Grief is solitary – even when other people around them are grieving, each parent can feel alone and normal patterns in their relationship may be disrupted. Couples often experience an inability to communicate feelings of grief to one another; to express the awfulness of their feelings. A mother’s response to the loss of a child is frequently different to that of a father’s.
Women naturally tend to be loss-orientated and are often more concerned with their feelings. They focus on their loss and the emotions they are experiencing. They frequently need to recall, be reminded of and share memories of the child who has died.
In contrast, men are more like to be restoration-oriented. They want things to be repaired and to return to normal as soon as possible. Traditionally men are not encouraged to express feelings and so they may instinctively try to suppress them and endeavour to be strong, as society demands, and functions normally. This response can unfortunately be misinterpreted by their partner as not caring about their child who has died and lead to resentment.
When couples experience the death of their child it is not unusual for one partner to try to ‘manage’ the turmoil in a decisive fashion. Often it is the father who takes on primary responsibility for completing practical tasks such as registering the death, meeting the funeral director, arranging finances and eventually returning to work.
Many men feel extremely concerned about their child’s mother who they may see as devastated, openly grieving and sorrowful. A father may feel that expressing his own feelings of grief, sorrow and profound loss and turmoil will exacerbate the grief of his partner and render them both ‘lost’ and without any control or sense of order in their lives. Thus, it can be difficult for a father to express his deepest feelings.
However, it can be that the mother is actually comforted by evidence that her child’s father experiences feelings similar to her own and her sense of mutual support and intimacy can be increased by shared expressed sorrow.
Of course this is not always the case and individuals and couples vary greatly, but it is no wonder that this area of differing expressions of grief is so difficult for many couples. Often the father may need the mother’s help and understanding in order to express feelings and the mother may need the father’s help and support in completing practical tasks and engaging in the business of daily living. Professionals involved can help, to some extent, by including both parents equally when discussing practical issues and when recognising and alluding to emotions and offering support.
Single parents can be particularly vulnerable and it is important to find someone who can help support them following their child’s death.