Losing a child is undoubtedly a devastating time for any parent. Although such a unique and difficult time can bring the parents closer together, it is not uncommon for relationships to struggle during this time.

One reason that causes such disputes between couples is the fact that different family members grieve differently. Whilst one parent may need to talk a lot about the child that has just passed, the other may find isolation and time alone a more effective way of dealing with the pain.  Of course, such discrepancies in how we approach this situation, may lead to misunderstanding and misinterpretation of what the other parent is feeling. When we do not understand why the other person is not grieving in the same way that we are, we can easily assume that she or he does not care or is hurting less than us.  Expression, or lack of expression, of grief is not an indicator of how deeply we are hurting.  Mothers and fathers both, suffer profoundly when losing their child, even if their grieving looks different. This blog will shed some light on common reactions to grieving with the aim of increasing our sensitivity to why people grieve differently.

The way we grieve is influenced by the culture and society we live in.  In a culture, where it is normal for women to have close relations with other female friends, it may be easier for the mother to find comfort and support in such friends. Our society does not frown upon a woman who cries and expresses her deep sorrow, sometimes it is even expected of her to do so.  Mothers tend to want to talk about their child, watch videos of them, go through old photographs, reminisce about past holidays and time spent together.  On the other hand, the father may find it very strange why his partner feels such a great need to repeatedly talk about their lost child.  He may even believe that the more she talks about it, the more upset she will feel and the more she will dwell on what happened.  For this reason, he may avoid talking about the loss and create other distractions, believing that this is supportive. 

When this happens, mothers can easily interpret such behaviour as “not grieving”.  For mothers, not talking about the loss is abnormal and a sign of not caring. But is it?

Once again, society’s expectations of a man is to “fix things” and to “man it up”. When a father loses his child, he is faced with the stark reality that this is something he cannot fix.  Seeing his spouse in deep and agonising pain only makes him feel more helpless and perhaps even a failure.  So, faced with all this, it is only understandable that fathers retreat from their partner’s pain and immerse themselves where they know they are capable of ‘fixing’ something or of being productive, which is typically their work. 

Since fathers perhaps are not expected to express their emotions so openly, they tend to experience a lot of loneliness.  It is typical for a man to feel that his social support network consists of his spouse.  But if his spouse is not recognising how he is grieving and is finding solace and support in her female friends, he may feel even more isolated and alone in this difficult time.

Differences in grief does not have to drive couples apart.  Part two of this blog will focus on how couples can learn to support each other during such difficult and challenging times.

Stephanie Caruana is a counsellor at Willingness. She offers counselling services to adolescents and adults experiencing some form of distress. She can be contacted on stephanie@willingness.com.mt or call us on 79291817.