As social beings we develop connections with people in our lives. When these connections change, or are lost, we grieve. Grief is very personal and cannot be compared easily with other people’s experiences. Equally it is important not to judge other’s reactions based on our own experience as each person’s loss and subsequent grief is unique. Many things contribute to the way we react to loss. One important factor is gender.
Although we all experience grief differently, it is important to understand that there are also essential differences in the way males and females grieve. Our gender impacts on our experience of grief, our expression of grief and others’ perceptions of our grief. Males and females often react to loss in different ways and therefore have different needs in times of grief. There are a number of biological and social influences that contribute to the differences between men and women. These influences can lead to men and women having different needs, wants and expectations that we find our relationships struggling at a time when we need each other most. By gaining a greater understanding of these differences, we may find there is less conflict in our relationships and we are better able to support and be supported in times of loss and grief.
Being male or female is not a clear dichotomy. Most men and women have a mix of masculine and feminine qualities. The important issue is not how masculine or feminine we are but how these qualities influence our experience of grief and affect those around us. Armed with this understanding we can develop more fulfilling relationships in our daily lives and during times of grief.
It is important to remember that when exploring the influence of gender on grief there is no “best” way to grieve.
Men and women are equal
Firstly, we are equal because grief has no claim on gender. We all experience loss at some time, be it the death of a loved one, end of a significant relationship, loss of a job, or experiencing illness or disability. Both men and women experience a reaction to this loss that is, our grief. Secondly, because men and women generally think, feel, talk and act differently from each other we equally have little understanding of one another’s needs. This can be exacerbated by the intensity of grief.
The debate of nature versus nurture has been explored over and over again regarding gender and how it relates to many issues. The issue of gender and grief does not escape this debate. Many believe the socialisation of boys to play tough and girls to mimic nurturing roles explains our very different expectations and experiences of grief. Alternatively, others believe we are genetically programmed for our differing reactions to loss. Humans are complex beings and to date it has not been possible to determine the extent to which nature and nurture contribute to the differences in the way men and women react to loss. However an understanding of the biological, historical and social influences on gender may assist in understanding why, in our society when faced with loss, men are generally considered to be stoic and strong and women are seen as nurturing and emotional.
There are some fundamental biological differences between the sexes that cannot be disputed and are directly linked to the way men and women experience and express emotion.
Firstly, it is important to note that men and women’s brains differ in structure. The difference in the neural structure of the male and female brain can be linked to the ability to use language to express feelings. One side of the human brain specialises in processing emotion and the other side in processing thought. Recent studies of MRI scans have shown that often men have fewer neural connectors between the two hemispheres of the brain. This may mean that men are physically less able to express emotion verbally. Scans have shown women to have an increased number of connections between the emotional and logical hemispheres of the brain allowing them to be more conducive to verbal expression of emotion. This difference in brain structure means that women are more likely to have a vocabulary for grief and a need to communicate with others about their emotional experience. Men however generally explore and discuss their experiences using cognitive processes. You could say that men and women really do speak a different language (Miller and Golden 1998).
Whilst masculine communication styles can be misinterpreted as being uncaring or detached, feminine communication is often described as histrionic, and irrational. By understanding the biological influences on male and female responses to loss, we are better able to appreciate the differences between the sexes.
These biological differences also contribute to why men tend to cry less often than women. Production of the hormone that produces emotional tears is significantly reduced in males from the onset of puberty. “Men are actually programmed by their bodies to cry less” (Golden, Miller 1998:9). It is important to remember that the absence of tears does not equate to the absence of pain. Your partner may express their emotions in different ways. You may find they are restless, more irritable, engage themselves in active tasks or spend more time alone than usual. Shedding tears is not the only way to express the pain of loss.
When relating to your partner in times of stress, do not expect the visual and auditory cues relating to grief to match your own. Look, see and hear beyond your own experiences to learn about other ways grief can be expressed.
Your approaches may be different, but the basic fact remains that no matter who we are, we all experience the aftermath of a loss and that is grief, whatever shape or form it may take.
Historically, two important functions have helped define men’s relationships with others. Men have been seen as the protector and provider. Their role has been to watch out for others safety and to take care of others physical needs. To fulfill these roles, men use the “fight or flight” defense mechanism. In times of crisis, hormones surge through their bodies and they either stay and fight or run (Golden, Miller 1998). Men are therefore more likely to evaluate a problem and look to solve issues rather than experience them emotionally. This mechanism allows men to filter situations and sometimes even turn off to them so that they continue to function on the task at hand. Men will often see that their primary role in a situation of crisis is to care for their loved ones and protect them from further pain (Wood, Milo 2001). The role of protector can over ride their own emotional experience of loss.
Women’s role has historically been to nurture and care. Women’s responsibility has been to take care of the vulnerable people in the community. The young, the sick and the elderly are reliant on the nurturing of their caregivers, who are most commonly women. Because of these responsibilities, women too have an intrinsic physiological response to stress – to “tend and befriend” (Taylor etal 2000:411). In times of stress, females respond by nurturing others around them. Women commonly exhibit behaviours that protect the vulnerable from harm. By “befriending”, women “create, maintain and utilise social groups to manage stressful situations” (Taylor etal 2000: P412). Seeking out others as a source of comfort is intrinsic to women’s nature. Often women will become hyper vigilant with their children when they are grieving. This too is an intrinsic physiological response borne from the roles and responsibilities of our ancestors.
“We are all born and raised to be the way that we are” (Golden, Miller 1998:p8 ). Much of the way we think, act and feel, is shaped by the way we were raised and our subsequent life experiences. Studies have shown that from childhood (particularly in previous generations) boys are discouraged from crying whilst girls are shown affection and attention when upset. Boys’ toys and activities tend to focus on action and movement whilst girls’ toys tend to centre around role plays and activities that encourage talking, nurturing and caring.
We have certain expectations of social behaviours we consider to be within normal boundaries. A man exhibiting a public display of emotion is often not socially accepted. The discomfort or even disapproval of others sends a clear message. When a man experiences this public disapproval he is unlikely to engage in this behaviour again or allow other males, in particular his sons, to act this way. Women who prefer to grieve alone and find it difficult to publicly express their feelings are often labeled as “cold” or “hard”. Those around her may believe she is in denial because she is not showing the emotions that are expected of her.
Our expectations of others to exhibit behaviours considered to be “normal” aide to perpetuate the social stereotypes of men and women. Approaching our own and others experience of loss with acceptance and understanding may help bridge some of these social barriers.
The differences between the way men and women grieve is very real and is not isolated to particular types of relationships, marriages or families. It is quite normal to find that you do not understand your partner’s reactions and behaviours during times of grief and likewise that your partner does not understand yours. Rest assured that partnerships do survive and relationships can also be strengthened by the experience.
Elizabeth Levang states in her book When Men Grieve that “grief ought not to be a point of division, but of connection” (1998:18). By examining the differences between males and females, we can not only have a greater understanding of ourselves but also have more meaningful and satisfying relationships with others.
Golden,T; Miller,J.E (1998) A Man You Know Is Grieving – 12 Ideas for Helping Him Heal from Loss. Indiana: Willow Green Publishing;
Levang.E (1998) When Men Grieve – Why Men Grieve Differently and How You Can Help. Minneapolis: Fairview Press;
Taylor,S; Cousino Klein,L; Lewis,B.P Gruenewald,T.L; Gurung,R.A.R; Updegraff,J.A (2000) Biobehavioral Responses to Stress in Females: Tend-and-Befriend, Not Fight-or-Flight Psychological Review, Vol. 107, No.3, pp411-429
Wood.J; Milo.E; (2001) Fathers Grief when a Disabled Child Dies. Washington: Brunner – Routledge
UNDERSTANDING HIS GRIEF:
- Do not expect tears, but understand that there is an intensity of emotion.
- Do not expect him to use words to describe feelings.
- Expect a need to intellectualise and problem solve as a means of making sense of the loss and the new world faced.
- Accept and respect the need for privacy and solitude. This is not a rejection of your support but rather the need for a sense of independence and control over the loss.
- Accept and respect the focus and investment of energy on the future rather than the past. This is a way of integrating the loss into life.
UNDERSTANDING HER GRIEF:
- Expect lots of tears; they are natural and normal and do not need you to stop them.
- Respect the need to share and communicate about the loss as a source of comfort. This is not a search for answers but a means to make sense of the new world faced.
- Accept and respect the need for social support. This is not a betrayal of intimate relationships or a rejection of support already offered, it is an ongoing need for social connections.
- Accept and respect the focus and investment in the past, this is a way to hold onto connections of the loss.