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Grief Perspectives
Scholar's Corner
Resource Review
Your Professional Library

Supporting Bereaved Men

by William G. Hoy
“Men just grieve differently; sometimes they just don’t grieve” was my first introduction to a common belief in our culture. The supposed idea is that many—if not most—men are somehow “defective” because we do not grieve in socially-expected ways. One of the most interesting groups I ever led was a widowed men’s group that met together for more than a year; from those fellows, I learned some of what it means to be a bereaved male in the get-ahead, hold-it-together culture. So when Preston McKee, a Tennessee funeral director colleague told me of a May 30 On Point interview with men who had been part of just such a group, I was intrigued (see the Professional Library section below for more). What I found has created the focus for this month’s newsletter.

The notion that “men grieve differently” is not universally-held by bereavement specialists. In the first place, there are simply too many variables within a single personality to make such general and monolithic statements. We would hopefully not permit a stereotype following the idea that all people of a particular ethnicity or regional origin grieve alike; why would we accept that all of one gender do?
Second, the instrumental-intuitive grief style continuum first articulated by Doka and Martin (2010) makes much more common sense and much more effectively matches my clinical experience than the strict gender differentiation. What many of us have noted in working with large numbers of women and men is that “style” is much more accurate in describing a person’s coping habits than any cultural or gender difference. In their noted work, Doka and Martin suggest that few (if any) grievers are purely one style or another but that those showing an “instrumental” preference tend to be much less verbal about feelings and much more likely to deal with grief through activities. Instrumental grievers, in my experience, are the people who start foundations and support organizations to provide research dollars and other resources for the causes that ended their loved one’s life; think Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the Adam Walsh Foundation here.
Third, those who have worked with bereaved fathers with youngsters at home recognize that frequently in North American societies, these men have not previously been the primary caregiver for their children and may need additional support; a far larger number of women provide primary child caretaking roles than do men. As the review of the Rosenstein and Yopp (2018) book below indicates, groups for these men may need to focus primarily on parenting tasks, using this shared need to draw men together for the sharing of emotional support in bereavement.

Fourth, I think we need to be careful of our own language choices. For example, I am learning to not specifically ask bereaved men about “feelings.” If it is true that a large majority of bereaved men are more instrumental in our style, emotional language is not likely the key to get us to speak openly. Instead, when in doubt about the choice of words, I tend to use a phrase such as, “What do you think about xyz?” or “How would you describe your thoughts about these things?” Feelings-oriented individuals will quickly enough use emotional language to describe their experiences when asked a question with cognitive language but I have not found the same to be true of cognitively-oriented persons.
The notion that men do not grieve effectively or that we are sometimes defective in our expression of loss is simply wrong-headed. I know of no empirical evidence to suggest that emotional expression in loss is either preferable or even required to effectively negotiate the bereavement process and to fully integrate the loss into life.
Doka, K.J. & Martin, T.L. (2010). Grieving beyond gender: Understanding the ways men and women mourn. New York, NY: Routledge.
Rosenstein, D.L. & Yopp, J.M. (2018). The group: Seven widowed fathers reimagine life. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

The Author: For more than three decades, William G. Hoy has been counseling with the bereaved, supporting the dying and their families, and teaching colleagues how to provide effective care. After a career in congregation, hospice, and educational resource practice, he now holds a full-time teaching appointment as Clinical Professor of Medical Humanities at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

Resource Review

This resource-rich and well-researched website is designed around the unique grief and responsibility of being a bereaved co-parent. Offering helpful video interviews from actual bereaved parents paired with up-to-date bereavement theory, is an important place for widows and widowers to learn about their own bereavement process as well as their children’s.
The site also serves as a research platform and invites widowed parents to take a brief survey to help the researchers continue to gather important information about these uniquely bereaved individuals. From some of their research has come the excellent book, The Group: Seven Widowed Fathers Reimagine Lifereviewed below.
It is exciting to see practical and important research like this taking place in tandem with well curated information and resources. Furthermore, it is reassuring to see modern bereavement theory help bring grieving people into the truth and healing of what their new “normal” looks like.
Your Professional Library
Rosenstein, Donald L., Yopp, Justin M. (2018). The Group: Seven Widowed Fathers Reimagine Life. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Reviewed by Molly A. Keating, MA, CT
Editor, GriefPerspectives
After reading Rosenstein and Yopp’s newly published book, The Group, I am amazed that a book like it has not existed before. The impetus for this book was born out of the author’s creation of an experimental support group seeking to care for widowed fathers with young children. This group of seven men was set to run for six weeks and instead would go on to run for four years.
With care to define Kübler-Ross’ theory and place it in context (i.e. that the 5 stages were observed in people diagnosed with terminal illnesses, not bereaved people), Rosentstein and Yopp go on to explain their use of the modern and ground-breaking theory of the Dual Process Model of Coping with Bereavement (Stroebe & Schut) within this group. The model was almost instantly observable in the daily lives of these widowed fathers. Fortunately, a prior understanding of the Dual Process Model is not necessary when picking up this book. The theory is laid out simply and paired with clear examples illustrating the frequency of oscillation between loss-oriented stressors and restoration-oriented stressors that these widowed fathers were facing as they simultaneously grieved the loss of their spouse and had to carry on with their jobs and care for their young children
The chapter that most caught my attention was called “The Ring Thing” and addressed the delicate question of what to do with the wedding ring? Making note of the theory of Continuing Bonds, Rosenstein and Yopp give attention to the fact that none of the men took their rings off at the same time or in the same way. Some viewed their rings as symbols of a marriage or connection that they still felt was very present in their lives. Different men in the group benefitted over time by maintaining connection to the symbol of the ring until they felt ready to change their view of the connection. Over time, each man removed his ring and the group recognized as a whole the night when “ring watch” was at last over as an important marker of how they were making it through.
This book is so hard to put down and flows with a simplicity that makes it accessible to all readers. This book is a must-read for those running support groups, particularly those working with widowed spouses.

Perhaps the most refreshing element of this book is its courage to present the nuance of the hard questions that widowed spouses face; When/should you take off the wedding ring? When do you start dating again? Are your in-laws still your in-laws?   
In conclusion, The Group utilizes modern grief theory in one of the most real, vulnerable and misunderstood sub-groups of bereaved people; widowed fathers. Rosenstein and Yopp have achieved a significant contribution to the understanding of male grief and how support groups can be healthy and safe places for men to share and grow.
A recent interview was conducted with the authors and one of the support group participants. This hour-long conversation includes a great recap of the book, modern theory, and first-hand accounts from the men changed by this group. Click here to listen to it.

Molly Keating began a career in the funeral profession in 2009 and earned her Certificate in Thanatolgy in 2015. She works for a family-owned funeral home in Orange County, California where she lives with her husband and young daughter. She is thrilled to be a collaborator on GriefPerspectives and is passionate about modern grief education.
Research that Matters
Skulason, B., Jonsdottar, L.S., Siggordottir, V. & Helgasson, A.R. (2012). Assessing survival in widowers, and controls—A nationwide, six to nine-year follow-upBMC Public Health, 12. Accessed from
Over the last three decades, researchers have labored to understand if widowed men are at a greater risk of dying quickly following the deaths of their mates (Kaprio, Koskenvuo & Rita, 1987; Mellstrom,, 1982; Stroebe & Stroebe, 1983). Results have been mixed but have generally pointed in the direction of increased mortality in the early years of widowhood. The present study is unique, however, in that it purposed to study 100% of individuals in the appropriate class on a national scale.
Iceland is a relatively small North Atlantic island nation with a current population of about 318,000. Because the government agency, Statistics Iceland conducts an annual census and provides unparalleled access to mortality data matched to personal identification numbers, researchers can use this deep demographic pool to follow groups of individuals and track their mortality. The researchers explained their study this way: “The original study base of widowers included all 357 Icelandic widowers born in 1924-1969 who had lost their wives during the years 1999-2001 and were alive and living in Iceland on December 31st, 2001. At the time of selection, 14 widowers had already died but they were included in the survival analysis comparing widowers with the general population” (p. 2).
Since researchers in Iceland have unusual access to data, they were able to match the widowed group to a control group of non-widowed men, matching the subjects by age, years married, place of residence, education, occupation, and whether or not the subject had children. They then looked at how many widowers were alive on December 31, 2007 and eventually expanded the study to include those still surviving three years later.
What the researchers discovered was a statistically significant indication that widowed men die sooner than their non-widowed counterparts. By the end of the study period, 17.3% of widowers had died while only 8% of the men in the control group had died. Causes of death between the widowed men and the control group who had died were similar, which, for example, rules out a higher rate of suicide among widowed men. This study differs from others in that it examined 100% of population subjects who met the study criteria, largely eliminating the risk of sample bias.
What still escapes researchers, however, is the role that lifestyle choices may have for earlier mortality. One hypothesis is that both partners in a married couple eat the same diet, allowing unhealthy nutrition choices to negatively impact mortality since an unhealthy diet contributes to earlier deaths from cancer and cardiovascular disease. And of course the great unanswered question is how the mental and emotional strain of one’s wife’s death might contribute to a widower’s early death.
Kaprio, J., Koskenvuo, M.,  & Rita, H (1987). Mortality after bereavement: A prospective study of 95,647 widowed persons. American Journal of Public Health, 77, 283-287.
Mellström, D., Nilsson, Å., Odén, .A, Rundgren, Å., & Svanborg, A. (1982). Mortality among the widowed in Sweden. Scandinavian Journal of Social Medicine, 10, 33-41.
Stroebe, M.S & Stroebe, W. (1983). Who suffers more? Sex differences in health risks of the widowed. Psychological Bulletin, 93, 279-301.
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