Research has found differences between men and women in how they typically respond to death.
By: Elizabeth Harper Neeld
4 years ago
On the fourth day after Greg died, I finally cried. Two friends who had not been able to come to the funeral flew from New York to Tennessee. I wanted to drive to the airport to get them. When I sat down behind the wheel of the car, every detail of Monday afternoon came back to me. Leaving the cabin. Looking for Greg. Asking the man what had happened. Stretching high to reach the wire-mesh step at the back of the ambulance. As I remembered, the tears came in a torrent.
And now I could not stop crying. I cried as I typed letters. I cried when I went to bed at night, and I cried when I woke up in the morning. At times during the day I would feel rushes of grief, like waves, and I would sob convulsively…
Of course, the manner in which each of us expresses our grief varies. I remember that my 72-year-old father showed little outward emotion while he was with the family in the weeks following Greg’s death. But he spent an inordinate amount of time by himself on the creek, in his old wooden boat. He later told us that during these periods of solitude he talked out loud to Greg, prayed and just let the boat drift where it wanted to go on the water.
—Excerpt from "Seven Choices" by Elizabeth Harper Neeld
Before we talk about whether or not men and women grieve differently, let’s note this truth. As Dr. Colin Parkes reminds us, there is an “optimal level of grieving” that differs from one person to another. No two people—no matter their gender—grieve alike. There is no right way to grieve. Someone once said that we grieve as we live. If someone is a reserved stoic in life in general, that person is likely to grieve as a reserved stoic. If someone else finds it easy to express emotion in life, then that person will be more likely to show grief by expressing emotion. What is important is that grief be expressed. What is not important is the specific manner in which that expression occurs.
But what about men and women? Do they, in general, express grief differently?
Researchers suggest this: there is what might be called a “male model” of grief and what might be called a “female model” of grief. But all women do not display the “female model”; and all men do not display the “male model.” Phyllis Silverman, who did important work on grieving at Harvard, points out that there is a “male model” of loss, in which one speaks of “learning to break away from the past.” Persons—and they might be women or men—who follow this “male model” prefer to “get on with life” and quickly involve themselves in work or other activities.
A “female model” of grief, however, emphasizes connection rather than disengagement and separation. Those who identify with this model are more comfortable saying, “You don’t break your ties with the past; you change your ties.” People—and this, too, can be men and women—following the “female model” are more inclined to display grief to others, reach out to one or more persons around them, and to talk more openly about the loss.
Those inclined to the “male model” will keep grief to themselves, work hard to avoid losing control in front of others, and refrain from asking for help or assistance. In the “female model,” feeling related or connected is of paramount importance, while in the “male model” feeling independent and autonomous is critical. What is most important here is to recognize that people—men and women—grieve consistently with their way of responding to life in general. Often when a husband and wife are grieving at the same time, one will think the other is not feeling the same depth of pain because the outward expressions are different. Or two siblings may respond very differently to the death of an adult parent, causing one to criticize the other for not caring or not giving proper respect.
There is, of course, a response to grieving that brings serious repercussions, for women and men alike. That is the response that shows an unwillingness to express grief in any form at all. It is a life-and-death choice for those of us who lose someone to be willing to express our grief fully…whatever the method that is right for us. Not to do so is to set ourselves up for a life of illness, bitterness, anger, sense of deadness, or lack of joy. Whatever our form of grieving, we want to reach a place of integration where we can again feel engaged with life. That is the outcome of healthy grieving, no matter what form that grieving might have taken.
Dr. Elizabeth Harper Neeld offers wisdom and practical insights born of personal experience to people rebuilding their lives after suffering grief and loss. As an internationally recognized and accomplished consultant, advisor, and author of more than twenty books—including Tough Transitions and Seven Choices: Finding Daylight After Loss Shatters Your World—she is committed to work that helps lift the human spirit.
Originally published May 2008 on Legacy