How men and women differ when facing the challenges of loss

4 min read

When it comes to loss, there is no “right” way to grieve. It is a universal human experience, yet every grief is unique—what is typical to one person may be completely foreign to another.

However, Empathy’s 2023 Cost of Dying Report revealed a few clear gender differences in the bereavement experience.

For managers supporting employees through loss, these findings can help in creating policies and practices that work for everyone. These broad trends are useful in understanding the spectrum of experiences employees may have in the aftermath of a loved one’s death.

Differences in expectations

For the Cost of Dying Report, 1,485 Americans who experienced a recent loss were surveyed. The findings showed that men and women experience the challenge of loss in similar ways, overall.

But significant gender differences can be seen in their perception of the financial and practical responsibilities they were faced with. 

Men were consistently more likely than women to say that tasks like funeral planning, selling real estate, and settling a loved one’s financial affairs took longer than anticipated.

Bereaved people in general encounter a steep learning curve—and most likely some surprises—in the aftermath of loss. Things like closing a loved one’s accounts may require extensive documentation and multiple rounds of phone calls, for instance.

Men were consistently more likely than women to say that tasks took longer than anticipated.

And that’s before you’re dealing with taxes or probate, the court-supervised process required before an estate’s assets are passed on to those who are inheriting them.

For most bereaved people, there is a gap between what they expect the aftermath of loss to be like, and what the experience actually entails—but men tend to perceive that gap to be larger.

Funeral planning

The first big task after a loved one passes is planning a funeral. Within that larger task there are countless details to attend to—from figuring out how to pay for it and whether to bury or cremate your loved one, to choosing elements of the service and writing a eulogy.

A large portion of both men and women said funeral planning was more or much more complex than they anticipated, but men reported it in higher numbers: 66% of men, compared to 47% of women.

Financial arrangements

Settling a loved one’s financial affairs is a significant task. The workload can vary wildly, depending on what they leave behind in terms of assets and debts—and whether or not they have left a will or done any estate planning ahead of time.

Hiring an attorney may also be necessary, either because state law requires it or because of the complexity of the estate’s finances.

In dealing with financial matters, the gap was narrower than when dealing with funeral planning, but it persisted: 65% of men and 47% of women said financial arrangements were more or much more complex than they anticipated. 

In addition, men found the length of the tasks more surprising, with 67% of men saying they took more time or much more time than they expected, compared with 58% of women.

Selling real estate

Putting a loved one’s house on the market is a common choice for families seeking to divide inherited assets among several beneficiaries. During the probate process, there are often additional steps to take when selling property—adding time and complexity to the bidding and closing processes.

The Cost of Dying survey respondents reflected these challenges, with 75% of men and 65% for women saying real estate sales were more or much more complex than they anticipated

In addition, 70% of men and 58% of women say it took longer than anticipated to sell real estate.

Supporting employees after loss

While the Cost of Dying Report identified some gender-based trends, it is important to remember that most people struggle after they return from bereavement leave.

”The truth is that the effect of loss on a normal human person—a functioning, adequately prepared, mentally well person—is way bigger than we want to give it space for," says BJ Miller, MD, palliative medicine physician and co-author of A Beginner’s Guide to the End.

"What is really needed is not a shift of policy, but a shift of mindset to one that fully acknowledges and gives appropriate space to the true nature of grief and bereavement," Miller says.

Leaders at work tend to be leaders in their family, which means they are the most likely people to be juggling a full-time job and significant legal and financial tasks for the estate. For managers supporting grieving employees, it is helpful to keep an eye out for those who are overextended and struggling more than they thought they would.