Monday, October 21, 2013

How We Mourn: Understanding Our Differences

[Reviewed and updated April 15, 2024]

Ultimately it is [the] identification, validation, and exploration of their pattern of grief or adaptive grieving styles that grieving individuals will find empowering and that will allow them to deal with that loss on their own terms, with their own unique strengths. ~ Kenneth J. Doka, PhD

In their book Grieving Beyond Gender: Understanding the Ways Men and Women Mourn, professors Kenneth Doka and Terry Martin challenge the notion that everyone experiences grief and mourning in exactly the same way, regardless of gender. The authors suggest instead that differing personality patterns will affect how each person individually expresses, experiences and deals with grief.

It’s really not surprising to learn that men and women are different from each other, not just in personality patterns that affect how they think, feel and behave, but also in how they mourn. It follows, then, that when someone dies, men and women will not experience or express their reactions in the same way.

Failure to understand and accept these different ways of mourning can result in hurt feelings and conflict between partners and among family members during a very difficult time. Although there is grief work to be done, behaviors can be misinterpreted, needs may be misunderstood, and expectations may not be met.

While we all have the capacity to react to loss in a variety of ways, Doka and Martin describe three basic styles or patterns of mourning: instrumental, intuitive and dissonant. Typically, they say, a person trusts and prefers one pattern of response over the other two, and will behave accordingly.

Instrumental mourners experience and speak of their grief intellectually and physically. They are most comfortable with seeking accurate information, analyzing facts, making informed decisions and taking action to solve problems. Remaining strong, dispassionate and detached in the face of powerful emotions, they may speak of their grief in an intellectual way, thus appearing to others as cold, uncaring and without feeling.

Intuitive mourners experience a full, rich range of emotions in response to grief. Comfortable with strong emotions and tears, they are sensitive to their own feelings and to the feelings of others as well. Since they feel strong emotions so deeply, they’re less able to rationalize and intellectualize the pain of grief, and more likely to appear overwhelmed and devastated by it.

Dissonant mourners encounter a conflict between the way they experience their grief internally and the way they express it outwardly, which produces a persistent discomfort and lack of harmony. The “dissonance” or conflict may be due to family, cultural or social traditions. Although their grief may be profound and strongly felt, they struggle to hide their true feelings in order to preserve the image they wish to project to the public. Others may condemn themselves and feel very guilty for not feeling whatever they think is expected of them to feel.

Like everyone else in our Western culture, men are saddled with certain sex role stereotypes. Real men are supposed to be tough, confident, rational and in control, not only of themselves but of situations as well. Real men don’t cry, aren’t afraid of anything and would never be caught asking for directions, let alone for help. Real men know exactly what to do in a crisis, and they’re strong enough to support the rest of the family, too. If they cry or otherwise express their emotions, such behaviors are considered to be signs of weakness. Add to these stereotypes the assumption that, if a man’s grief doesn’t show or he doesn’t express thoughts and feelings of grief the same way a woman ordinarily does (by crying or by openly sharing with others, for example), then he must not be grieving at all.

In general, men are more often instrumental mourners. When men suffer the loss of a loved one they tend to put their feelings into action, experiencing their grief physically rather than emotionally. They deal with their loss by focusing on goal-oriented activities which activate thinking, doing and acting. Rather than endlessly talking about or crying over the person who died, for example, a man may throw himself into time-limited tasks such as planting a memorial garden or writing a poem or a eulogy. Such activities give a man not only a sense of potency and accomplishment as he enters his grief, but also a means of escaping it when the task is done. If a man relates the details of his loss to his closest male friends, it’s likely to be around activities like hunting, fishing, sporting events and card games. Although a man may let himself cry in his grief, he’ll usually do it alone, in secret or in the dark.

Women, on the other hand, tend to be intuitive mourners. They have been socialized to be more open with their feelings. They may feel a greater need to talk with others who are comfortable with strong emotions and willing to listen without judgment. Unfortunately, while it may be more acceptable for women in our culture to be expressive and emotional, all too often in grief they’re criticized for being too sentimental or overly sensitive.

The way we mourn is as individual as we are, and our own unconscious gender biases may influence how we “read” another gender’s mourning. Some females may be instrumental in pattern and style, and will mourn in traditionally “masculine” ways, and some males may be more intuitive by nature, and therefore will express their grief in traditionally “feminine” ways.

More recent research expands on Doka and Martin's theory, using Personality Type Indicator tools to measure personality types, in an effort to determine their influence on a person's individual grief response. While further research is needed, such studies demonstrate quite clearly that personality does impact behaviors, attitudes and approaches to grief. What we learn from such studies serves to inform the practice of grief counselors and therapists, and helps us understand better how to support the bereaved and those who care for them, as we design our therapeutic approaches according to each individual mourner's personality and preferred grieving style.

Regardless of differences in personality type, gender and age, the pressures of grief are still present for all family members, and the tasks of mourning are the same: to confront, endure and work through the many effects of the death so the loss can be dealt with successfully. Grief must be expressed and released in order to be resolved, and all family members need encouragement to identify and release emotions, to talk about and share their thoughts, and to accept help and support from others.

Suggestions for Coping with Differences in Mourning 

· Understand that our own personality and gender biases may influence how we “read” another person’s mourning.

· What looks like inappropriate behavior may be an instrumental mourner’s way of avoiding feelings or displaying emotions in public. People should not be judged for how they are mourning.

· Instrumental mourners often appear to be further along in the grieving process than they actually are. Even if a person appears to be all right, it is unwise to make assumptions about what he or she is experiencing. When in doubt, ask!

· Those who turn to drugs or alcohol in an effort to numb their pain or break down their inhibitions need to know that, because alcohol is a depressant, it can add to the sadness they’re already feeling. Distracting from the pain only delays the mourning process.

· Although men, women, adolescents and children mourn differently from one another, none of those ways is inappropriate. (See Supporting Children and Adolescents in Grief.)

· It is not helpful to take sides, supporting one way of mourning over another.

· The way we mourn is as individual as we are: some males mourn in intuitive, feeling, or more traditionally “feminine” ways and some females mourn in instrumental, thinking, or more traditionally “masculine” ways.

· If someone seems more angry than sad at the death of a loved one, the individual may be angry at the situation — and anger may be the only way the person knows to express grief. It’s useful in such cases not to take such anger personally, or to react defensively against it.

· Men are less likely to seek the support of others (either individually or in a group) in order to express (think, talk, cry, or write about) their feelings, especially if they don’t feel respected, or if they find certain aspects of grief to be embarrassing. A man needs encouragement to share his reactions and emotions, to explore what his loved one’s death means to him, and to acknowledge how the loss affects his life.

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© by Marty Tousley, RN, MS, FT, BC-TMH

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