By Catherine Hoff
HAND of the Peninsula
The decision to bring another child into our lives was not entered into lightly by either my husband or myself. After all, we had already been blessed with two beautiful children, a son and a daughter. But, we had both been the third born in our respective families and we each had a secret wish to duplicate the same scenario in our own family, as well. When our baby was diagnosed with a genetic syndrome incompatible with life at 18 weeks gestation, our hopes for his survival and the possibility of any future children were simultaneously dashed.
The loss of our son sent the two of us into a tailspin of emotion and confusion beyond description. Yet, even though we were both suffering, it was difficult to offer each other much in the way of comfort or solace. We traveled our separate roads of grief for a long, long time and just recently I have finally been able to make some sense of our vastly different journeys.
As part of a course assignment during the fall semester of 2004, I completed a research project with the participation of several parents from HAND of the Peninsula. This study examined the differences in reactions displayed by mothers and fathers following the experience of a neonatal loss. My intent was to shed light on the very complex, often misunderstood, and potentially conflicting patterns of behavior displayed by men and women during the grieving process. I felt compelled to explore the topic of gender differences in response to grief because of my personal experience in dealing with this tragedy. I was also interested in finding out how other couples dealing with a similar loss have coped with similar events and how their experiences compared to mine.
When my husband and I lost our son, we were faced with the dual challenge of reconstructing our lives as individuals as well as reestablishing our relationship as a couple. How can a man or woman tend to the personal process of bereavement while simultaneously considering the needs of their partner? What insights might bring about greater understanding between grieving parents as they seek ways to make sense of their loss?
As I began examining the professional literature on this subject, it became obvious that the research supports the notion that males and females react quite differently to situations surrounding the death of a baby. Mothers and fathers exhibit distinct ways of experiencing their loss, interpreting their loss, and expressing their loss. This “incongruent grieving” between men and women, although normal, can create barriers to communication and feelings of vulnerability for the individual, possibly resulting in relational conflict.
With this in mind, I approached several members at HAND of the Peninsula in order to elicit involvement in my project. A total of 32 parents, 13 fathers and 19 mothers, agreed to participate by way of completing the Perinatal Grief Scale (Lasker and Toedter, 1990) a questionnaire designed to measure symptoms consistent with grief and bereavement associated with a neonatal loss. Upon analysis of the data collected, the findings supported my research hypothesis that women indeed display a greater number of symptoms related to grief than men. There was also confirmation that this greater level of intensity in the grieving patterns of mothers, as compared to fathers, continues, even several years after the loss.
In reviewing the methods of communication and coping often employed by mothers experiencing grief, behaviors include active grieving such as crying, or other displays of depression, talking things out with others, and the practicing of rituals associated with spirituality or the collection of memorabilia. Common reactions of fathers include displays of anger and frustration, withdrawal, or keeping busy via work and other out side commitments. Noting these vastly different approaches to pregnancy loss, it is easy to see why an individual might feel as though a brick wall is building up between their self and their partner as both try to come to terms with the situation in their own way.
Here are a few things to consider that might help dismantle this brick wall, enhance communication, while hopefully giving meaningful assistance to each other during this time of sorrow. Men might try to accept a woman’s need for outside support, listen without judgment or criticism, and recognize that her process is often longer and more intense than a man’s. Women might practice validating a man’s emotions, allowing him to experience periods of silence or withdrawal, and finding ways to lessen his role as “protector” by seeking other means of support. What I have noticed about many of the couples that come to HAND is that often men will accompany their partners to a grief support meeting, even though it may not be their activity of choice. What a wonderful way for these men to support their partners by recognizing that she needs him by her side at this time! Conversely, I also often see women who attend meetings on their own, without their partners. What a wonderful way for these women to support their partners by recognizing that he needs time to be by himself while she can feel free to pursue whatever type of outside support she may need!
I learned a great deal about myself, and my husband, during the course of this research project. I have always thought of the loss of our son as a truly defining event in our marriage, significantly affecting my feelings about the relationship that I have with my spouse. By learning to appreciate how each of us has integrated this experience into our lives, I am moving closer to the idea of reframing the loss of our child as an inspiration to further emotional intimacy and exploring new avenues to communication.
I also plan to incorporate this research into my graduate thesis work in the field of Art
Therapy Psychology. My hope is to design an expressive art exercise in order to facilitate parental grief and thereby allow couples to gain a sense of completion over their interrupted parenting experience.
Catherine and Gary Hoff’s son Neil Christopher was born on Aug. 1, 1987