Taking It Like a Man: Understanding Grieving Styles

A new conceptual framework transcends gender.

Posted Jul 04, 2016

When Brad’s infant son died, he was surprised and troubled at the extent of his wife’s grief. Every night she disconsolately cried herself to sleep. He was also perplexed at his own lack of tears. “Why am I not grieving?” he constantly asked himself. Yet as he asked this question, he would be alone in his workshop sculpting a memorial stone for his child. “What is wrong with me? Why can’t I feel grief?” he reflected, as he pounded his hammer on a chisel.

Friends often wondered about Alicia. When her husband John died, she used the insurance to finance her graduate education. She thinks of John frequently, taking comfort that her new job has allowed her to continue to support their family. But friends keep questioning her, wondering, as one put it, “if she is doing too well.”

Bob, too, wondered about his grief. When their son, a training pilot, was lost at sea, his wife availed herself of all the counseling the airline provided. All Bob wanted to do was to take his own plane up every afternoon to search for signs of wreckage.

All of these individuals are grieving a significant loss. And all are troubled by what they believe to be inappropriate responses to loss. In fact, each has effective ways to experience and adapt to his or her losses, yet they each reflect a societal understanding that the keys to experiencing grief lie in overtly expressing emotion and consciously seeking support.

In our book, Grief Beyond Gender: Understanding the Ways Men and Women Mourn, Dr. Terry Martin and I challenge that presumption. Our basic thesis is that there are many different ways in which individuals experience, express, and adapt to grief. Affectively oriented strategies are one way, but other strategies, building upon activity or cognition, can be equally effective.

We describe two patterns of grieving. One is an intuitive pattern where individuals experience and express grief in an affective way. In this pattern, grieving individuals will find adaptive strategies that are oriented toward the expression of affect. But there is another pattern as well, one that we label instrumental. Here, grief is experienced physically, such as in a restlessness or cognition. Here the adaptive strategies individuals use tend to be, as the vignettes indicate, cognitive and active as well. These two patterns are seen as end points on a continuum.  Many individuals may exhibit more blended patterns that draw from both intuitive and instrumental reactions and responses in the ways that individuals experience, express, and adapt to loss.  Other individuals may show inconsistencies between the ways that grief is experienced and expressed.   We label such inconsistent patterns as dissonant. 

This instrumental pattern is typical of the way many men grieve, due to contemporary patterns of male socialization. Yet we stress that while there is a clear relation between gender and grieving patterns, this is not seen as deterministic. Women also may exhibit an instrumental style. And many women and men represent grievers who demonstrate more intuitive patterns. Clearly, patterns are influenced by gender but not determined by it.

The Bias Toward Affective Expression

While instrumental and intuitive patterns exist, are equally effective, and have complementary sets of advantages and disadvantages, instrumental styles are often viewed negatively within counseling, self-help, and grieving literature.

This reflects a general Western bias in counseling that tends to value affective expressiveness as inherently more therapeutic than cognitive or behavioral responses. Sue and Sue (2008), in the groundbreaking work, Counseling the Culturally Diverse, criticize the counseling paradigm for overemphasizing affect:

“Emotional expressiveness is also valued, as we like individuals to be in touch with their feelings and to be able to realize their emotional reactions.” (p. 142)

This bias, Sue and Sue note can inhibit counseling with other cultural groups that do not place significance on affective disclosure.

This bias is also evident in what has been termed the “grief work” hypothesis. This hypothesis, or operating set of assumptions within the field of grief counseling, has emphasized that unless one expresses one’s feelings openly, grieving cannot be successfully accomplished. For example, Vail (1982) expressed the sentiment often found in self-help literature about grief.

Of course, those who allow themselves to experience the gamut of emotions are probably the least likely to actually go crazy. It is those of us who attempt to suppress, deny, and displace grief who eventually have real problems coping with the loss. (p. 55)

In fact, there is danger in identifying grief with any affective expression. The danger is that the absence of affect is taken to be an absence of attachment. As Weiss (1998) notes:

There may indeed be people who were attached to someone whom they lost to death, who fully acknowledge that loss, and yet do not grieve. Their absence of grief is not defensive; they simply do not grieve. I cannot, myself, understand how a relationship of attachment is consistent with an absence of separation distress or interruption of that relationship, and absence of grief or loss of the relationship, but perhaps it is. There may, perhaps, be people so fully autonomous that they can experience attachments, and on loss of those attachments, experience brief distress, after which they go on as before; or there may be some other emotional constellation that permits attachment without giving loss to grief. (1998, p. 347)

But perhaps there is an answer to Weiss’ honest query, one that accepts both the attachment and acknowledges the grief. The answer here would be to look beyond affective distress to other expressions of grief.

This affective bias finds its boldest expression in literature about men and grief. It is unsurprising, given the bias toward affective expressiveness that many clinicians have seen aspects of the male role placing men at a disadvantage in grieving when compared to women. Women are seen as more ready to accept help; and express emotion, both of which are viewed as essential to the process of grieving. Since men are perceived as less likely to show emotion or accept help, they are seen as having more difficulty in responding to loss. Recently at a lecture, one counselor suggested that when grieving men use the word “fine” in answer to how they are doing, it should be viewed as an acronym for “feelings inside, never expressed

The underlying assumption is that there are limited ways that one can effectively cope with loss. Staudacher (1991)  in her book Men and Grief expresses this succinctly:

Simply put, there is only one way to grieve. That way is to go through the core of grief. Only by experiencing the necessary emotional effects of your loved one’s death is it possible for you to eventually resolve the loss. (p. 3)

That assumption can be questioned. On the surface, if survivors were to grieve in identical ways, one would also expect analogous expressions of affect, duplicate behavior patterns, and feelings that would be indistinguishable from one another. In fact, there are many ways to cope with loss. To assert that only one pattern is acceptable is empirically ungrounded, at variance with current theory, and clinically unhelpful.