Parental responses to the death of a child
Gordon Riches and Pamela Dawson
There is considerable debate about the relationship between a child’s death and marital breakdown (Rando 1991). Many studies offer evidence of increased communication problems, emotional isolation and mutual frustration between partners. Researchers relate this increase in marital tension directly to differences in grieving patterns between partners (Schwab 1992, Littlewood et al. 1991). Studies also acknowledge cases in which partners report that their relationship has been strengthened.
Grief response and gender are frequently linked and stereotypical accounts of strong men and emotional women may go some way towards explaining variations in how parents cope with the deaths of their children. While feelings of disorientation are common in both partners, reports note that fathers appear to grieve less deeply and for shorter periods of time than mothers. Women appear to express profound distress more openly than men, grieve for longer, experience more guilt, are preoccupied more obviously with their loss and take longer to return to ‘normal functioning’. Men are more likely to grieve in practical ways. These distinctive patterns are regularly reported regardless of the age of the child and the cause of death, although researchers occasionally report exceptions to them (Peddicord 1990, Vance et al. 1995).
In our study it became clear that although many informants’ accounts reflected this pattern, some did not. While most fathers appeared to be strong, to be supporting their wives and getting on with their lives, some reported continuing depression and expressed their emotions as openly as some mothers. While most mothers reported recurring feelings of despair and were able to express emotions openly, a substantial number had returned to full-time work or were engaging in other activities relatively soon after their bereavement and appeared to be exhibiting coping styles more generally associated with men. Moreover, even those men and women who appeared to fit into typically gendered patterns of grieving included in their accounts exceptional behaviours and sentiments which did not fit neatly into these conventional distinctions.