Men and women grieve differently. Following the death of their baby, mothers and fathers must grieve the loss together, yet the differences in their gender-defined coping styles can sometimes lead to conflict at an already stressful time.
The death of a baby will usually strengthen a relationship, yet some couples will be exposed to “cracks” in their marriage which had previously been unnoticed, and may eventually separate.
Apart from individual responses in the grieving process, some of the more significant differences in reactions to loss between mothers and fathers include:
Because the baby died during pregnancy, mothers will often feel guilt and damaged self-worth about their body as part of their grief. A father’s expression of grief does not generally include guilt or damaged self-worth.
Fathers are more likely to express their disappointment and frustration through anger.
If a father moves through the grieving process more quickly than his partner, the mother might be hurt by the father’s “readiness” to move on and she might even feel that the baby did not mean as much to him as to her. Conversely, a father can become frustrated that his partner is not moving forward as quickly as he believes she should. Both responses can be a cause for heartache and anger.
Society often dictates that males should be “strong” and some fathers therefore feel inhibited from expressing and experiencing their own grief. This is often reinforced following a stillbirth as fathers are frequently asked how their partners are managing but not how they themselves are coping.
It is important to recognise and understand that these different gender-defined grieving processes continue to exist, to be tolerant of them, and to keep the lines of communication open. Whilst your grieving patterns may be on different paths, it is important to spend some time sharing the sadness, remembering your baby and allowing yourselves the opportunity to be close. Don’t always be strong for each other as it is can be exceptionally healing to occasionally cry together. In addition, making time to walk together, lay quietly together, and reflect together are practical ways to express your support for one another.
Despite the different responses to grief, most couples cope through the strain and eventually come to realise that they have an increased closeness and a deeper marital bond. Indeed, this terrible tragedy can impress upon you both just how great your love and respect for one another is as you support and unconditionally love each other. However, sadly, this is not always the case. Those couples who have significantly different grieving patterns are at a higher risk for continued marital conflict, emotional withdrawal and, ultimately, dissolution of their relationship in the ten years following the death of their baby. The causes of this dissolution are owed primarily to different grieving processes, a breakdown of communication and an inability to adjust to this loss.
Entrenched attitudes towards stillbirth mean that even in the 21st century, many people are still at best, uncomfortable talking about stillbirth and at worst, refuse to talk about it altogether. Stillbirth needs to be discussed for the sake of keeping relationships healthy in addition to changing its too-high figures.