Men, Women and Grief
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The following chapter is the complete text excerpted from What to do When the Police Leave: A Guide to the First Days of Traumatic Loss, by Bill Jenkins.


Men and Women in Grief

You will most likely find that men and women grieve differently according to their own natures and personalities, and according to cultural expectations.  If you recognize that these differences can exist, and not be judgmental about how others appear to be dealing with their grief, you may avoid misunderstandings within your family and among your friends. 

For many generations men have been expected to be “strong,” to show little or no emotion, and to be protectors.  This can place an enormous burden on a victim’s father, husband, son, or brother.  Under less traumatic circumstances, a man may very well be able to control his outward show of emotion.  But, with a traumatic loss the emotions can be so overwhelming as to create a no-win situation.  Try to understand that a man may feel personally and socially inadequate, as well as having to bear the burden of an overwhelming sense of loss.

A woman, on the other hand, can be more freely emotional, both physically and socially.   Overwhelming emotions for her may involve extended periods of crying and remorse.  She may want to talk a great deal about the loss; while he may become more quiet, or withdrawn.  She may want to be more active in organizations and groups; while he may want to be alone, get back to a structured routine, or immerse himself in work or activity.  She may want to visit the cemetery regularly; while he can’t bear to go, or he may visit alone and without her knowledge.  She may need some time to reflect or ponder these events; while he may desire the old familiarity and comfort of intimacy or physical contact.

In this way then, you may see a woman trying to deal with her grief through remembering, while a man may try to deal with his through distraction, or even trying to forget things which are too painful to remember.  If he is uncomfortable with extreme emotions, he may try to suppress that which defies domination, never really daring to get too close to the painful memories for fear of what will happen if he were to lose control.  If his emotions do break through during a particularly stressful moment, he may redouble his efforts to ensure it doesn’t happen again.  This is an effort which can be physically and emotionally exhausting, can lead to resentment among family members, and it can be extremely unhealthy if it continues for a long time.

Typically, it takes much longer to work through grief when emotions are avoided than when they are confronted openly.  Both women and men may need permission and opportunity to grieve openly in a safe, non-judgmental environment in order to come to grips with the loss and its effects.

Neither way of grieving is either right or wrong, just different.  Each person must chart an individual course through the waters of grief.  Try to help and support one another honestly and with as much communication as possible.  Maintaining an image is a worthless exercise.  Those rules no longer apply.

For couples, the stress of grief can place enormous pressure or added strain on the relationship.  It is widely believed that a majority of marriages fail because of intense grief, especially after the loss of a child, but research has shown this is simply not true.  As difficult as this time may be for you, you should not assume from the outset that your relationship will break up.  

Many marriages actually become much stronger after being tempered by tragedy.  Look to the long term.  Get good support from family, friends, and groups designed to help you.  Talk honestly about what you expect from each other, and how you can be of most help to each other.  Try to work together to survive this tragedy through mutual understanding, rather than allowing grief to pull you into isolation and hopeless confusion.

One final note of caution.  For both men and women trying to cope with tragedy, destructive behaviors may develop.  Tobacco, alcohol, or other drug use may begin, or increase.  Minor inconveniences may lead to violent outbursts.  Tempers may flare out of control in frustration, driving those who are most needed for support further away.

It is important to deal with grief’s stress in healthy ways, not destructive ones.  If you or someone in your family needs help and support from a local group specializing in addiction, domestic violence, depression, or crisis intervention, get it.  Grief can be a treacherous road to despair when traveled alone.


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