Do Men Grieve Differently from Women?

By Elizabeth Harper Neeld, Ph.D.

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 grieve differently from women, 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.

Related articles:
The Work of Grief
Family Reorganization After a Loss
Breaking the Silence: Death Through the Lens of Legacy
• Leaving a Legacy: Spiritual-Ethical Wills

Also by Elizabeth Harper Neeld:
How Can We Hope When There Is No Hope?
The Little Things We Do Make Us Stronger
What About This Thing Called 'Acceptance'?
What Helps When We’re Experiencing the Unthinkable

Elizabeth Harper Neeld 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.


Author's photo by Joey Bieber


Image: cliff1066/Flickr Creative Commons

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Comment by River of Tears on February 21, 2011 at 5:14am

When my Father lost his Father I remember this was one of the few times I ever saw him cry.  Years following many of his family members passed very close together which then I only saw him close off and shut all emotion down  a bit more each time .  Now as I face what he must have face only imagining what he felt I know and understand more of why he shut down this is painful real not only for the fact that he has passed but also knowing now what he must have felt and never really able to know .  I so wished he shared with me , but as I can not I understand so how can could I have expected him to something I am unable to do at all .  I am only not feeling guilty that I did not understand to the extent of what he must  have felt though I was sensitive and always wanted to be there for him.  Even if he was able to show emotion before I know now with grief it is something entirely different that is not easily understood even by the one going through it all .  As many Fathers ,Men seem to always do or be ,  what  I wish was that I could have told him ,that no matter what, I was there for him and he did not have to say nothing at all .    

 

To each may this pain be one that you do not have to hand over ,it is one for us to understand . 

 

Take care

Comment by Connie Tate on May 14, 2009 at 2:03pm
When I lost my daughter, Angie, in 2005, I really didnt think I was going to make it. I had her this beautiful headstone made in Seattle, purple was her favorite color. I still cry every day, and I miss her so much it hurts. I guess some mothers can move on, but she was all I had. It is very hard.
Comment by Danielle on May 14, 2008 at 8:02pm
When my husband and I lost our son it took my husband year's before
he shed a tear around friends and family. He basically shut his
emotions down in order to deal with the situation. On several
occasions, I would walk in to a room or go out the garage and find
him crying, but he just couldn't bring himself to show emotions
around others. We saw a family therapist for years and still
frequently attend a support group through our church. I would agree
that men and women do grieve differently, but am just happy we had
the support of our friends, family and church to help us get
through the situation.
Comment by Danielle on May 14, 2008 at 8:02pm
When my husband and I lost our son it took my husband year's before
he shed a tear around friends and family. He basically shut his
emotions down in order to deal with the situation. On several
occasions, I would walk in to a room or go out the garage and find
him crying, but he just couldn't bring himself to show emotions
around others. We saw a family therapist for years and still
frequently attend a support group through our church. I would agree
that men and women do grieve differently, but am just happy we had
the support of our friends, family and church to help us get
through the situation.

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