Cancer Covered Blog

Gender Differences in Grief

Thomas Bekkers, MSW, APSW

It is no surprise that men and women are profoundly different in a variety of ways and one of these key differences is the area of grief. It can be helpful to understand how gender differences play a part in how we grieve, whether we are the person grieving or if it a family member or friend.

Women frequently express that they feel their male counterparts are not grieving or supportive; often men say that they do not know how to best support their female loved ones, or how to handle the emotion and pain that stems from grief.

Men tend to be more comfortable attending to life changes by taking on new roles and responsibilities that result from the death of a loved one. Learning new non-traditional roles such as cooking, cleaning or becoming a single parent can be a distraction from their grief.  Males often view social relationships as more of a time to share activities than emotions. So often they state that they know the story in their head and they don’t need to retell it. They tend to want to “fix it” and will rely on their own resources—often keeping feelings and emotions to themselves.

Women, on the other hand, tend to be more emotional and will work on their grief by talking about it. They will tell their story over and over again because they say it helps them process and work through their grief. Women confide in friends, outwardly express their feelings and emotions, and “feel” their way through grief.

Men say that they limit their expression of emotion because they may not want to appear weak. Women report frustration with men demonstrating little emotion and not wanting to talk about the person who died. Women may view this as cold and think that the man is not grieving. Men often feel the expectation to be strong and so may be given or may accept little social support. Society has traditionally taught little boys not to cry while   comforting little girls who do. Hopefully as we educate more, this message is changing. These conflicting gender messages can carry through one’s entire life and may cause misunderstandings between males and females who are grieving. This can lead to frustration, anger, and feeling isolated in one’s grief for both genders.

Men are generally “inward” thinkers; they think of the “situation” not the emotional responses. This does not make them less emotional, or less responsive to those around them; they just have a different method of looking at the emotional response.  The woman in grief is traditionally looking for support. She will look to those that can understand and listen to her express her emotions. She is not looking to “FIX” anything, but to regain her perspective and understand some purpose in her grief. Both men and women need support in grief. They need to hear from others their emotions are normal, their responses to the emotions are normal, and that they will be able to live and love again.

It is critical to stress that whether you are a male or female dealing with a loss of a loved one, if you are unwilling to express grief in any form at all, you will likely face serious consequences during your future journey. It is a make-or-break choice for those of us who lose someone and are willing to express our grief fully, in whatever way we are comfortable. Not to express our grief is to potentially set ourselves up for a lifetime of illness, bitterness, anger, and lack of connection to life.

When we look at gender differences in grief, what is important to remember is that neither way is right or wrong, just different. Both genders can learn from the other.  If we learn to understand and accept one another’s differences, we can learn to support one another without trying to change them. Grief is a very personal and individual experience with everyone navigating through this journey in his or her own way. The hope is that those walking this journey can experience comforting support along the way.

Tom Bekkers, MSW, APSW

Tom strives to empower patients and their loved ones as they face the daily challenges associated with their cancer journey. It is his goal to help them develop effective coping strategies that will help them attain their greatest quality of life.

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