Moving Forward : Do Men and Women Grieve Differently?

The death of your child changes your life dramatically, challenging you individually and in your various relationships. Cherished assumptions and fundamental values can be questioned and nothing will seem as it was before.

The process of coming to terms with your grief and moving forward is very confronting, especially if you and your partner initially reacted in radically different ways. However, it can also bring about healing, renew and invigorate relationships and open up fresh possibilities for personal growth.

A journey of many small steps, rather than a great leap forward, it requires commitment, an enhanced appreciation of the nature and implications of grief and a reappraisal of priorities and responsibilities. Finding the courage to take this journey, embracing the changes that it brings and seeking help along the way, can transform your life.

The following article looks at different ways in which people grieve, as well as some of the challenges that you could face as you move forward. They also suggest various ways in which you can nurture yourself and your relationships.

Do Men and Women Grieve Differently?

Many assumptions remain in our society about the ways in which men and women grieve, despite a shift away from traditional roles and expectations. Broadly speaking, these assumptions relate both to different ways of responding emotionally and to different social roles – men as providers and protectors, women as carers and nurturers. For example, a man expressing emotions in public often draws the disapproval of others, while a woman who prefers to grieve alone, or is unable to express her grief openly, can be seen as hard, cold or in denial.

Your way of grieving will not necessarily be determined by gender alone. You and your partner most likely started the grief journey at a different place, have different issues to deal with and different resources to draw upon as well as your own personalities. Cultural and religious backgrounds, individual experiences of death and loss, as well as the degree of attachment that each of you had with your child, can all vary and play a part in how you grieve. The ways in which we deal with bereavement and express grief are fundamentally individual. Over time you will probably change in the way you express and deal with your grief.

“Each person will grieve differently because of differences in culture, values and returning to work or not.”(Leanne)

“Grief can vary so much from person to person that it can be hard to discern what it is for somebody else.” (Paula)

“We still share the grief a hundred per cent but we are a hundred miles apart in how we see things. The triggers which set us off are still the same but he goes to the grave by himself.” (Ally)

“Differences are not just defined by gender. There will always be individual differences.” (Jessica)

Nevertheless, there are certain typical ways in which people grieve and understanding more about them can further your appreciation of one another’s needs. It is important to stress that one way is not better than the other.

Intuitive grieving

People who grieve intuitively experience and adapt to grief on an affective or feeling level, finding it easier to express and display their emotions, often by crying or shouting. Consumed by the death, they need company and emotional and physical support. Initially feeling self-focussed and powerless, they can nevertheless be helped in ways which allow them to vent their emotions.

Preoccupied with thoughts of their child, intuitive grievers initially lack the ability to control emotions or to switch off the thoughts that go around and around their head – the ‘what ifs’, the ‘if onlys’. They usually spend more time grieving, do so more intensely than their partner and can worry that their partner is not grieving enough or doesn’t care.

Even though not all women grieve in the same way, they are more likely to do so in these intuitive, verbal and emotionally expressive ways. Women generally read more about grief and ‘self-help’ strategies, are more likely to seek out counselling and support groups, and talk more about their loss. Women more often share their grief with each other.

While men also have this need and a few do find support groups helpful, there are generally fewer opportunities for them to share grief and little social encouragement or expectation for them to seek help. Instead, they are more likely to undertake a project in memory of their child or share and activity with other bereaved dads such as fishing, cycling or building a memorial (see ‘Instrumental grieving’ below).

“I needed to talk to other people other than Michael and hear about their experiences. Normalising my experiences was important to me. He didn’t have the same need.”(Jessica)

“I was much more expressive than Kurt. I felt broken; my whole life had just fallen apart. I got help straight away and attended groups and although it wasn’t his cup of tea, he supported me in this.” (Kerri)

“You need to talk to others to feel less lonely.” (Helene)

“I wanted to express myself verbally and he didn’t…he is proud of the fact that he never cried. I cried a lot and went to as many support groups as I could as I felt very much alone…he still keeps his feelings to himself as this was the way he was brought up.” (Ruth)

“Recognise that men and women grieve very differently. For women there are more reminders of the pregnancy and the loss as we carried the babies.” (Jo)

In the past, this way of grieving was often seen as superior. People reluctant to talk about their feelings were seen as being in denial or unwilling to deal with their grief. Today there are many more resources available to help you understand that there are different, but equally valid, ways of experiencing, expressing and adapting to grief. It is possible that you or your partner could find yourself grieving intuitively at first and then shifting the pattern over time.

Instrumental grieving

This approach focusses more on doing rather than expressing on planning and managing activities in order to restructure the shattered world. Becoming connected to the future rather than the past, and being more aligned with action and mastery of one’s self and one’s environment, provides an avenue for dealing with the enormity of grief. Men more typically grieve in this way, rationalising their loss in terms of the wider implications for the family. However, this also applies to some women and I likely to become more common with changing social and work roles.

People who grieve in this way do so more privately than their partners, setting aside or compartmentalising their grief, only releasing their grief or acknowledging it at certain times, such as when visiting the grave, going on long drives or on anniversaries. However, putting grief on the backburner doesn’t make it go away and it will need to be acknowledged and expressed at some stage. The challenge is to find ways of doing this which suit your way of grieving, not what is expected of you.

Many instrumental grievers find the following activities helpful in managing or working through their grief: working on projects such as lobbying to change hospital policy, performing rituals, making a sculpture, writing a book or journal, organising a cricket or footy match in honour of their child, raising money by organising events.

Men generally have fewer opportunities to express their emotions cathartically (that is, in a way that is helpful for them), because they respond according to social expectations or perceptions about their partner’s needs coming first. Stoicism and cynicism are common responses, given the poorer social support and opportunities for social intimacy in many male networks. Men sometimes feel that their partner’s way of grieving threatens their own way of dealing with feelings and become impatient for them to return to a less emotional state. Such instrumental grievers can feel overwhelmed by their partner’s grief and helpless and powerless to fix it.

“Women have the advantage in that they can approach one another. But for men it is different. I felt that if my wife and I both grieve, if we both bawl our eyes out, who is going to pay the bills? My wife needs to grieve and I have to get back to work – I cannot take time out to cry for a week or two weeks. It’s that male thing of being the provider.” (Glenn)

“Even though the father isn’t bawling constantly, it doesn’t mean he isn’t grieving. His grief is conveyed more physically, less emotionally.” (Jo)

“Because I am the man, I think I have to be the strong one.” (Anthony)

“I packed my grief up. It wasn’t in the bottom drawer but it was buried…it was always close to the surface, but it was kept out of sight. I wanted to make it as easy as possible for everyone else…I felt it was my responsibility as a father and a husband.” (Mark)

“As a human being, I have a self-preservation mode that allows me to close up shop emotionally and intellectually in the midst of a crisis. My problem as a man is that I don’t re-open the shop and quickly find myself in a place of loneliness, resentment and being overwhelmed, confused, frustrated, anxious and frightened. Because of my disconnection with the rest of the world, all these feelings came out sideways and I began to hurt the people I loved and pushed them away. Then I began to think myself into places that I couldn’t think myself out of.” (Bill)

“Men aren’t intimate with each other when they are growing up. A lot of their emotion is conveyed in physicality, so to get a man to talk about it…the immediate reaction is to choke it out. It’s like trying to wring something out of a dry sponge.” (Anthony)

“Clinton tried to see a counsellor but couldn’t open up. He still cannot talk about the baby years later.”

“It’s not that men don’t grieve as much as women, it’s just that they don’t want to appear upset or weak. I don’t think men grieve as openly as women. Perhaps they play things around in their head a bit more but just because they don’t show it visibly, it doesn’t mean that they are not as upset. I think that many men think things through and keep things to themselves but I think men need some sort of release… most men get to a stage that they need to let it go. This is what happened to me. It built up and I just let go.” (Andrew)

“I think it’s important to understand that men are different. The way they grieve is different. The way they think is different. Men generally behave in a certain way because they have some purpose in mind. Sitting down and crying might not always be the best way for a man to deal with the death of a child. He might prefer to get things done but that doesn’t mean he is in denial mode.” (Bas)

Other ways of grieving

Sometimes grieving struggles to find an outlet that is in harmony with the griever’s nature. For example, some men are naturally inclined to express themselves emotionally but feel constrained by conventional expectations about male behaviour. With support and understanding, they can begin to express their feelings in other ways.

“I was the more emotional one and can cry at anything sad on TV. My husband used to be the toughest man on the planet but is now more emotional. ‘Daddy cries now,’ say the kids. He still has anger and this can be to cover up being more emotional.” (Ally)

“Thankfully I am not the typical male. It wouldn’t have been right for me to shut up and just get on with it. Otherwise I would have ended up in the ‘funny farm’. Going to a support group together allowed us to talk and understand each other’s way of grieving.” (George)

In some instances men grieve intuitively, at the beginning, but then change as work and family responsibilities kick in. On the other hand, some women who would like to express their feelings openly might repress them in order to protect their loved ones or to fit in with family expectations. This is understandable especially when others urge them to move on and get over it.

“I never sought help, read about grief or talked to family and friends about my babies. Stoicism rules in my family. I pushed my grief aside and focussed on getting back into life and work and bringing up my (now) only child. My marriage broke up and I suffered some form of depression for over a decade. Almost twenty years after she died I began my ‘grief work’, read much on grief and began to understand what we’d experienced and why. I finally visited the grave for the first time.” (Nicolette)

It is important to accept that people will grieve differently, some intuitively and some instrumentally. These two patterns can be seen as end points on a continuum but many people combine elements of both approaches. Others change the way they grieve over time.

There is no right or wrong to grieve; one way is not superior to the other. It is an individual process and people can and do change. Sensitivity to your partner’s needs is crucial.

This article was prepared using extracts from When Relationships Hurt, Too.1 The full text is available online or contact Red Nose Grief and Loss Services on 1300 308 307 for a printed version.

Last reviewed: 8/7/22