As I write about raising grieving children I most often have a picture of a grieving mother in my mind. The statistics about death rates, in families with dependent children at home, clearly indicate that men die at an earlier age than women. I was Co-Principal investigator of the Harvard Child Bereavement Study. Roughly speaking there were approximately 3 widows for every widower who was taking care of dependent children. Was the experience different for them? I think so.
The differences are on many levels, and I think still relevant. There is research that indicates that men who are bereaved show higher illness rates. One way of accounting for this difference is that women tend to have active social support networks, that is other women with whom they can share their feelings and are more involved in each others emotional life. Recent evidence suggests that this network of support accounts for women's longevity and greater sense of well being. Other studies found grieving father more likely to be involved in concrete activities. When they got together with other men they did not share their feelings but were more likely to be involved in some kind of physical activity. This does not mean that these opportunities can't be used to share other aspects of their lives and when men are pressed they will talk about what other information and ideas were exchanged at these meetings.
I see some of these differences coming from the way men are socialized - that is how they see their role in raising the children and in running the household. This can become a generational issue. It was not so long ago that it was considered unmanly for men to cry in public. Nor was it acceptable for them to ask for help. They would often hide their grief, in their work or in other activities. The women's movement has brought about a big change in the way men are socialized today. They are more likely to be involved in daily family life, and in sharing in the raising of their children. They are less likely to hide their feelings and less likely to be afraid of tears. Yet many men still feel uncomfortable dealing with their feelings and showing their grief. Their wives were often the only ones with whom they could let their emotions show.
In some ways how they cope with being a single parent depends on how creative and imaginative men are about the mundane tasks that need doing to keep a household going. Most of the women, in the Child Bereavement Study talked about going on with what their daily life had always been like as they cared for the family. They felt the loss in not having a back up when the children were sick or had a problem.. They didn't have someone to share with them the responsibility of raising the children and who cared about the children as much as they did. .Many men interviewed talked about their wives being the glue that held the family together. They had to learn a whole new set of skills. One older teen ager, whose siblings were in various kinds of trouble at school, put this very clearly when his father fell apart after his wife's death. His father had taken care of his wife during her long illness but it took him 6 months to realize that while he had lost his wife, his children had lost their mother. His oldest son said: "If my mother was still alive we would still be a family".
Many men do learn these new skills. They are sensitive to their children's needs and very aware of what all of them had lost. One father changed his job, (not something that is always possible) so he would be closer to home if he was needed. His mother lived nearby and she was always there when the children came home from school. When mother has to work this is a problem she faces as well. It is often the grandparents who help out in this way. For some widowers their wives social security benefits help pay for a baby sitter.
One of the big differences is that widowers are more likely to date and to remarry much more quickly than widows do. There are simply more women available for them to meet, and often these men invited the women they dated to help in the house. This may seem straightforward but many children are not comfortable with another woman coming into the house as if their mother could simply be replaced. This would be true for widows as well but it less likely to occur as frequently or as soon after the death. All parents need to be sensitive to their children's feelings, but in this instance this takes a little more effort. One father handled this very well with his young children when he intended to remarry. He explained that they had 2 mothers. One who had given birth to them was in heaven and their new mother would take care of them now. This was not a replacement, rather a different mother.
In contrast one father started to date not long after his wife's death. It was his daughter, a high school senior, who reminded him that she was off to college the following year It was not her job to raise her younger sister. He realized that he was avoiding facing the loss and he could not continue to do that any longer. He didn't need to stop dating, he needed to look at the larger picture. He needed to be home most evenings and become involved in running the household He began to face his own grief as well as his daughters. He realized that he was much more comfortable talking to a woman. His men friends could not listen in the same way and had no patience to listen to all that he was going through..
As I am thinking about how men and women are so much alike and yet so different I wonder what keeps the differences alive. Some of it may come from the values of the community we live in, the culture that orients how we live our lives. I am reminded of what I still hear boys being told at the funeral. "You have to be strong now for your mother" "Take good care of her now". An irate mother told me what she yelled out at her husband's funeral. She made it very clear that "she could take care of herself and her children. They are still children and this is not an appropriate message". As we think about the way men are socialized we need to ask ourselves how much change is there?
Do old habits come out as friends and family face a death in a family with dependent children and are not sure what to say?