Grief and Gender

We are usually pretty hesitant to even hint at categorizing, labeling or classifying grief. There are so many different grief responses that can and should be considered ‘normal’ and no two people will have the exact same feelings and experiences after a death, not even those from the same family, region, religion, or culture. All that being said, there is merit in examining how those with similar traits typically view and interact with the world, as long as we do it with a grain of salt.

Gender is seemingly one of the most basic elements of a person’s identity, except for the fact that it’s not basic at all. We don’t always think of gender as complicated because we sometimes confuse it with ‘sex’, which refers to our biological makeup and determines what box we check at the DMV.  Gender is not actually a matter of fact, as psychologist Dr. Stephanie Shields of Pennsylvania State University notes, “…gender is something that one practices (in nearly every sense of the word), rather than only what one inflexibly is.” Societies, cultures, and even families have differing views on what it means to be prototypically male or female and it is rare that real-life individuals ever fit perfectly into these molds.

Today we want to start talking about grief and gender, but our goal is to simply point out where similarities and differences might lie. In conceptualizing grief and gender, we want you to always remember these things exist on a continuum. Please keep in mind, we’re not stating facts about men and women. There is no way we can tell you how your brother or mother or best friend will respond to grief solely based on anatomy.

Although men are often thought of as “less emotional,” I think it’s important to quickly discredit the notion that men don’t feel the same intense grief emotions as women.  Where they may differ more so is in how they express their emotions and how they cope with them. Prominent grief researcher, Kenneth Doka, and his colleague Terry Martin have already served up a heaping bowlful of food for thought on this topic in their book Grieving Beyond Gender.  In this book they outline different grieving styles which they associate with being characteristically “masculine” or “feminine”, although they note that these styles exist on a continuum and that gender is merely a contributing factor.

In general, our culture has come to expect people to grieve in an emotional way, which is characteristically more female. It is easy to put things like tears and sadness into the context of grief and when we see them we say, “Ah yes, this person is grieving appropriately”. Doka and Martin associate this type of grieving with the intuitive grieving style.  Intuitive grief is experienced mainly in terms of feelings and emotions – “I felt sad” or “I felt angry” – and the grief response is usually focused on exploring and expressing these emotions – “I cried all night” or “I got so mad I couldn’t think.”

Intuitive

However, not everyone likes to get up close and personal with their feelings. So although people may experience the same type of emotions, some people might feel and express them differently. Doka and Martin associate this type of grieving with the instrumental grieving style. Instrumental grief is experienced in more physical and cognitive ways – “I couldn’t stop thinking about what happened” or “I felt like I couldn’t breathe.” The instrumental grief response is expressed in physical, cognitive or behavioral ways and looks more like ‘doing’ or ‘taking action’.

Although instrumental grievers might not see a direct correlation between their feelings and their response, if asked what they “did” in response to their loss as opposed to what they “felt,” they might say things like they spoke about the person a lot, created a lasting memorial, immediately found ways to further their loved one’s legacy, or they got involved in charity or activism in their loved one’s memory.  This type of grief expression can be a bit more difficult for outsiders to discern so others might worry the person isn’t dealing with their emotions, when in reality they are just dealing with them differently.

instrumental

Doka and Martin are in no way saying this is how men grieve and this is how women grieve.  Remember that continuum we mentioned?  Well, these theorists say that most of us fall somewhere along the continuum between intuitive and instrumental grief and have what they call a blended experience.  People who fall on this continuum borrow coping tools from both ends of the spectrum.

blended

Now, when it comes to gender there are a lot of societal, cultural, and personal expectations telling us how we should feel and react; men should be strong and stoic and women should be emotional and sensitive.  These assumptions are really unhelpful because a lot of the time they don’t fit, yet we might feel ashamed, guilty, or weak for not feeling or acting our part.

According to Martin and Doka, dissonant grief emerges when the way someone’s grief is naturally experienced and expressed clashes with what they think is expected and acceptable. Confusion, shame and repression can emerge when someone who is typically “strong” or unemotional becomes overwhelmed by emotion or someone who expects to be flooded with feelings finds that they aren’t.

Martin and Doka represent just one perspective on how gender related characteristics can impact grief, but I think their theory encourages us to consider the ways in which gender can influence grief while being mindful that there is immense variability in what gender actually means on an individual level. It is important as people who are grieving or as friends, family and support workers, to be open to a range of grief responses regardless of our expectations.

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COMMENTS

Pat Brown

Posted on May 13, 2015 at 7:37 am

I am seeing this dynamic now in my own family. In April 24th we lost my son Nicolas to drug addiction/overdose. My wife & daughter seem to be going through waves of emotions. They reminisce more & express their emotions more readily. I am more prone to study the situation and attempt to compartmentalize matters. This is essentially how I managed the final arraignments & burial but I feel like a powder keg still sitting atop of a sense of guilt & shame that I could not save my son from the monsters under the bed that his addiction seems to be. & that is not something I can manage to rationalize effectively

Thanks for the great resource May peace be with You

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Eleanor

Posted on May 13, 2015 at 10:25 am

I’m so sorry Pat. You’re loss is very recent, I can imagine everyone is still very very raw. This is perhaps not what you came here seeking but we do have a few articles on grieving a death due to overdose and these articles have a lot of comments from others, some who are struggling but some who offer some thoughts of wisdom. I hope you won’t mind my unsolicited recommendation but here are the links to the articles.

Surviving the Death of an Overdose Part I
Surviving the Death of an Overdose Part II

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Pat

Posted on May 13, 2015 at 11:08 am

Thank you L – I listened to the podcasts part 1 & 2 just the other day & I skimmed over the comments section a bit as well. I am seeking a local counselor for us currently find it sad Soo many are booked up – we must be seeing a spike in the need for therapists. 😉

I just wished to throw an affirmative male voice behind the post on differences between gender types dealing with grief. ” Boys don’t cry” artifact is really more like ” don’t cry in public” but the shower is a-okey.

Thanks for offering this blog

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Reya Mellicker

Posted on May 17, 2015 at 9:22 am

Thank you. It’s such important healing work you do! Was great to meet you last night. Cheers!

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Litsa

Posted on May 17, 2015 at 10:52 am

Great meeting you too Reya! Thanks for checking out the site!

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Mark Liebenow

Posted on May 17, 2015 at 3:02 pm

I like the continuum approach to grieving. After my wife died a number of years ago, I began to pay attention to how people grieve. Before grieving, I was on the stoic side. Grief unleashed my emotions and threw me to the other side. Now I think I’m in the middle, and I don’t want to lose my awareness of my emotions or the ability to express them. Neil Chetnik wrote a great book about the four main ways that men grieve the death of their fathers, from not being able to cope at all to needing to build something for their fathers. I think we all start grieving in the way that we have seen others grieve, or not grieve, mainly our fathers and mothers, but also people in society. Then, hopefully, we discover and let ourselves grieve in the way that we want, a way that is nurturing. Let this discussion begin!

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Litsa

Posted on May 18, 2015 at 8:18 am

Thanks Mark- that is very interesting that you’ve been able to see your own grief and emotion on a continuum. I will definitely check out the book by Neil Chetnik- I have not read it.

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Jill

Posted on May 24, 2015 at 4:04 pm

Thank you SOOO much for this!!! We are approaching the 2nd anniversary of my husband’s unexpected death @ the age of 40. I wish I had found this at the beginning of my journey…as a solo Mom of a 3 & 6 year old when he died, almost out of necessity & survival, my grief was a much more active instrumental type than intuitive. I couldn’t afford to crumple up and cry in a ball with two little ones to look after and struggled w/ feeling like I was grieving “incorrectly.” THANK you…I’m def mix of the two, but understand this dichotomy is amazingly helpful!!!!!

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Pam Mills

Posted on July 23, 2015 at 3:48 pm

I have a question rather than a comment. I am looking for information and do not know where to turn. My 14 yr. old grandaughter lost her mother in February of this year. All of a sudden she has decided she is and wants to be a boy. She has cut off her hair and now dresses in baggy t-shirts and jeans. She showed none of these tendies before. Have you ever heard of anything like this before? She is seeing a therapist but they have not been to helpful in this subject. Thank you for any information you can give me on this subject

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Eleanor

Posted on July 23, 2015 at 7:33 pm

Hey Pam,

I am so sorry about the loss your family has experienced. Although it’s pretty common for people to decide to make major life changes or decisions in the wake of a loss, I personally have not heard of someone making this specific choice. It sounds like your granddaughter is dealing with two very complicated and perhaps distinct issues; first the death of her mother and then issues around gender identity.

I do think it’s good you’ve involved a therapist because your granddaughter has just experienced the death of someone very important and she is also making a major decision/adjustment. If you find your therapist isn’t helpful, I strongly encourage you to try someone else. Can you find a good therapist in your area who is specifically trained in gender identity issues (they may list LGBT in their specialties) and/or trained in grief counseling? Not all therapists have training will be experienced in either of these areas so it’s important to ask questions and look around in order to find the right fit. I’m sorry we couldn’t be more helpful.

Eleanor

I’m sorry I couldn’t be more helpful.

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angela

Posted on March 29, 2016 at 3:49 pm

I’m very confused in my situation and look fir some advice, encouragement, answers. My boyfriend has dropped out of sight. I haven’t heard from him in 3 weeks. His mother had cancer, but he didn’t even let me know if she passed away?! I have texted and called offered my support and love, but I have had no response. This is someone who said they loved me and wanted to marry me. Fir this,person to just be gone with no explanation has been extremely traumatic and difficult for me. I just feel abandoned. What do I do? Keep texting? Leave him alone? I don’t even know where he is.

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