As one of the on-call chaplains at an urban pediatric hospital, I was most frequently awakened by the sound of my pager in the very wee hours of the morning. Most of the time, after calling the hospital switchboard and telling them who I was and that I had been paged, I would be connected with a nurse who had the unfortunate responsibility of handling a patient death. When I arrived at the hospital, I was often led to the room of the deceased patient and introduced to the grieving family members. Since there was only one of me—and often several grieving family members–I was usually forced to assess everyone’s needs and focus on the family members who needed the most comfort.
It’s easy to assume that the mothers of deceased children would merit the bulk of my attention, and in some cases, that was true. Sometimes the mothers were the ones most obviously in distress because their grief was more evidenced by their emotion. But there were times when I felt more drawn to the fathers because their grief was just as palpable through their emotional displays.
The most common assumption people have regarding grief is based on gender–i.e., women will cry and men won’t. Obviously, we cannot take this assumption for granted. Through research, we now know it is emotionally and physically harmful to force a person to grieve in a way that does not fit him or her. This means that we should not expect men to always be silent grievers, and just as importantly, we should not always expect women to cry during times of grief.
Terry Martin and Kenneth Doka, two influential researchers in the field of death and dying, have provided us with a toolkit for understanding grief in the form of their book Men Don’t Cry . . . Women Do: Transcending Gender Stereotypes of Grief. The book emphasizes the fact that gender is not the only determinative factor in how a person may grieve. Personality, age, the grieving style of role models, societal expectations, and the manner of death all may influence how a person’s grief will manifest. The foundation for the book is that all grievers usually fall somewhere along a continuum between what Martin and Doka call “intuitive grieving” and “instrumental grieving.”
Intuitive grieving focuses on the feelings generated by the death. Grievers who are closer to the intuitive side of the continuum will likely express more emotion in their grief. According to Martin and Doka, intuitive grievers would also be more likely to talk about the loss. In contrast, a griever closer to the instrumental side of the continuum would process the loss more internally, using their cognitive domain. Instrumental grievers do not typically discuss the emotions brought about by the loss, but are more likely to use their energy to handle funeral arrangements or find ways to fill the gaps created by the loss. Instrumental grievers are able to distinguish between their thoughts and their feelings, and those feelings are usually less intense for instrumental grievers than they are for intuitive grievers, say Martin and Doka. The pair makes note that just because feelings are less intense for the instrumental griever, this does not mean that the grief is not as important to the instrumental griever. It may only mean that an instrumental griever cries less than an intuitive griever.
In situations like the death of a child, where both partners are grieving, it is this fundamental difference between intuitive grievers and instrumental grievers that leads to the most misunderstandings. An intuitive griever is likely to assume that the loss is easier on the instrumental griever simply because the instrumental griever emotes less. The loss is equally hard on the instrumental griever; they simply process the loss differently. While research shows that the death of a child does not seal the fate of a marriage in divorce, these misunderstandings have been known to cause hard feelings between a husband and wife during the grieving process. Marriages in which communication has always been an issue especially suffer in this circumstance.
In order to combat these assumptions, I would recommend that faith leaders who do premarital counseling use a grief inventory or discovery tool like the one in appendix B of Martin and Doka’s book. This type of discovery tool could be invaluable in preparing couples to understand one another in the inevitable situation of facing loss. Through this discovery tool and education, couples could understand one another’s grief style, rather than assume that they know how their partner will grieve based on the partner’s gender. For instance, a wife might learn that she prefers to navigate the funeral arrangements after a death, whereas her husband might learn that he would benefit from talking to someone about the loss. This self discovery would prevent these partners from forcing each other into pre-scripted roles, based on gender, that might not fit them. By talking about grief before marriage, couples will have more healthy understandings of each other when loss occurs.
Partners and pastors must also remember that their grief style can change depending upon the circumstances of the death. A sudden, violent, or unexplained death can turn an instrumental griever into an intuitive griever or vice versa. The nature of the relationship that the griever had with the deceased also affects how the griever will grieve; the more complicated the relationship, the greater the possibility for a change in grief modalities.
Men should not feel ashamed for crying at the death of a loved one, nor should women feel ashamed if they do not feel the need to cry. A person’s approach to grief has less to do with gender and more to do with personal makeup. If we keep this in mind, we might see the day when both men and women feel that they are able to express their grief in whatever form it takes.