An article in the New York Times about male grievers wanting to join support groups and finding only women raises the question: do men and women grieve differently? Author Perry Garfinkel concludes that yes, they do, but cites as evidence some stereotypes that have never been proven: that women are more expressive and “intuitive,” while men don’t want to talk about their feelings. I reviewed all the literature and devoted a whole chapter in my book to this debate and conclude that the research is too flawed to tell if men and women grieve differently, and if there are differences, they’re certainly not as great as the similarities. For the most part, the attempt to “gender” grief—just as marshalling it into stages—does it a disservice.
Novelist Joyce Carol Oates’s memoir about the death of her husband Ray Smith is coming out in February, part of which was excerpted in the December 13 issue of The New Yorker. Even though the book, A Widow’s Story, is 400 pages long, it only spans the first six months after his death, portraying the most intense period of grief and omitting the good news that she has since remarried. And while it is described as the story of ”one woman’s struggle to comprehend a life absent of the partnership that had sustained and defined her for nearly half a century,” Oates frequently mis-generalizes about all widows. She even describes predictable stages, such as the numbness she experienced gathering Ray’s belongings to take home from the hospital. “In this very early stage of widowhood—you might almost call is “pre-widowhood,” for the widow hasn’t yet “got it,” what it will be like to inhabit this free-fall world from which the meaning has been drained—the widow takes comfort in such small tasks, the rituals of the death protocol, through which more experienced others will guide her, as one might guide a doomed animal out of a pen and into a chute by the use of a ten-foot pole.” It reminded me of the false note in the play adaptation of The Year of Magical Thinking, when Joan Didion projected her experience onto all womankind. ”It will happen to you,” wrote Didion. “The details will be different, but it will happen to you. That is what I’m here to tell you.”