I write this at the risk of promoting stereotypes but I think it is important to discuss differences in how fathers and mothers tend to grieve. This discussion will certainly not completely apply to any particular couple but I hope there is enough useful information to help fathers and mothers better understand and support each other. I will use the terms “husband” and “wife” while acknowledging that these terms do not necessarily apply to all parental units.
In our culture women tend to forms close relationships with other women, and these relationships are typically excellent sources of support during challenging times. Women usually expect to be able to share their joys and their sorrows with their close friends and family members. When a child dies, it is normal for a mother to turn to her support system for comfort.
Sometimes it is hard for a husband to understand why his wife needs to talk about the death so much. It might seem to him that talking with her friends and family about the death only makes his wife more upset. Men sometimes wonder why women seem to dwell on what happened instead of moving on.
On the other hand, women frequently share with me that it seems as if their husbands are not grieving. Women tend to view not talking about the child as abnormal, and maybe even a sign that the father does not care as much as the mother. Men’s tendency to “stay busy” following a child’s death is also viewed in a negative way by many women.
I have talked with many mothers and fathers following the death of a child, and I have developed a view of how the genders typically cope with the death of a child. Mothers usually have a deep need to remember in obvious ways, and so they talk about the child and everything that happened. They watch videos, make scrapbooks, hang pictures, and they talk a lot. Mothers are more open with their grief, and therefore their pain and functional limitations are usually quite obvious.
In our society, men are expected to fix things and when a child dies, a father is confronted with the reality that this is not something he can fix. Not only is his child gone, but typically his wife is in deep and obvious pain and he is helpless to fix that. Conditioned to “do something”, it is completely understandable to me that many men retreat from their wife’s grief into their work, where they can actually accomplish something most days.
Something else that I have observed over the past few years is the profound loneliness of a bereaved father. Men are not usually allowed the privilege of close friendships the way women are in our society, and so often men rely on their wives for their primary source of emotional support. When a couple loses a child, the wife turns to her friends/family while the husband is faced with the loss of his child AND his primary support system – his wife. This is nobody’s fault but it is very often a reality.
Mothers and fathers may express their grief in different ways, but I am convinced that expression (or lack thereof) is not an indicator of depth of grief. Men and women both suffer profoundly and deeply when they lose a child, even if their grieving looks different.
Differences in grief do not have to drive couples apart. The first thing that can help is to remember that it is perfectly normal for people to express grief in different ways. Second, it is also normal to cope with grief in different ways, and we certainly see this in every couple that loses a child. Judging another person’s grief is not helpful or loving, and so mothers and fathers need to aim for acceptance with each other. Third, it is very important not to use grief as a measure of love. A parent whose grief is more private did not love that child any less simply because s/he is not as open with feelings.
In addition to being gentle and accepting of our partner’s grief experience, couples can support each other by actively working on their relationship. A child’s legacy should not be the destruction of his/her parents’ relationship and so it is a tribute to the child you both love to work on the relationship. Think back to a time when your relationship was happy – what did you do together? What did you talk about? Make a list and then start doing those things from a happier time.
The death of a child is a big strain on a relationship but it does not mean a marriage or relationship is doomed to failure! Understanding and respecting differences in the expression of grief is important and so is making time for the relationship. Take that other parent – the one your sweet child loved so much – and do something kind and loving in honor of your child.
Sometimes relationships need help, and that is certainly available. Marriage counselors can help couples find a smoother path again. If a counselor seems like a good idea, be prepared to shop around for one that seems compatible with you and your spouse. Also, look for one that has experience both with couples and also with grief.
There are wide variations of normal grief in both men and women. Differences in the expression of grief and coping should not be seen as a problem, but simply as differences. Children’s memories are honored when we continue to love, respect and support the other parent through the difficult – but shared – loss of that child.