Women, Grief and the Gender of Mourning
Whilst grieving is different for every individual regardless of their gender, history perpetuates notions of gendered mourning that are still present today. Whilst any attempt to explain a biological account of the gender of mourning is indeed reductive and quite possibly dead-ended, it is true that the social implications of gender significantly play into the way we behave and are expected to behave when someone dies. Further, it is a tough fact that being a woman in a largely unequal economical environment gives rise to issues of hardship that are certainly not experienced by men when it comes to suffering a loss.
The Ancient Example
Among the ancient Greeks, women were responsible for leading lamentations and men were required to focus on establishing a hospitable environment for their guest-mourners. Despite this, these roles were continually subverted in the tragedies of the great Greek playwrights; in Aeschylus’s The Libation Bearers, for instance, we see Orestes engaging in deep lamentation at having to bury his father a number of years after his murder.
Whilst examples such as these may lead us to believe that, even back then, gendered aspects of mourning were not concrete, the genre of tragedy is centred around caution; we are not to behave like tragic heroes do for the very reason that the consequences of their actions are tragic. Here, then, is an example of a kind of propaganda which propounded gendered styles of mourning from the very beginnings of literary history. What is astounding is that these very ideas are still present in society today.
Victorianism and Mourning
Typically in ancient Greek literature, we see women aggressively tearing their clothes and scratching themselves in a display of the grotesque nature of loss and death. This is miles from the sentiment of Victorianism, where the ideals of modesty and reservedness were widely propounded. It was commonly known that the Victorians were obsessed with death.
The Victorians did, however, make their own displays of death. A significant aspect of the gendered approach to mourning during this period was the widow’s adoption of black clothing following the passing of her husband. Wearing black was not only a mark of respect to the deceased, it was a way to parade the woman’s social standing as a widow to society at large. A widow was expected to wear the full mourning attire for two years. Queen Victoria herself wore black for the 40 years following the death of her husband, Prince Albert, and avoided public appearances for the initial 10 years after he died.
Women and Mourning Today
Whilst Queen Victoria’s actions were certainly on the extreme-end of Victorian sensibility, she was upheld by many as the epitome of the devoted wife. Of course, is not the case that women whose husbands or partners have died are expected to behave in this way today; there is no rule on the colour of one’s dress or self-exclusion. There are, however, many unspoken expectations and prejudices that permeate the notion of female mourning today.
Here are the myths and prejudices that are identifiable within UK culture today, and why they should be debunked and shot-down once and for all:
- Women should wait for a long time before ‘moving on’: it is no secret that it is generally expected for women to mourn the death of a partner for a far more prolonged period of time than that of men. The same is applied to divorced women, or even to women who have just undergone a tough break-up. Finding a new partner is not the same as ‘moving on’ or ending the period of grief. One can suffer grief for one person for a whole lifetime and still fall in love again. Being judgemental of one’s personal choices, especially with (implicit or explicit) reference to their gender, is wholly wrong. Historically, being male and single, be that due to a death or any other matter, equated eligibility and a need to re-couple. Quite the opposite was the expectation for women to remain single and in many ways a living representation of their deceased other-half. There are clearly remnants of this psychology that resound today, and they need to be quickly rejected.
- Women must ‘stay strong’ for their children: Whilst it is vital that, if you are a primary caregiver, your youngsters are well looked after, it is just as important that you look after yourself, too. Seeking professional help is always the best way to do this. In the long-run, it is far better to admit that you need support and to lean on others for child support help whilst you let yourself heal than to fake a wellness that is not there.
- Women must be hyper-emotional: Just as some men are not prone to crying and exhibiting other expressions of grief, some women are also reserved when it comes to showing their emotional vulnerability. Whilst there is some truth to the notion that the cultural phenomenon of masculinity inhibits a man’s emotional life from being fully realised, many women are also this way. Everyone expresses grief differently, be they male, female, both or neither.
It is important to acknowledge that there are factors which differentiate the male and female experiences of loss and grief, particularly due to socio-historical influences and economic circumstances. It is our job, however, to resist stereotype and categorisation; all grief, no matter its conformity or lack thereof, is legitimate and worthy of support.