Education > Breaking the Gender Barrier in Grief Support
This is neither Venus nor Mars; It’s Earth
For a long time the theories of the Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus book series have been proliferated throughout our society via pop culture. Not only did the books fly off the self-help shelves, but it was a catchy phrase picked up by the media (1). The premise of the theories from this book series, comparing men and women to two very different planets (and what those planets represent) continues to infiltrate every nook and cranny of our culture – including the world of grief theory and therapy (2).
Any theory that seems to make grief more bearable, or seems to map the foreign landscape of grief, may tend to be welcomed. Grief is overwhelming and scary and often leaves us feeling out of control for many reasons. We weren’t able to control life and death, and so our loved ones died. We weren’t able to control our emotions after the death, and so we cried in public or we yelled at someone for something that normally wouldn’t bother us. So a theory may be accepted just because it makes us feel as though we can make sense of the havoc grief has brought. But when we take the “gender difference” theory and force people down certain roads of the grief map – then, the “gender difference” theory stops making sense.
While it would be difficult to ignore the billions of dollars made from the mainstream sale of these theories (proving, therefore, the fact that these theories appeal for some reason), we would like to suggest we look a little more closely at why it appeals. All human beings are both different and the same (3), and this is helpful for understanding each other as individuals. But when the sameness is trivialized, and the focus turns to the differences, an authentic understanding of the other may be seriously compromised. Especially in the grief world, there is much emphasis on men being different in their grief, and therefore, sometimes unacknowledged in sympathy from others (“How is your wife/partner doing?”), from workshops, services, or sometimes even the courtesy of being heard.
There are differences in grief from person to person. But this is not to say that those differences fall in absolute ways along gender lines. In 1998, Dr. Gilbert published an article on the MISS Foundation website that cautioned us to not ignore differences in grief process, but to find more inclusive ways to discuss those differences (4). Dr. Gilbert may have been onto something with this idea.
This topic became a passion for me after our son, Dakota, died. As my husband Hawk and I moved through life after the death of our child, we found that we were having lots of different feelings, expressions, and experiences out in the world at large. In the first month of our grief, my husband had to go back to his 9 to 5 job. On one of the lonelier days, I called a local help line to talk with someone and spent two hours on the line with a wonderful woman named Sarah. As it turns out, Sarah really was the one to “set the tone” for me in terms of any differences in grief that came up in our marriage. Sarah basically said that after your child dies, the world is reduced to just the two bereaved partners. No one else can possibly understand them, and they may even be thinking that no one else on this planet could understand their loss. So after the world is reduced like that, then the smallest amount of distance will feel like thousands of light years. Just having my husband go out to the mailbox felt like he was gone forever. Now, with him back at work five days a week, 9 to 5, well, yes, that did seem like he was in another universe.
Sarah then told me that what was most important at times like this was to be very conscious about “making the long climb back to each other every evening.” That long climb back might mean that one of us cries, the other listens. Then we would need to consciously choose to switch hats, as it were, and let the other cry and the one, listen. We might need to just take a few quiet moments and touch hands again, connect eye to eye, just get back to each other. Sarah said that whatever it took, it was important that both of us acknowledge the long climb back and then choose to do it every evening.
This bit of advice saved us many times. The reason I say that Sarah set the tone for us is because she did not emphasize gender differences at all. She emphasized differences for us as people. She emphasized us as people who love each other and who have just shared one of the most extreme things in life – death of a child. She said that regardless of the differences (or because of them), we need to make our way back to each other and share those differences so that we stayed connected with a good understanding of this completely new normal we were living.
What the families say
Another reason we wanted to open this discussion came from the combined outreach and research of three individuals. We have all had extensive experience with bereaved families throughout decades. We often heard whispers at conferences, support groups, or in workshops questioning the gender differences. Some people preferred to ask in private. Some on grief boards expressed they also felt that differences in grief existed, but did not fall along gender lines.
With their permission, we will share some of their stories here:
Note that stories included here have been made anonymous to protect the privacy of the families.
- [My wife] and I have talked about it a little, and here's what we can offer: My mother (more than my father) taught me that showing emotions outwardly was an acceptable thing to do. I came to realize that it's more something that's done 'at home' and 'in private' than 'out in the streets' of our society. [My wife] was generally raised not to show emotional weakness in any form - anywhere. Was ours a 'role-reversal'…maybe another big part of this puzzle is "nature versus nurture".
- My [husband] and I have talked about this stuff a lot. It's odd to us how much we hear and read about the whole "Mars and Venus" thing when it comes to grieving moms and dads. For us, it's just not like that. And honestly, it seems some people who really adhere to the "Mars and Venus" thing end up doing a disservice to dads. We have heard men at support group meetings attempt to describe how dads grieve, as if they could speak for all dads. And some of the things they say are kind of offensive. They do not describe my husband, anyway.
- …I most definitely agree that the “grieving process” is more greatly influenced by personality rather than gender. I am very outgoing and open with my feelings, whereas my wife…is quiet and “reserved”. Some households, the roles are reversed…grief is a very “individualized” emotion. As a husband and Dad, I love and support my wife and children. In turn, they do the same for me. We provide comfort for one another. After [our child] died, a lot of “well meaning” individuals offered me advice on how I needed to “be careful” that her death didn’t “affect our marriage”. My goodness, there are many things in day-to-day living that put a strain on a marriage. The death of a child is the most traumatic thing any parents will face. Grieving for your child takes a “toll” on you. It can’t help but adversely affect “everything” you do…[My child’s] death changed my outlook on life, but my commitment as a husband and Dad never changed. Yes, my wife and I grieve much differently. Not because she’s a woman and I’m a man. We grieve differently because of “who” we are and not “what” we are.
These families also had the added work of trying to sort out how they fit- or did not fit- into the proscribed gender roles.
Cacciatore’s Thoughts on the Uniqueness of us all
It is important to open the differences in grief discussion to examine grieving styles between person to person or partner to partner, rather than gender to gender. Not only does this give everyone a chance to voice their experience, but it also sheds more light on the culture of one (5). The Power of Compassion postulates that each of us is so highly unique that we have many things in common with many others. But we also have many layers of differences. We may hold a particular religious or political belief; we may be a part of the local community in which we live; we may be the bread winner or the caretaker for our family; we may identify with an ethic group; we may make choices about living green, supporting civil liberties, or advocating for social justice; and we may have had a very unique experiencing growing up as a child. While we may identify with each of those things, it is the combination of all those variables that, when combined, make us uniquely who we are as an individual. We are a culture of one with no exact duplicate because we each experience life, and death, in a subjective way, informed by the variables that make us who we are in this moment. When we acknowledge this, we realize that we are all different and the same (3) along many lines, not just gender. To assert that a mother talks a lot about her grief solely because she’s a woman or that a father never expresses emotions because he’s a man is an oversimplification.
Finding Our Way: Mapping Grief as an Individual
Writing it down – This is a useful tool for individuals to do or their own or for professionals when working with people who are comfortable with the written format. Complete a worksheet with open-ended statements like the following:
- As a man in grief, I…
- As a woman in grief, I…
- As a mother or father in grief, I...
- As a person in grief, I…
- As a partner in grief, I…
- As a Catholic (or Buddhist or Christian or Muslim or Wicca) in grief, I…
Then bring all those participating back together to share their individual, filled-in sentences (or paragraphs for the more prolific). Pay attention to both what is different and what is the same? Facilitate the acceptance of everyone’s individual perspectives as valid for each of them. Help participants to acknowledge that the person next to them is “different and the same” in many ways. Again, this is just exploring the individual roads that contribute to the face of the map.
Visualize it – There are many children’s books showing faces of different emotions, or maybe you know those magnet illustrations where you can choose the face icon to express whatever emotion you may feel. Or you can find facial expressions in magazines or books- or you can even draw the faces to show different expressions.
If you’re a professional working with a group of bereaved parents, you can use the faces to try an exercise like this: Pick two people randomly from the group and ask them to illustrate a day at work or home after the death of their child. They cannot use words though. They can only use the face illustrations to react to one another.
- One idea is that a person plays the role of the bereaved parent. The other person acts out being someone else like a co-worker, clergy, friend, or another family member. The two people act out possible scenarios together such as 1) the bereaved parent’s first day back to work, 2) Or the bereaved parent telling a friend for the first time that their child has died, or 3) Or the bereaved parent hearing a cliché such as “God has a plan for you” in response to the death of their child.
- In this action, however, the two people cannot use words. They can only pick up one facial illustration of an emotion at a time. For instance, in the scene of a first day back at work, the co-worker might pick up a smiley face and show it to the parent. The parent might react by then picking up a sad face in response. The co-worker picks a questioning face up next. The parent picks up a face that is crying. The co-worker picks up a face that shows embarrassment. The parent picks a face of frustration. The co-worker picks a face of discomfort. The parent picks a face of isolation. The co-worker picks a face of bewilderment.
- Ask the group to watch each play of faces, and take time in between each scenario to talk about the reactions and navigation of that situation. Talk about how each participant might have gotten through the situation differently, chosen a different face along the way to facilitate communication and compassion.
Fishbowl - When a group of people is insistent that women are women & men are men, it can be helpful to try a fishbowl discussion. A fishbowl is where you split the group into two. You sit one group together in an inner circle to talk. You sit the other group outside, around the inner circle to just listen. Then the groups switch places. Now here’s the crucial part of the exercise that many people forget: after each group has had a turn to talk and a turn to listen, pull everyone back together into one circle and facilitate a discussion about the discoveries they each had as they talked and listened to each other!
You can split the group into men and women to explore gender issues. You might also try splitting the group into “those who are less than 1 year out from date of death” and “those who are over a year out from the date of death”. You’d be surprised at the learning and exploring that happens there. If you are working with older teen aged kids, I have seen great fishbowls with the split happening along the lines of “parents” and “kids”. Whatever split you choose, please please please remember to bring the groups back together as one to reconnect to each other before ending the exercise!
When we step back from labeling the grief experience for people, we can begin to let them define and integrate in their own unique ways. As caregivers and peer mentors, we have the responsibility to facilitate the grief journey for all bereaved people – men, women, children, any ethnicity, age, or sexual orientation. And we cannot demonstrate our ability to respond if we are trying to make sense of grief by stereotyping others. Breaking the gender barrier is just one place we can begin to offer better support.
1) For instance: in computer world: http://www.alistapart.com/stories/marsvenus/
in political news: NYTimes, July 12, 2003, “Germans are from Mars, Italians are from Venus” to discuss tensions that stemmed from comments of one of their Tourism Ministers
in nutrition news: Rocky Mountain Times, July 5, 2003, reports on “Mars & Venus” diet vs. Atkins diet in university research: http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2003-07/uoia-gpi070203.php Univ of IL, July 2, 2003, report on Food and Brand Lab at U of IL about results of “comfort food” studies being aired on Food Network: “Perhaps men are from Mars and women from Venus, at least in the eating department…”
in humor: Dave Barry’s 1997 release “Dave Barry Is From Mars and Venus”
in film: “What Planet Are You From?” 2000 release from Columbia TriStar; “Venus and Mars” was slated for 2003 release, romantic comedy formula derived from John Gray’s “men vs. women” theories (could not find dvd copy of it).
3) Gleaned from the Family Communications Inc series titled “different and the same”, created by Susan Lin in conjunction with Fred Rogers: www.misterrogers.org/elementary_education/dif_same_main.asp
5) Cacciatore, J. (2005). The Power of Compassion Manual. MISS Foundation, www.missfoundation.org
This article was originally published by the MISS Foundation.
About the Authors
Dr. Joanne Cacciatore is the founder of the MISS Foundation and the author of the book Dear Cheyenne.
Dr. John DeFrain is author of Stillborn: The Invisible Death and professor at University of Nebraska in Lincoln.
Kara LC Jones is co-founder & editor of KotaPress as well as the Grief Coach & heARTist who founded MotherHenna.com.