Gerry R. Cox
University of Wisconsin-La Crosse
Conventional wisdom has long suggested that the grief of boys is not as effective as that of girls. My own work for more than forty years suggests otherwise. Girls tend to exhibit more maturity, be more verbal, and more expressive than boys are. It is precisely these characteristics that lead them to being neglected during their grief. Because they are mature, they seem to be managing their grief better. Because they cry, we assume that they are “letting their grief out.” Consistently, Many women who experienced grief as children, regardless of their age when the death occurred, have indicated to me that they did not receive support and guidance that they needed when they were trying to manage their grief as children.
Children, regardless of age, have different coping mechanisms, maturity levels, and understandings of their own situations. While no child ever receives the help that he or she may need during grief, girls may be more neglected than boys. Just as teachers pay more attention to male students, call on males more than females, and have more interaction with male students than female students, so too, do parents and other adults tend to spend more time and energy on male children than female children. Simply because a child seems to be coping does not mean that the child has it together.
To aid children in their grief, many standard tools exist. For girls, journaling, drawing, storytelling, and other expressive techniques are excellent. For over thirty years, I have also called for the use of humor, art in its many forms, music that is germane to the child. Other quite useful approaches would include the use spirituality, prayer, play, forgiveness, sharing, caring, encouragement, hope, and love. Just as laughter helps us find inner peace, spirituality and the strength gained from growth through loss can help us find not only peace, but also security.
As adults working with children, we must be aware that children will more often than not say what they think that we want to hear. They do not want to alienate people by expressing their real feelings and thoughts. Children who withhold feelings may appear to be coping. Boys get angry, while girls cry. Perhaps an open expression of anger is a better coping technique than crying. As adults, we often do not listen to children. We tend to hear what we expect to hear, and not hear what is actually being said. Those who work with children need to try to help families learn to listen, to use the coping skills that they already have developed, and to use techniques that will help their children grieve. We also need to aware that children often practice “the silence of words.” Like the Western Apache, they may think that the less they say about their important feelings, the fewer problems they will have. Children, like adults, need to have the freedom to talk. We need to listen to what they say and to what they are not willing to say.
While boys and girls are different. they are also alike in many ways. While gender differences are often cited as reasons for these differences, perhaps socialization and labeling are even more important. Most would say that females are more expressive than males. Many would also say that males have more difficulty in responding to loss because they are less expressive. Since the basic assumption is that females adapt and respond to loss more effectively because they are more expressive, this assumption leads logically to the assumption that men do not adapt or respond to loss as effectively as females. Thus, as adults, we tend to respond to the grief and reactions of loss of males with more concern and empathy than we do for females. The difficulty with these assumptions is that there may be more effective forms of expression of grief than verbal expressions.
Both girls and boys like to talk. Some talk incessantly while others rarely talk. Girls are socialized to play games that allow talking such as hop scotch, four-square, and so forth. Boys play active games such as kick ball, basketball, and other games that have limited conversations at best. Girls seem to be sharing more than boys. Past-time sharing is different than sharing one’s inner feelings. Both girls and boys have the capacity to do so, but as adults, we are more likely to listen when boys are sharing inner feelings. Girls cry openly and loudly at times. We assume that those expressions are venting their grief. What about their loneliness, anxiety, despair, and need to share these feelings?
Most of us are uncomfortable around those who cry and vent openly. We are even more uncomfortable around those who want to share inner feelings and thoughts if we think that this will lead to crying and emotional outbursts. When a male shares inner thoughts and feelings, the belief is that he will “take it like a man,” and not cry or make us feel so uncomfortable when expressing inner feelings and thoughts. Even when girls exhibit “masculine” grieving patterns, we reject listening to them because of our fear that they will break down and make us feel badly. The grief of males is thought to be based upon self-control. The grief of girls is thought to be based upon loss of control. While boys or those using the masculine grieving pattern often lose control, they tend to do so with anger or by immersing themselves into activity. Adults seem to deal better with a broken dish or a damaged wall or whatever than with unashamed, open weeping. We are not as bothered by the man who chops firewood to vent his grief as we are by a woman who just cries and cries and further immerses herself in guilt and remorse. Anger tends to be resolved more quickly than depression or other emotions exhibited by emotional outbursts. Just calm down and we will talk about it. We try to get those using feminine grieving patterns to calm down, but rarely do we talk about it afterwards, perhaps out of fear of further emotional outbursts.
Both males and females are likely to make a conscious effort to keep their feelings and other responses in an effort to protect their parents (Robinson and Mahon, 1997: 479). Children are able to understand more about dying and death than we as adults tend to give them credit for understanding and at younger ages than we might expect. For both male and female children, we need to be honest with them, and we need to ask them what is best to do for them.
They will, in many cases, know what they really need. We cannot change reality. We cannot give children experience, but we can help them with this experience. The lack of hope that often comes with sorrow leads to despair. We need to laugh to have hope. Children need to be taught that there are still reasons to laugh. What most often occurs is that we, as adults, grieve alone, and we further leave our children to grieve alone as well. Children quite often grieve alone without support from any adult’s offering help. While we can’t change reality, we can promote a healthy response to the grief of a child. Children are not strangers to unhappy feelings. Children know what it means to be mad, unhappy, guilty, lonely, sad, and afraid. Even infants and toddlers react to loss. (Grollman,1995:3). We need to do our very best to aid them in their grieving. Children need to know that they can talk to adults and that adults will actually listen to them. Children must be allowed to talk and to ask questions. Such talks are often stressful and cause pain for all involved, but it is a necessary step for the children (Adams and Deveau, 1984:226).
Children tend to believe that they will alienate people if they talk about death, and therefore, if they do talk about death, they will not share all that they know or feel which leads to mistaken beliefs about the child’s ability to understand death (Rosen, 1986:4). Robert Kastenbaum (2012) suggests that very young children may be able to comprehend the essential facts about death (Kastenbaum, 2012: 308). Children are always developing. Their understandings of dying and death and their reactions to issues of illness and loss are also typically undergoing change. Children may grieve similarly to adults, but they may need approaches that are less threatening than talking with adults to be able to truly express their thoughts and feelings. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross suggests that we must be aware of the language of children and the verbal symbolic language that they use, and if we are not able to understand it, give them a sheet of paper and crayons and ask them to draw any picture (Kubler-Ross, 1991: 158). Children need to be able to express their thoughts and feelings in non-threatening ways. As adults, we need to share our own thoughts and feelings with our children. Sharing one’s own sadness with a child invites the child to share her sadness with us. As adults, we become a model of sharing and communicating which provides a positive model of support for the child (Worden, 1996:146). Happiness is not the absence of sadness. Happiness is vital to good health, even in dying people. Those who are dying lived eighteen months longer if they were happy (Speigel, 1998:67). Even grieving children need to be encouraged to be happy and to enjoy their lives.
Children also often suffer from anxiety. By age six, females are more than twice as likely to experience anxiety disorders and depression than males (Seeley and Allen, 1998:114). What is it about males that allows them to have less anxiety and depression? Perhaps it is related to our perceptions and socialization of girls and boys. Girls act more mature, seem more serious, and exhibit more sense. Boys seem to have more fun, act less mature, and are not expected to behave nearly as well. Yet we all know boys who are mature, act intelligently, and behave quite well. The expectations of adults clearly impact the behavior of children.
Children face losses. Adults can help children learn to manage those losses. Girls mature intellectually faster than boys. They can more quickly understand conceptual ideas. They can be taught that the pattern of universe is such that to have life to continue, there will need to be loss and death. Losses are constant. No one lives in this world without loss and its hurt. Friends move away; people die; graduations occur; teachers change jobs, schools, or move away; toys get broken; and imaginary friends cease to exist. Girls seem to be more aware of the beauty and goodness that surrounds us. But neither girls nor boys will only see beauty and goodness if they do not have the eyes to see the beauty and goodness that surrounds them. How can we teach the child to see the beauty of an old, wrinkled face, the pains, or even the slums? Beauty is not just what Hollywood portrays as beauty.
For most, unless the loss is a painful event or a life-changing event, it is given little thought. Girls who are grieving a loss may ask the parent or other significant adult questions that are painful and confronting just as adults do when they are in pain. Adults need to listen to their pain without judging or lecturing on the rightness or wrongness of their reactions (McKissock, 1998: 111-112). The child may suffer dramatically over the loss of a favorite toy and show little emotion over the death of a grandparent. The public reaction to the loss does not necessarily reflect the magnitude of the loss. We, like children, may be grieving for losses that occurred long ago (Gilbert, 1999:89). Grief is a process. Children, depending upon age may or may not understand this process, but as adults, we need to understand the process of loss and growth to be able to aid grieving children.
Response to Loss
Just as our losses are unique, so are our ways of coping with loss unique. Children often imitate their parent’s ways of grieving. Over time, each of us learns particular ways of coping. Each time we use a pattern of coping, it becomes more deeply ingrained in our pattern of responding to loss. Over time, we come to believe that we do not have choice in how we respond. Yet, we made choices which got us to where we are now. As adults, we need to be sure that the choices that children make lead to healthy coping.
As we are humans, we are also imperfect people. Our parents, grandparents, siblings, teachers, are also imperfect, and they may have taught us and rewarded us for ways of behaving that later did not work well for us. Our adult task is to examine what we have learned, hold on to what is healthy, and discard what is not.
Many unhealthy ways of coping begin with such messages as, “Now, now, don’t cry.” “Boys don’t cry,” “Don’t be a sissy,” “Be my little man.” We are taught that the way that girls grieve is feminine and that boys must grieve in a masculine way. Even as adults, most of us try to have gender specific methods of coping. Boys and men take it like a man. They keep quiet and do not share. Girls and women are supposed to be emotionally expressive and to share their grief. The differences are not as great as they appear to be.
Unfortunately, no magic formula or scientific scale can tell us how a person will react when something is lost from their life. There are many other reactions that may rage within us including fear, confusion, despair, loneliness.
To aid children in their grief, many standard tools exist. For girls, journaling, drawing, storytelling, and other expressive techniques are excellent. For over thirty years, I have also called for the use of humor, art in its many forms, music that is germane to the child. Other techniques that I have found to be useful include spirituality, prayer, play, forgiveness, sharing, caring, encouragement, hope, and love. Just as laughter helps us find inner peace, spirituality and the strength gained from growth through loss can help us find not only peace, but also security.
As adults, we must be careful when judging the value of someone else’s loss. We may grieve more for a pet than grandparent. We may grieve more for a person that we greatly admired than for a relative. A dear friend may be grieved more than a spouse. An ex-spouse may cause us to have grief that is surprising to others. We must also be careful when judging the techniques of coping used by another. Whatever method we use is not necessarily better than ones used by others. We also cannot see their heart. A loss that on surface should be devastating may not be while a loss than seems trivial may devastate. Broken hearts cannot be seen with a MRI. Our children grieve differently that we do. We need to help girls with their grief. We need to open ourselves to listening to their pain and help them as guides rather than giving them our way of grieving.
Adams, David W. and Eleanor J. Deveau. 1993. Coping with Childhood Cancer: Where Do We Go From Here? Hamilton, Ontario, Canada: Kinbridge.
Gilbert, Richard. 1999. Finding Your Way after Your parent Dies. Ave Maria Press:
Notre Dame, Indiana.
Grollman, Earl A. Explaining Death to Young children: Some Questions and Some Answers. In Grollman, Earl A., ed. 1995. Bereaved Children and Teens: A Support Guide for Parents and Professionals. Beacon Press: Boston.
Kastenbaum, Robert J. 2012. Death, Society, and Human Experience. Boston: Pearson.
Kubler-Ross, Elisabeth. The Dying Child. In Papadatou, Danai and Costas Papadatos, eds. 1991.Children and Death. Hemisphere Publishing Corporation.
McKissock, Dianne. 1998. The Grief of Our Children. Australian Broadcasting
Company: Sydney, Australia.
Robinson, Linda and Margaret M. Mahon. Sibling Bereavement: A Conceptual Analysis. Death Studies, 21: 477-499, 1997.
Rosen, Gelen. 1986. Unspoken Grief: Coping with Childhood Sibling Loss. D.C. Heath: Lexington.
Speigel, David. Getting There is Half the Fun: Relating Happiness to Health. Psychological Inquiry. Vol. 9, No. 1, 1998, 66-68.
Worden, J. William, 1996. Children and Grief: When a Parent Dies. Guilford Press: New York.
About the Author
Gerry R. Cox is a professor emeritus of sociology at University of Wisconsin–La Crosse. He served as the director of the Center for Death Education & Bioethics. He has over one hundred publications including books. He has served as editor of Illness, Crisis & Loss and for The Midwest Sociologist. He is a member of the International Work Group on Dying, Death, and Bereavement; the Midwest Sociological Society; the American Sociological Association; The International Sociological Association; Phi Kappa Phi; and the Great Plains Sociological Society.