grieving mothers and fathers
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?