Thanks, Nils, for sharing your reading!
When we have lost someone deeply loved, it’s hard to know what random event in our day might trigger a sudden flashback into grief. Even years later!
Last weekend, my husband Jim cycled with me on a short portion of Spokane, Washington’s exquisite Centennial Trail. I call it “husband-love” because he normally rides a fast, exhilarating 30-40 miles.
With me, he slows way down…think of sauntering on a bike! We bring energy snacks, pause for water breaks, and only cycle about 7 miles. But within minutes we begin savoring the beauty of the winding Spokane River, the scent of summer pine, and the abundance of wildflowers.
Suddenly, the sound of continuous rifle shots reverberate up the river floor, shattering our peace.
Turns out the Spokane Rifle Club’s outdoor range lies next to Riverside State Park. They offer instruction and practice in a variety of firearms, including high power shooting, muzzle loaders, black powder cartridge rifles, even old buffalo guns. Hearing these gunshots so nearby is unnerving.
This intrusion to peace seems similar to living with grief. One’s days may be going along with some semblance of normalcy, when suddenly a memory might trigger a “grief burst.” It can happen hearing a favorite song, attending a baby shower, seeing a child playing soccer, waking from a haunting dream– anything that unearths a memory. Blindsided, their timing is unpredictable, fraught with intense emotion, sometimes causing uncontrollable tears. Their intensity can create fear, wondering if we are sliding back to the earlier deep grieving that so pained our days?
“It’s inevitable that grief will be triggered again, sometimes years later, even while one is living an emotionally healthy life,” believes Jerry Sittser who lost his wife, young daughter, and mother from a drunk driver. His book A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows through Grief eloquently portrays his faith journey as he raises three children, continues teaching, and counsels many others in grief.
He believes one of the great enemies of grief is giving ourselves a timetable since everyone’s pace in grief is different. Over 15 years later, when his fiancé mentioned that her friend had been the Sunday School teacher for his four-year-old Diana Jane, “I just burst into tears….a whole flood of memories emerged.” He finds that such events are normal, when anger or pain might re-emerge temporarily.
“Grief is like an ocean beach,” reflected a woman pastor one afternoon over tea. “Waves come steadily for a while, then suddenly a giant wave comes crashing in.”
“These ‘waves of desperation’ are not an over-reaction,” believes Dr. Lami Leary, a grief therapist. She consults and writes for LifeNet Health in www.healingthespirit.org that counsels organ donor families. She mentions that grief bursts are so common and expected that in the bereavement field they are referred to as STUG-Subsequent Temporary Upsurge of Grief. Not only are they a healthy and understandable part of grief, she finds they offer a positive opportunity. These temporary moments allow us to visit the memory of one we love, feel this love, and turn this difficult time into a meaningful passage.
What triggers memories or grief bursts for you? When they happened, what proved helpful or harmful for you?
“You won’t always feel this bad.” This was the quiet assurance a friend gave Babs a few weeks after her 16-year-old son died while rolling his truck on a mountain road. Reeling from the loss of her only child, she found “these words gave me immense comfort because I knew she’d been there after her own child’s death.”
She expressed the concern of mothers and fathers everywhere who carry the burden of sorrow beyond imagination when a beloved child dies. It’s a question I also carried after our 25-year-old daughter Krista was killed while volunteering in Bolivia.
“I liken grief to an intruder who breaks into your house, demands attention and takes over your life,” explained Jan Skaggs whose only daughter Cameron died in a crosswalk during college.
“It can feel violent, rude, and socially unacceptable, such as when I’d cry at inappropriate places. But in time, I recognized grief was here to stay. It would never leave. I’d never be able to go back to the new normal.”
“So I invited grief to sit at the table and offered hospitality. It became my friend.”
Four Reasons to Befriend Grief
1) Bereavement is a healthy, normal, and universal response to losing one we love.
“If he is worth loving, he is worth grieving,” states Nicholas Wolsterdorff in Lament for a Son, an eloquent account of his devastation after the mountain climbing death of his son Eric. “Grief is existential testimony to the worth of one loved. That worth abides. So I own my grief.”
Twelve years later, he said, “The wound is no longer raw. But it has not disappeared. That is as it should be. I do not try to put it behind me, to get over it, to forget it.”
Parental love is forever, and many parents speak of ways they continue bonds with their child. “When thoughts of Dawnya rise up,” says Diana Hartvigsen, whose daughter died twenty years ago, “I don’t try to suppress them. I allow myself to let them arise.”
2)“Attending” to grief often allows for deeper and earlier healing.
After my faculty colleague Jerry Sittser experienced the catastrophic death of his wife, daughter, and mother by a drunk driver, he told me of a terrible nightmare. Fleeing towards the sun, he felt the darkness engulf him. “My sister reminded me that the shortest distance to the light of the sun is east, through the darkness, until one comes to the sunrise.” Recognizing darkness was unavoidable, he writes in A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows through Grief of his decision to allow himself to be transformed by suffering.
As many parents expressed, all encompassing grief demands attention for healthy emotional growth. In the second year after Krista’s death, my husband took a solo-backpacking trip with our dog Scout into the Olympic National rainforest. Facing his profound sorrow brought deep refreshment on his own pilgrimage through grief.
In contrast, grief counselors observe that “unattended sorrow” can lead some to a narrowing and fading trust in life, emotional distancing, or even life- destructive addictions.
3) Grief can expands wisdom, clarifying what’s really important in our lives.
At Krista’s memorial, I saw a college friend of hers who endured the murder of her 2-year-old nephew. “How did your family ever survive such loss?” I asked.
Molly paused briefly, and then said simply, “Our joys become more intense.” It’s insight I’ve never forgotten as Jim and I seek to live with immense gratitude for each day.
When Marilyn Carlson Nelson’s daughter Juliet died in a car accident, this became a crucible moment for Marilyn. In her book How We Lead Matters, she speaks of emerging from her anger and depression at such a senseless death. Now acutely aware than each day could be their last, she writes, “My husband and I made a new commitment to living our lives to the fullest, making each day count.” She later became the first female CEO of Carlson, the world’s largest global travel business and initiated sound principles of love and care into this corporate structure.
4) Grief often becomes a catalyst for positive action
Beneath sorrow, there lies a wellspring of love for the one we have lost. When a grieving person accesses this, it become the source of amazing energy and creativity, and the catalyst for positive actions.
“But death can bring fear,” admits Pennye Nixon-West, whose 16-year-old daughter was killed while a Rotary student overseas. “Eventually I had to decide to either wilt or die or to be open to the opportunities that evolved from Etta’s death, including the willingness to grow.” Future blogs and my upcoming book Pilgrimage through Loss will show the beauty of such growth.
For Jan, who invited grief to be a guest at the table over ten years ago, she found befriending grief expanded her heart. “Life has been reconstructed. Grief knocked out walls of assumptions, prejudice and quick judgment and has built a much larger room now. My life is more grace filled, more welcoming to others, filled with a lighter heart.”
In what ways have you found that befriending and choosing to give attention to grief has been important?
Don’t get me wrong. Grief sucks; it really does. Unfortunately, though, avoiding it robs us of Life, of the now, of the sense of living spirit….The bad news is that whatever you use to keep the pain at bay robs you of the flecks and nuggets of gold that feeling grief will give you. ~Anne LaMott, Traveling Mercies