Beyond gender in grief

Posted by Kenetha Stanton on

white figures of man and woman on sign against background of trees
Image by kerplode from Pixabay

As a culture, we have powerful (but often subconscious) expectations in our "rules" of grief about how gender affects our style of grieving. Simultaneously, we also hold beliefs about which style of grieving is the healthier way to do it.

These two beliefs work together to create the potential for a great deal of shame to arise in our grieving process when our grieving style runs outside of the expectations. As we continue our exploration of the role of shame in grieving, this is an important area to bring to the surface so shame doesn't have the chance to take root.

Our common cultural paradigm of grieving suggests that there is a masculine and a feminine style of grieving.

The so-called masculine style of grieving is one that is one that is internalized, takes place on a cognitive level, and is often focused on tasks or actions.

The so-called feminine style of grieving takes place on an emotional level and is shared with others through crying and talking about our grief.

Because of the gender-based way this paradigm is defined, we tend to have the expectation that these styles of grieving should match our biological sex. Men "should" grieve in the masculine style, and women "should" grieve in the feminine style.

This obviously creates an enormous potential for shame to take root both through our self-inflicted expectations and those of others when our natural styles of grieving don't match these gender expectations.

To complicate matters even further, there is a strong cultural belief that the so-called feminine style of grieving is the healthier one. The so-called masculine style is often seen as someone being in denial or being repressed or not actively facing their grief.

This can create another source of shame for people of both genders when their natural style of grieving is closer to the so-called masculine style.

A powerful step outside of this source of shame is to remove the genderized labels and take a look at these styles in a more objective light. In chapter 7 of Grief and Bereavement in Contemporary Society: Bridging Research and Practice, Martin and Doka proposed the gender-neutral terms of instrumental grieving and intuitive grieving to describe these two observable grieving styles.

Someone who grieves in the instrumental grieving style experiences and processes their grief more in an intellectual way. A person who relates to this style is less likely to engage in emotional expressions of their grief and more likely to do their processing mostly on their own. A person grieving in this way is also more likely to find comfort in action-based expressions of their grief, like getting involved with a cause or organization related to their grief experience.

Someone who grieves in the intuitive grieving style experiences and processes their grief more in an emotional way. A person who relates to this style is more likely to express their grief in emotions and want to talk about their emotions and process with others as a means of working through their grief.

In actuality, grief styles appear on a continuum, and most of us will have some mix of the two styles that feel most natural to us. We may even find ourselves moving back and forth between the two styles over time during our experience of grief.

The important thing to note is that neither style is better than the other, and neither style is dictated by our biology or gender expression.

Redefining our style of grieving in these gender-neutral terms can go a long way toward releasing ourselves from any internally or externally imposed shame around gender expectations of grief, and it also validates both styles as equally healthy and helpful.

What matters most is being aware of how we are grieving in the moment and allowing ourselves to experience and express our grief in the style that is most effective for us. This means owning our particular needs and finding the kind of support that best fits with those needs.

Which style better matches your way of experiencing and expressing grief? How comfortable are you with owning that style?

Have you ever experienced shame regarding your natural style for experiencing and expressing grief? How did this impact your grieving experience?

How do these definitions of grieving styles change the way you might interact with others who are grieving? How does it change your expectations about how they should grieve or what kind of support you should give?

What expectations or beliefs rise up in you as you think about these gender-neutral and equally affirming ways of defining these styles? Do you experience any discomfort stemming from cultural norms that you have absorbed? How might you address that discomfort?

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