gender differences in grief
Do men and women grieve differently?
Soon after Jim and I were engaged following just a three-month courtship, I mentioned to him that someday I wanted to go to Africa. The next day he took me out to lunch and expressed his alarm. “You have to understand, Linda, that I’m a poor graduate student.” Moreover, since he was immersed in doctoral studies at the University of Washington, he added, “and I probably will be for several years.”
At the time I found his concern for clarity endearing, and I assured him my idea of “someday” could mean years away. But it gave me a glimpse into the life-long effort married couples need to make to understand one another just on the small things. Maybe some glimmers of truth hover within the cliche that”Women are from Venus; Men are from Mars.”
A few weeks later, he announced seriously, “I’m in this for the ‘long haul.'” Mesmerized with being ‘in love’ and far more interested in giving focus to the daily joys of our romance and upcoming wedding, his declaration of our future ‘long haul’ had a dreary and decidedly unromantic sound! Who is this man I’ve just agreed to marry? “That annoys me,” I responded. One more communication gap. At that time, I didn’t know how his beliefs about commitment had been significantly shaped by watching his father’s faithfulness during his mother’s two-year bout with mental illness. A hysterectomy left her with a serious hormone imbalance that disrupted their family life in painful ways, even leading to her temporary institutionalization. His dad stuck with her and her eventual return to health gave them years more of satisfying marriage, and a model their three sons respected.
GENDER DIFFERENCES in GRIEVING?
Partners in a relationship when a child dies face far more profound communication differences. Shortly after Krista died, while canoeing with a father who lost his son, he mentioned, “Be aware that almost 90% of marriages end after the death of a child.” Since he was a scientist, at first I took his statistics at face value. Great, I thought. Am I now at risk of losing a husband I love as well as a cherished daughter? Later, my own research instincts kicked in and I learned that Compassionate Friends, an organization for parents who have lost children, conducted research and discovered that only 16% of couples divorce after such a devastating death, far different than this popular urban myth perpetuates. Also far lower than the national divorce rate.
Yet, it didn’t explore how satisfied couples were with their level of communication. Many men and women have spoken to me of their differences while living the pilgrimage through loss. In a book Grieving Beyond Gender: Understanding the Ways Men and Women Mourn, Kenneth Doka and Terry Martin explore these communication styles that often trouble relationships. Doka’s observations began thirty-nine years ago as a pediatric chaplain at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer hospital when couples often mentioned the differences in how they grieved their losses. With the added reality of divorces, blended families, stepparents, and absent parents, there are often multiple layers to a family’s dynamic.
He observed two distinct grieving styles. He believes men tend to grieve in an “instrumental” style; they prefer actions, working through the pain by doing and thinking. He observed that women are typically “intuitive” grievers, more feeling-oriented, with waves of emotion and much verbalizing. When couples differ, it becomes too easy to be judgmental of the other wondering “Why does she cry so much and always need to talk?” or “Why won’t he express what he’s feeling, or is he not really in grief?” Although these general patterns may prevail, Doka cautions that these styles are not restricted to gender and simply may vary by one’s temperament and the relationship with the child.
I agree. Instead, I value Isabel Allende’s words that say “sorrow is a solitary road.” I have found myself alternating between both these descriptions at various times.
For a more complete description of their work, please see my earlier blog post When Men & Women Grieve.
Do you feel Doka’s descriptions ring true for what you’ve observed about yourself or another? Where might it differ?
Jim was right…it took over 30 years before we finally visited Africa! Thankfully, I’ve come to a deep appreciation of Jim’s commitment to the long haul as the intensity of our grieving alternated between us in the following years. Now we are off to the enchanting Wallowa Lake in Oregon where we’re meeting friends to hike and share a little cabin for a few days. This should be an ideal wilderness area to continue preparing for our upcoming Healing and Nature workshop at the national Compassionate Friends conference in Chicago in July. Hope you are enjoying some days of sunshine too!