Is There Really a Gender Difference in the Grieving Process?

Phyllis Silverman, Ph.D., a member of the National Widowers’ Organization, Inc. board of directors, is a widely recognized expert of grieving. She is the author of five books, including “Widow to Widow: How the Bereaved Help One Another” (Routledge, 2nd edition; 2004). Read more about her here.

In feminist literature today there is a good deal of emphasis on the way men and women are more alike than not. I would agree that on one level this is true. I know that men and women have similar feelings when someone close dies. Their sense of sadness, loss, emptiness, and yearning for the person who has died may be very much alike.

However, what we do with these feelings, how we cope, seems to be in many ways different for men and for women. It may also look different from person to person, depending on who died and when in the life cycle the death occurred. To understand the differences we need to look beyond the individuals to ask about the world they came from. How was grief handled in that community? What are/were their traditions of mourning, and the differences between the roles men and women were assigned? While each of us grieves in our own way, each of us is conditioned by the community around us.

I have recently been reflecting on what I learned from more than 40 years of research in the world of the bereaved. We no longer talk about stages of grieving; grief doesn’t go in a straight line. We are changed irrevocably by the loss of someone so close as a spouse, or a child, even a best friend. We do not recover. This is an integral part of the life cycle. It’s human, it’s normal, we’re not “sick.”

That said, we learn to live in the world differently. We do not put the past behind us. Instead, we find ways of carrying it into the future, recognizing how these deeply felt emotions and experiences make us who we are today, and who we will become. In the past 20 years there have been many changes, not only in the way we understand grief but also in the roles men and women play in their families, and in their community. Yet in many ways those roles have stayed the same. It is more acceptable among younger men to cry, to give voice to a sadness and emptiness in their lives when their wives pass away. Many men still insist on appearing strong, able to manage on their own. They turn to women in their lives to provide care, sympathy, and support. They are often reluctant to join a support group because they do not want to appear “needy.”

I recall a father of young children I interviewed researching my 2009 book, “A Parent’s Guide to Raising Grieving Children.” He thought he should be able to mange everything when his wife died. While he was of a younger generation, he did not think it was appropriate for anyone to see him cry or let his sadness show. He was not influenced by a more contemporary image of how men behave. He did not see what he could learn from other parents, nor did he see his children’s sadness and need for attention.

A friend was concerned about this and finally convinced him to join a program for bereaved children and their families. As he listened to others stories, he was able to accept how his wife’s death had affected him and how he had to change to become more sensitive to his children’s needs and to his own grief as well. He says that he would now encourage any widower he meets to join such a group, to talk with others and to see how he needs to change in a more realistic way.

Older widowers may be more reluctant to accept their need for others, since they are more entrenched in old socialized roles that insist maintain an image of independence. Another man I interviewed had refused to visit a senior center where he could meet others in his community to share a hot lunch. His neighbors saw him getting more and more depressed while he insisted he was just fine on his own. He finally agreed to come, if only to get his neighbors off his back. Though he didn’t want to discuss his grief, after a few visits he joined a book group at the center. Over time he became more animated and involved.

As we professionals in the field gather more data on the grieving process, now focusing more attention on the growing number of widowers, we begin to learn that there is no one single kind of help to assuage the suffering of loss. It’s different from person to person. What strikes me most, especially after reading The New York Times story about widowers that featured the work of the National Widowers’ Organization, Inc., is that, despite our years of research, study and analysis, it’s the bereaved themselves who best learn from each other how to accept their grief.