Grief is a natural response that arises from losses that we encounter in life. Many people think of grief as something that is linked to death. Although death is the ultimate loss, we do encounter other losses that trigger grief such as loss of a job, a relationship, moving house/moving to a new area, loss of freedom (when we become a parent or a caregiver of others), mental and physical illness, growing older, etc.
How we grieve can vary. Some of the most marked differences appear to be between men and women and can often lead to misunderstandings about what is “normal”, particularly if it different from our own coping style.
Men and women are different biologically and this does affect how they process information, how they prioritise, how they behave and how they handle their feelings. Other influences include the nature of the loss and the circumstances surrounding it, how we were brought up, our own personality, and cultural expectations.
There is a western bias towards sharing feelings and seeking support from others as the way to process and adapt. However, it is not taking into account the unique nature of how we adapt to loss. Generally speaking, there are three patterns and although we might see some of us in all of them, there will be a dominant style for each of us.
Firstly, there is the intuitive griever, who is expressive of their loss and their emotions. They are likely to seek support from others and are able to talk about their pain and hurt. They recognise that life is not normal at the moment, and depart from routines, knowing that they can return to them at a later point. They may sometimes be seen as overwhelmed and falling apart.
The instrumental griever style is marked by a more cognitive (thinking) and active approach. They adapt by returning to normal routines as quickly as possible and prefer to stay busy. If the loss is due to death, they may visit the graveside frequently and immerse themselves in taking action e.g. lawsuits, setting up foundations, etc. They would prefer not to think about the loss and anger may be the only visible emotion. If they have lost a partner through death or separation, they may a strong inclination to replace the lost loved one as soon as possible. A person with this style of coping may come across as cold and uncaring.
Although these styles may fall along gender lines i.e. intuitive grieving is what women ‘do’ and the instrumental grieving style is the domain of men, there is evidence to say otherwise. Men may be more intuitive and women more instrumental. Individuals can experience difficulties and disrupt the grieving process when they try to behave contrary to their natural style (this becomes a third identified style and is called the dissonant griever). For example, when an intuitive male thinks he is weak to cry and tries to push down his feelings, expecting himself to be a strong rock, protector and problem-solver. Alternatively, if he is an instrumental griever and he is not experiencing strong emotion at his loss, he might be led to believe he didn’t care.
Often, in families and in couple relationships, not recognising the different styles adds another layer to grief. It is a time, regardless of how long it takes, where our differences emerge. If we can identify our own style of grief and how we adapt to loss, it gives us the best chance to deal with our loss on our own terms and using our own strengths. Likewise, if we can accept that the other is dealing with it in their own way, our tolerance can become an importance factor in the healing process.