When I first met David and Ann (not their real names) their son was in a coma dying from a failed heart surgery. When I walked into the hospital room, Ann was crying at the bedside while David was in another part of the room. His head was down and he was playing a game on his phone. He looked up long enough to acknowledge my presence and then immediately went back to what he was doing. Every time I went to the hospital, David was always playing on his phone. The only time I saw him without the phone was at the funeral. David went back to work as soon as he could. It has been several years now and Ann reports that he still focuses the majority of his attention on his online games. Looking at this situation, some might assume that David didn’t care what was happening, didn’t love his son or was not experiencing grief. They would be wrong because David was just as impacted as Ann but dealt with his grief in a different way.
The above account is not unusual for the couples I have seen who have lost children. Given that men’s and women’s brains are anatomically and functionally different, it comes as no surprise that we have different ways of handling emotions, processing information and behaving. These differences are perhaps most apparent during times of grief. In addition to biological differences, there are other factors that help determine how the sexes grieve, such as past experiences with death, family styles of grieving and societal norms. While there is no set way for either sex to mourn, there are certain behaviors that are more typically associated with men. Even though the culture is changing, most men have been conditioned not to show their emotions. They feel their job is to be “the strong one” following a death. They view their role as that of the problem solver; caretaker and the one that others can lean on and look to for support. Women are expected to grieve openly while men often believe they must hide their feelings. Their grieving tends to be more of a private, solitary experience. They may allow themselves to cry in the shower or when in the car or walking the dog. However, they will rarely cry in front of other people; not even with close male friends. Men are more likely to display anger than sadness. They tend to return to work as soon as possible. They try to keep busy and lose themselves in some activity such as playing video games or doing something physical. Being active is an important part of the way men tend to cope.
Since there is no right or wrong way to grieve, these different styles only become an issue when one partner thinks the other is not grieving correctly, meaning not grieving in the same way that they are. We frequently see this in couples in which one partner, usually the wife, openly expresses her grief while the husband does not. This misunderstanding can often lead to even more heartbreak when she perceives him as being cold and unfeeling. He can be resentful of her for always crying and for not letting him grieve in his own way. Another common complaint from the wife is that he won’t talk to her about the death and would seem to rather spend his time away from her. He, however, is uncomfortable with her tears. They upset him and make him feel helpless and more emotional, thus the need to distance himself. Another difference that arises at this time is the way men and women feel about intimacy and sex. Loss of interest in intimacy is not uncommon when parents are grieving the loss of a child. A woman may completely shut down her need for physical contact while a man may not. Couples need to work together to reestablish this part of their lives. Until then, it is important for the couple to maintain some degree of tenderness and affection until both partners are ready to reengage in intimacy.
How one grieves is not the issue. What is important is that we understand that there are these differences and that they need to be understood and accepted. Communication is the key. Grieving a loss is hard enough without also having conflicts in the marriage. We all have to find a safe place and techniques for expressing our grief. There is a myth that after the loss of a child, a couple will divorce. While this does happen, it is certainly not a given. Helping men and women learn to understand and accept the way the other grieves is important in sustaining the relationship.