Monday, November 17, 2008

Men and Grief

Do men grieve differently than women? Are they "emotionally unavailable" as some women charge?

In a book by Dr. William Worden, he believes that when we experience extreme loss, we tend to go through three stages in the healing process. In phase 1, people often retreat from the world that is familiar to them. This may include friends, family, and work. Phase 2 occurs when the person begins to grapple with the realities of the loss and begin dealing with the pain of the loss. Phase 3 is the process of putting one's life back together as the pain gradually begins to subside.

Is it possible that men and women experience these phases of grief differently? Some professionals seem to think so. It seems that both men and women are similar during the first phase. Both genders experience a numbness that blocks out everyday activities. This is often accompanied by anxiety, shock, denial or confusion.

Psychologists think this reaction is the brain's attempt to struggle with the reality of what has happened. We are social creatures and often define ourselves by those who are in our lives. When these connections are broken, we feel a vacuum and an emptiness in our lives that is disorienting.
The last phase tends to favor men because it is the time for "getting on with life." Men are born to reorganize and restructure things. This is what they tend to do best. This is usually the end point of intensive grieving where personal adjustments are made to a new life. A person in this phase may set new goals, explore new areas of life and maybe even take on a new identify.

The middle phase is where men and women differ the most. It deals with the expression of grief: talking, crying, confronting. It is that lonely place where the person must feel the pain while beginning to detach from the lost love. Culturally and physically, women are more suited to do this phase more effectively.

In another book, Carol Staudacher suggests that men have developed four separate ways of dealing with phase two grief. These coping styles are seen by peers as helpful and natural. They make the way through phase two more tolerable.

One coping style is to remain silent. Men tend to keep their pain to themselves and seem, on the surface, to not have a need for talking about their emotional pain. The advantage of this technique is that it keeps men from being more vulnerable than they already are in phase two. This form of self-protection allows men to find a place to heal without further wounding.

Another copying style for phase two is called "Engaging in Secret Grief." The pain stays inside and seldom is shared with others. Men may engage in insignificant behaviors such as pulling weeds or driving aimlessly for long periods of time. This time of solitude buys time to feel pain without outside interference.

Unsurprisingly, men also in some type of activity for making sense out of their lives. They may get more involved in sports or other physical exertions as an attempt to bring some semblance of control to a life that feels out of control. Men are generally reinforced for using this phase two technique because others see them as confident and brave in a difficult time.

Finally, a fourth option many men choose is to become obsessed with filling their time. From waking to sleep, each minute is filled with as few gaps as possible. This burst of energy is often troubling to women because it appears men are denying their feelings and trying to avoid dealing with the grief.

What is important is that each gender must deal with their own grief by using their individual strengths. This means that neither gender has a monopoly on what is right or wrong about how to grieve. One type is not necessarily more effective than another. We need to respect these differences in how each of us handles the pain and suffering that accompanies loss.

We also know that another difference between men and women is that women often take longer to resolve their grief. Generally, they take about two years while men take about six months to finalize the grief process.

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