Much is made in bereavement circles about the different ways in which men and women grieve and mourn their loved ones. Men are said to be stoic, strong, tough, aloof, silent, tearless, and on the whole incapable of expressing emotion. Women are characterized as nurturing, emotional, weepy, panicky, swooning, and possessed by a need to share their grief through talking, writing, and hugging. Do these views accurately reflect the ways in which men and women grieve? Maybe sometimes, but not necessarily: the differences are often based on individuality rather than gender.
While cultural expectations abound regarding how men and women grieve, and how they should grieve, they do not define the many ways men and women actually do grieve.
It is true that in many of the Western industrialized countries, men are often reported by wives, girlfriends, sisters, and mothers as being unable to discuss deaths of loved ones, let alone display any emotion other than general anger – and sometimes, not even that. The women in their lives sometimes worry that they are bottling their emotions, unwilling to state what they really feel because they wish to avoid being perceived as weak, or are simply incapable of showing emotion due to biological reasons.
What is not so often reported is that men do grieve intensely - and expressively. We have evidence of this throughout literature, and in the history of Greek and Roman cultures, in which strong, masculine heroes shed tears and embraced. In "The Iliad," for example, Odysseus had no conflict between his heroic qualities and the fact that he often wept for home, dead loved ones, and fallen comrades. There are plenty other examples of men who grieve emotionally.
I am one such man. I have met others. We have cried together, given one another hugs, listened and shared support, and been open with our feelings. We have done this with each other alone as well as in the presence of our female friends and relatives. We know that there are men - both heterosexual and gay - who have no difficulty crying when they are in grief over someone's death, and from many other causes. Some even shed tears during movies. (I do this, too.) Men who are at ease with their emotions come in an infinite variety of ages, personalities, and appearances: they can be, for example, small and sensitive-looking intellectuals, tall, muscular jocks, or just "average guys" who watch football and drink beer on Sundays. When my daughter died, a powerfully-built policeman held me tight, and together, we wept; he was one of the strongest men I have ever met and it had nothing to do with his considerable physical strength or station in life.
Some men are inexpressive. That may be alright, too.
Quite a few women defy the stereotype of being "weak, emotional females," and prefer to grieve quietly. They may find their losses too overwhelming, or even too private or sacred, to put into words. They may never shed a tear, but instead, perhaps, go for a walk, alone, or write in a journal, or even not think much about it. My wife tends to be reserved in her expression of grief. She grieves intensely, but privately, and I respect her way of grieving, because I respect her, and appreciate her individuality. It does not mean she is emotionally "cold" - far from it; she is one of the warmest, most nurturing and considerate people I have ever known. The way women grieve has little to do with their gender, or their age, physical characteristics, or sexual preferences. As with men, cultural factors can come into play, but this is never a given, and shouldn't be an expectation of anyone.
Some women are consistently emotional in grief and mourning. Such behavior can also be quite fine.
Perceived differences in the way men and women grieve have little basis in human biology. Just as there is no "shopping gene" that causes women to automatically accumulate shoes and handbags, there is no "football" gene for men, no "Clint Eastwood” gene that makes men hard, cold, unemotional. Gender-responses may be noticeable among some men and women, but these are caused mostly by cultural conditioning, not genetics. Sure, hormonal factors can come into play, but no matter the gender, hormonal reactions can be quite inconsistent, and do not account all that much for differences in the way people grieve.
If all your life you are told, as a man, that you are unemotional, or as a woman, that you must cry, you may come to exhibit these behaviors. In reality, there are huge variations in the way we grieve, not based on gender, but on individuality. For this reason I do not, in my work with the bereaved, have separate groups for men and women. I support each person's unique experience of grief, and not cultural expectations of the bereaved. I do not wish to perpetuate damaging stereotypes. To be able to really grieve, people need to do it on their own terms, in the ways they are guided to do by the nature of their own personalities, the individuality of the people who died, their relationships with them, the surroundings, and myriad other factors.
I never thought much about death before my daughter died. Neither did my wife. Like most people in Western culture, we denied death, never mentioning the topic and always avoiding it through constant distractions such as shopping, TV, video games, sports trivia, eating, and so forth. Our focus was on making it, getting ahead, striving until our "ship came in." The idea that our daughter could die was so abominable and unthinkable that it almost never crossed our minds. Rather, we taught her common-sense ways of living and trusted that God would protect her throughout a long life. So when she was struck by a car and killed at age 14, our world stopped. Our belief-system crumbled. We beheld death, which has never left us, and faced it straight-on. We grieved. We continue to grieve.
For the first few years, my wife and I grieved in similar ways. We sobbed throughout each day and night. I would cry, and my wife would comfort me. When my tears ran out, she would cry, and I would comfort her. Sometimes we wept together, for hours at a time. But then there were plenty of times when my wife would be silent. Like a wounded animal she would go off to be alone. In the coming years, she tended to do this with greater frequency, while I continued to cry. We never questioned each other on how we expressed our feelings. Because we recognized our mutual cosmic anguish over the worst possible thing that could ever happen to either of us, we gladly and lovingly accorded one another space to figure out our own best ways of grieving.
As the years went by, we not only continued to grieve uniquely, but our grief changed. Thirteen years later, we still grieve. We have no preset ways of going about it, even from one day to the next.
In our experience of providing support for thousands of people from all over the world who are in deep grief over the death of loved ones, or for other reasons, we have found that there are as many was of grieving as there are people in grief. And yet, sometimes men do grieve stoically, and women emotionally. We hear about it often enough from their family and friends. "My husband won't cry or even mention the name of our child!" "My wife cries all the time about her mother - I think she is broken and needs psychiatric help."
Certainly, such differences are prevalent in a culture that places a great premium on people acting the same way. In the consumerist societies of the United States, Canada, and the UK, there are tremendous forces at work on each person, from the time of one's birth until the end of life, to follow specific patterns of behavior. In school and church we are taught that men exhibit one set of characteristics, women another. This is reinforced by an unceasing barrage of propaganda through television and other media. Why? Because when people can be conditioned to live and act in certain prescribed ways, they are more easily controlled, and make better, more docile, consumers. This propaganda has its origins in the Industrial Revolution and extends to grieving stereotypes, because if the ways people grieve can be controlled, and people guided to "get over it" in a "suitable" time-period, then their focus can once again be returned to the old pursuits of producing and consuming.
Fortunately, there have always been people who resisted such notions. Many whose worlds are stopped by the death of a relative, friend, or beloved pet, immediately realize that nothing else in life can compare to the magnitude of such an event. Thoughts of "getting over it," or "being strong," or "being a man," become revealed for their hollowness, and are jettisoned as harmful illusions. When one has lost the person he or she lived for, and the world collapses, concerns about "being masculine" or "acting like a proper woman," or living to impress others, fly out the window. What becomes important is learning to stay alive, and to live with one's grief.
If you have a family member or friend who is in grief, and not acting the way you think he or she should, ask yourself: Why do I have an agenda for this person? Do I really know best about how someone should grieve? Even if it is my own husband or wife? Does my society even know? Is there another way I can support this person rather than by pushing my own views?
Suppose that your husband cannot cry, cannot talk about the death of his daughter. Is this necessarily wrong? Does it really mean he is not wounded to the core? Or what if your wife is never quiet on the subject of her grandfather's death: she cries at all hours, never sleeps, has stopped doing housework and appears to have no interest in anything. Must you intervene?
While it can be helpful for some people to express emotions during grief, or at times not express it, it can be destructive to pester them about it. Sometimes a person will not cry for a year, or even mention the loved one who died, and then suddenly break down and grieve forever after. I have a friend who lost her husband, parents, and grandparents, all within a period of a few months, and she did not acknowledge her grief for 20 years. Then one day it hit her, and began coming out. It still is, years later, and she runs one of the finest bereavement sites on the Internet. A woman who read in the paper about our daughter's death began a correspondence with me in which she revealed that, following her own daughter's death, she did not leave her bed for three years. Her relatives continually pressured her to get counseling. However, she trusted her instincts, began a ministry of writing to people such as us who'd lost their children, and, after three years, emerged strong and able from the bedroom. I have known men who cried every day for years and then, suddenly, a day came when there were no more tears. Or people who grieved like clockwork: for two weeks they were in pain, and then, like magic, had no more pain whatsoever. This may seem strange to those of us (me) who consider it absolutely fine to be in deep grief until we die, but really, such a mode of grieving may be just right for some. Who are we to say otherwise?
In Latin countries, in the country of Norway, and in areas of Africa and Asia, people are often wonderfully free of cultural expectations of how to mourn the deaths of loved ones. Men and women may cry, or not cry, and it is OK; the focus is not on fulfilling cultural expectations, or “getting it over with” so “normal life” can resume, but on honoring the lives of the deceased, and being true to one's personal experience of grief.
The variations of grief are infinite and ever-evolving, and none of us should attempt to confine a person's way of grieving to fit our own notions. There are of course instances of grieving that are self-destructive, or destructive to others, and in such cases, professional help should be sought. But often, people seem to develop their own natural and relatively safe strategies for grieving.
Friends Along the Road creates sanctuaries - temporary and permanent - in which people may grieve on their own terms, in their own ways. We believe that often, the best thing that can be done for those in grief is to make them as safe and as comfortable as possible, be present, have resources at hand, and then get out of the way so they may make their own journeys of discovery.
Take heart: No matter your gender, age, sexual preference, or cultural background, you have the natural right to grieve as you wish!
To learn about Sanctuary Anywhere - how to create it and how to teach it to others, please visit www.friendsalongtheroad.org.