Why Men and Women Express Grief Differently
Differences in brain structure means that women are more likely to have a vocabulary for grief and a need to communicate with others about their emotional experience. Men however generally explore and discuss their experiences using cognitive processes. Biological differences also contribute to why men tend to cry less often than women. It is important to remember that the absence of tears does not equate to the absence of pain.
Men have been seen as the protector and provider. Men will often see that their primary role in a situation of crisis is to care for their loved ones and protect them from further pain. The role of protector can override your own emotional experience of loss.
The women’s role has historically been to nurture and care, and to seek out others as a source of comfort.
Much of the way we think, act and feel is shaped by the way we were raised and our subsequent life experiences. Boys, particularly in previous generations, are often discouraged from crying, boys’ activities tend to focus on action, and a man exhibiting a public display of emotion is often not socially accepted.
A man in our society is expected to: Be in control, be rational, be courageous, be assertive, be a provider, be competitive, be sexually potent, be able to bear pain, accomplish tasks and achieve goals, express anger and endure stress without giving up.
But when you, as a father, are grieving for your child, a lot of society’s expectations become unrealistic and very difficult to cope with.
Typical male roles tend to interfere with grieving. Typically, men and women grieve very differently and it is helpful to understand the different patterns.
1. Macho Man – Right from childhood there is the suggestion that ‘big boys don’t cry’, that a man must always be strong and not show softness, weakness or tears. The feelings of sadness and loss may be overwhelming, but the conditioning interferes, the tears are checked and attention is turned to something else.
The contrast with women in this area is dramatic. Women may often cry openly and talk openly about the pain. A man may appear cold, irritable, angry or depressed and often cannot talk easily about his pain. This difference may lead to trouble between a grieving mum and dad who simply do not understand each other.
“I did not believe he loved our baby as much as I did because he showed no emotions.”1
“I worried that there was something wrong with my wife as she was still crying after six to eight months.”1
A grieving father may also believe there is something wrong with him because he is not showing the same emotional response as his wife.
The situation can be made worse by insensitive comments from family and friends.
“Fred, you are really handling this well.”1
“Someone has to be strong through this whole thing.”1
“How’s your wife doing?”1
Starting from childhood, a boy learns to compete – in games, sports, for a better job. But how can a man compete with death? There is nothing you can do and so you may become angry and frustrated. And because of the macho role, there is no apparent outlet for these feelings.
2. Men learn very early on about the role of protector. When a child dies, it is thus understandable that a father may feel he has failed in his protective role. To add to this pressure, when the family is in grief, the father cannot protect his family members from the pain. He may put on his macho image, deferring his own grief to protect the family, but the effort is futile.
Women may also feel the failure to protect. The mother was probably deeply involved in the child’s care and may feel this failure and the guilt that follows quite acutely.
It is not uncommon for grieving fathers to return to work long before the shock and numbness have worn off. Many bereaved fathers feel isolated because co-workers do not know what to say. Tasks can take longer and you may have trouble concentrating.
“I threw myself into my work to try and forget the loss.”1
“It was so hard coming home to see my wife on the couch crying.”1
“There were too many reminders at home so I started working longer and longer hours.”1
At this stage it may seem that neither husband nor wife can easily help the other because both need care and understanding. The provider, either husband or wife, might have a special need for time to work through his or her own feelings.
4. Problem solver
As a man you are often expected to fix things. This applies not only to mechanical problems, but also almost any crisis. The death of a child, however, is an unsolvable problem. You may ask yourself why you could not or did not prevent the death. Just as in the protector role, there can be a sense of failure and guilt. “If only….if only”.
We often believe, erroneously, that we are in control of our lives. After a child dies, all normalcy and orderliness are gone. The feeling of helplessness can be overwhelming and can lead to despair. Some fathers look for ways to escape, such as with alcohol, overwork or another woman. All of these escapes offer false promises. They do not work because the grief remains unresolved and will eventually come out as some other problem.
Men are conditioned to be self-sufficient. When a man suffers the death of his child, he thinks he should be able to handle this too. Consequently, sharing feelings and seeking help from others is uncomfortable. Men more often share what they do, not how they feel.
Last reviewed: 5/7/20