Styles of Grief

There is no right way or wrong way to grieve. Many of us have heard this, yet still, when faced with the death of a loved one, we may wonder whether our experiences are ‘normal’. There is a cultural idea of grief that most of us can conjure up if we try: crying, venting feelings, and seeking support from other people. But perhaps you know someone who seems restless after a loss, or throws himself or herself into action, perhaps working tirelessly at a meaningful cause.

In the mid-90s, Dr. Kenneth Doka and Dr. Terry Martin created a conceptual framework for understanding styles of grief. In this framework, there are two poles on either end of the grieving spectrum: intuitive grief and instrumental grief. People can fall anywhere along the spectrum and experience normal, healthy grief.

Intuitive grief is often thought of as affective, or feelings-based. A person with a more intuitive style will cope by finding ways to express and work through their emotions. This can mean that they experience what we culturally tend to think of as grief – sadness, and strong emotions that can hit in waves. Intuitive grievers will often need to express their feelings to get back to a sense of equilibrium again.

Instrumental grief, on the other hand, is more cognitive or behavioral in nature. People who grieve in this way may not feel the need to cry, but their grief might express itself as restlessness or a need to do something. This style of grief can also be characterized by fact-finding, problem-solving, and thinking about the loved one.  Finally, some people have a blended grieving style, and pull from both categories as they cope. For example, you might need to cry sometimes, and find great solace in creating a detailed memorial for your beloved pet.

You may be wondering: if both styles are healthy and valid, why is it that intuitive grief seems to be more expected by those around us? Doka and Martin believe that this is a form of bias present in Western culture. Feelings are more highly valued, partly due to earlier grief theories that suggested that expressing emotions is a necessary part of moving through loss. Instrumental grief can appear more ambiguous to others, and people who are unfamiliar with your needs as an individual may question whether you are moving on too quickly or stifling your feelings.

However, having one style and forcing yourself to adopt another, perhaps because it is more culturally acceptable, is a recipe for disaster. For example, in a 2010 interview, Dr. Doka describes an example that may be familiar to many of us: men may be expected to grieve instrumentally, due to gender biases, but some will naturally be more intuitively oriented. The clash between cultural expectations and inward needs can result in the suppression of grief in order to maintain a strong persona.

While we receive many messages about what grief reactions may be expected of us, know this: as long as you are doing what you need to do to move through your grief, you are doing it right.

Sources (used as a general reference throughout)
Taking It Like a Man: Understanding Grieving Styles | Psychology Today
Grief and Gender (whatsyourgrief.com)

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