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Why Aren’t You Crying? Understanding Grieving Styles

Grief comes when we experience separation from someone or something we love or have an emotional connection to.

While we most often think of grief as related to death, the pain of grief is also experienced in life circumstances such as divorce, a miscarriage, the loss of a job, or the loss of place that we call home. The grief symptoms we experience related to these types of losses is normal, natural, and necessary—without them, we would not heal. Finding a way to process these responses is crucial if we are going to adjust and adapt to life’s challenges. When it comes to resolving issues, there is no “one size fits all.” Some of us like to “talk” it out and others like to “work” it out. We all have our own, unique ways of dealing with life situations, including grief.

Grief specialist Dr. Ken Doka and psychiatrist Dr. Terry Martin have contributed much to our bereavement culture. Some years ago, at an ADEC conference (Association for Death Education and Counseling) presentation, they challenged the stereotype that men and women grieve differently.  They proposed that styles of grief are influenced, not determined by gender. In their book, “Grieving Beyond Gender: Understanding the Ways Men and Women Mourn,” Doka and Martin suggest that there are many ways people grieve but propose there is a continuum of grief with two different patterns on either end.

On one end is the intuitive grievers—individuals who are more apt to be emotive and affective in displaying their grief. They are usually more expressive and would be more likely to seek out people to talk to about their loss. At the other end of the continuum is the instrumental grievers.  These grievers are more likely to be cognitive and/or physical in their approach and tend to be more “action” or “thought” centered. They can be easily misunderstood and sometimes labeled as “just not dealing with their grief,” which is not necessarily the case. Intuitive and instrumental grieving are two extreme styles located on a continuum. Because of this, it is rare to find people who belong purely to one style of a grieving pattern.

The middle area between extreme intuitive and extreme instrumental grieving is called blended grieving. Those who exhibit qualities of both the intuitive and the instrumental style are identified as blended grievers. Through blended grieving, a person naturally expresses in both cognitive (instrumental) and affective (intuitive) ways; however, one style of grief is usually more dominant than the other.

The most significant contribution that Doka and Martin give is permission to grieve in a way that is meaningful and helpful for each individual.

The uniqueness of grieving styles can be seen in the following examples:

A middle-aged gentleman states, “My daughter doesn’t understand why I don’t want to talk about my wife. I feel closer to her when I am outside working in the yard.”

A bereaved father shares that his wife finds comfort in making regular trips to their son’s gravesite; However, he finds it helpful to attend a support group with other parents who have experienced the loss of a son.

A woman comes to a bereavement support group and is upset with herself. Perplexed and concerned she says, “Everybody else cries. What is wrong with me?”

The question, “What is wrong with me?” captures the notion of what people experience when they don’t feel they fit the mold of grief others may be experiencing or what they think others expect of them.

Understanding the continuum of grief helps us recognize that when we are connecting with someone, we can listen for what is helpful for them. In the first scenario, the middle-aged gentleman is revealing that he wants to do something about his grief other than talk about it.  The second situation exposes that the husband and wife find two different ways to remember and honor their son. The third situation describes someone who feels bad she can’t be more emotive. Giving her permission to not cry might open up the door to find what will bring her healing and wholeness.    

Is your grieving style more intuitive or instrumental? Many of us, no doubt, will find a blend of the two ends of the continuum in ourselves.  Remember, what helps YOU process and experience healing is the best style for you.

Submitted by Darwin L. Huartson, M.Div. BCC, Porter Loring Community Coordinator

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