Their son died suddenly, in his early 30s. There was shock, anger and disbelief--and a terrible quiet that both parents knew would be with them for the rest of their lives.
In the weeks and months that followed, the mother wrote long letters to everyone who visited or sent condolences. But whenever someone came to the house to offer sympathy, the father would retreat to another room.
Perhaps neither parent's behavior is startling; we are part of a society in which poets extol "the silent manliness of grief" and women are expected to provide shoulders for one another to cry on.
Some ways of showing sorrow are more common to women and others are more frequent in men, but several recent studies suggest that all ways have both value and problems. By learning about them, we may all be able to cope better when we lose someone we care about.
Most researchers say that men and women share equal feelings of pain and grief, but, overall, women use their social-support systems to help them through mourning, and men do not.
In a two-year study of widowed men and women, psychologists Wolfgang and Margaret Stroebe of the University of Tubingen in West Germany found that not only did women have more friends than men, but women used those friends as supports. The pain of loss is often eased, Wolfgang Stroebe says, "by talking to other people--by opening yourself to others, telling them about your loss. Now, women seem to be better able to do this than men."
Widowed women with close friends adapt to their loss better than those who do not have a confidant, according to a study by researcher Robert Digulio of the College of St. Rose in Albany, N.Y. Widowed men, on the other hand, are often terribly isolated because their sole confidants had been their wives. "And so, in bereavement, they lost the one person to whom they could talk," Stroebe says.
The tendency of men to keep their grief to themselves has made it difficult to gauge their reactions to loss, primarily because many men are reluctant to participate in studies such as the Stroebes'. The two psychologists sent an attitude questionnaire to the men who declined to take part in their study, and from the results it appears that men who did not take part were more depressed than those who agreed to participate.
Researcher Ruth O'Brien of the University of Rochester School of Nursing found that while having networks of family and friends did not decrease the stress felt by widowed men and women, "it did help them over time to cope better with the ongoing day-to-day changes and adjustments" in their lives. But again, O'Brien found that women continued to talk about their loss, and men preferred to avoid the subject.
The fear of losing control in front of other people, of seeming less than "manly," may lie behind the men's reticence. This means, Wolfgang Stroebe says, that "the men who would most need help might be the least likely to go out and search for it."
This pattern of men withdrawing and women reaching out seems to hold true for various kinds of losses. Women whose children died unexpectedly felt that they had an advantage over their husbands because they had "friends who rallied around them," according to psychologist Linda N. Edelstein, author of "Maternal Bereavement," while their husbands had fewer people to turn to.
"A lot of women would report that the men would have to put on a show at the office, and would then come home and just stare at the walls," Edelstein says.
In a study of couples experiencing infertility, Auburn University psychologist Annette L. Stanton found that wives were more forthcoming about their unhappiness than their husbands were.
At such times, when a husband and wife may need one another's emotional support most, these different coping styles can create problems. When dealing with pregnancy loss, conflicts arising from different reactions can lead to marital distress, according to psychiatrist Elisabeth K. Herz of the George Washington University Medical Center.
"It's something I've seen over and over again," she says. "After pregnancy losses, there is a high percentage of marriages that break up."
Different reactions may occur because men and women place different values on certain types of loss. "If you accept the contention that motherhood is a more central role for women than fatherhood is for men," Stanton says, then infertility "may be a more distressing event for women."
The divergence between the coping styles of women and men might stem from the way people are socialized, said Phyllis R. Silverman, co-director of the Child Bereavement Study at Massachusetts General Hospital. Citing the work of psychologist Carol Gilligan and psychiatrist Jean Baker Miller, Silverman suggests that women are brought up to see themselves as connected to or "in relationship" with others, while men are taught to be independent and autonomous. As a result, the effects of loss tend to be much more pervasive for women.
Further, there are gender differences in the very metaphors we use to speak about loss, Silverman contends. The language we have developed to discuss grief and mourning "has been a model of separation and disengagement rather than connection," emphasizing a man's rather than a woman's experience of loss, she says.
For instance, the "male model" of loss speaks of learning to break your ties with the past, Silverman says, and this is reflected in the behavior of many men who prefer to "get on with life" and quickly involve themselves in work or other activities. But in mourning a loss, she says, "you don't break your ties with the past, you change your ties," a style with which women appear to be more comfortable.
Moreover, this idea, that women are better able to "connect" with others and that men are more independent, indicates there might be a few things about coping that the sexes could teach one another.
In a recent study of mutual-help groups for the widowed, for instance, Silverman found that men tended to be more decisive and task-oriented in reordering their lives, but they lacked a sense of "how to live as a social creature without their wives. What they had to learn was to be more connected" to other people. The women, by contrast, "had to learn to be on their own, more centered on themselves."
In the end, it would seem that what matters most is not who suffers more, but how we can learn to help one another to suffer less.