I had always thought that the different ways in which men and women react to their grief was purely due to the natural characteristics of their gender.
However, a little while ago I heard Dr Gordon Riches, a well-respected researcher and co-author of ‘An Intimate Loneliness’, speak about gender differences in grieving. One of his main points was that the way we grieve is not so much influenced by our gender as by our ‘social envelope’ – the daily role we adopt and work within, where our identity and sense of self-worth is shaped by our environment. That certainly made sense to me and helped explain some of those ‘exceptions’ – particularly perhaps in this age of greater equality where a number of women have taken on the more traditional male role of being the main ‘breadwinner’ (where men are mentioned from now on, that also includes some women).
Many men exist in a different social envelope to their partner, where each person’s normal daily existence (and thus their sense of identity) is very different. This can apply whether both are working (normally in very different environments), or one person is at home caring for the family. When their child dies, both social envelopes are ripped (also ripping at the marriage and the family) – and the way that each person reacts to the death of their child may well be different.
What is important to realise is that there is no right or wrong way to grieve. A phrase we often use is ‘be kind to yourselves’ – that means looking after each other but also recognising and respecting the differences in the way you each grieve. One of you may cry often, whereas the other may hardly cry at all. One person may find that talking a lot brings release, whereas the other may prefer periods of healthy activity to work out their emotions. No matter what the differences or similarities, as in any good relationship, communication is essential – so do work at maintaining that and tell each other how you feel.
Men aren’t always very good at asking for help (particularly if our ‘social envelope’ involves a level of responsibility) – we often feel that it is a sign of weakness or failure, particularly as we are supposed to protect our family. However, many men who ‘take the plunge’ find that it is very helpful to talk to another bereaved dad, as very often that can help us discover that we are not the only one to have ever felt or reacted the way we do! The Weekend and Day events that we run, as well as our telephone befriending service, offer a great opportunity to do that.
After our son died, Kath and I found that there were times that one of us was able to support the other, but at other times we simply weren’t strong enough – it was at those times we found that we needed to give each other a little space, but then afterwards to tell each other how we were feeling. Talking to someone else was also really helpful.
So, in conclusion, don’t be afraid of reacting differently within your relationship. You each lost the same person, but as their Mum and Dad you each had a different and unique relationship with them – so in many ways, differences aren’t surprising. And don’t be afraid to talk to someone else, woman to woman or man to man – it isn’t an admission of failure, and you’ll be glad you did!