Grief is a family affair. When one member of a family dies, the entire family is affected. It’s as if an important link in the family chain is suddenly broken and lost, and everyone is locked in a struggle to find the missing link, to repair the broken chain. Everyone is mourning their own personal loss in their own unique way. Roles and responsibilities shift; relationships change; communication and mutual support among members may suffer. Over time, the family must identify what the roles and functions of the lost member were, decide whose job it will be to execute those duties now, and learn how to compensate for their absence.
Further complicating the situation is the fact that men, women and children are very different from each other, not just in personality patterns that affect how they think, feel and behave, but also in how they mourn. When someone dies, they 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. Children and adults are all very different, one from another, with their own unique needs for expression and support.
Differing personality patterns among family members will affect how each one individually expresses, experiences and deals with grief. While we all have the capacity to react to loss in a variety of ways, personality research shows that there are three basic styles or patterns of mourning: instrumental, intuitive and dissonant. Typically 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 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 sex role 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.
Children and adolescents grieve just as deeply as adults, but depending on their cognitive and emotional development, they will experience and express their grief differently from the grownups around them. Moving in and out of grief is natural for youngsters, and the symptoms of grief may come and go, varying in intensity. Their responses will depend on the knowledge and skills available to them at the time of the loss. Having had less prior experience with crisis and its consequences, their repertoire of coping skills is simpler, their capacity to confront the reality of loss more limited, and their ability to find meaning in life’s crises less mature. If surprised or embarrassed by the intensity of their grief, they may try to hide it or disguise it. Parents, relatives, teachers and friends are wise to watch and to tune in to their children and adolescents, to listen to them, to be there for them, and if unsure what’s going on, to ask! More than anything else, children need their parents and the other adults in their world to be honest with them. They need accurate, factual information; freedom to ask questions and express their feelings; inclusion in decisions, discussions and family commemorative rituals; stable, consistent attention from their caretakers; and time to explore and come to terms with the meaning of their loss.
The way we mourn is as individual as we are, and our own 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. Regardless of differences in personality, 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 Different Mourning Patterns
If the Mourner is an Adult:
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 publicly. 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.
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.
If the Mourner is a Child:
Recognize that death and loss are natural parts of living; shielding children from grief is futile and gives them no role models to learn healthy, normal coping behaviors.
Be open and meticulously honest. Children know when adults are shading the truth. If children discover that you’ve distorted the truth or lied to them, they’ll have a great deal of trouble trusting you again.
First find out what the children already know or think they know about dying and death.
Validate feelings and encourage children to share their thoughts, fears and observations about what has happened.
Offer explanations that are age appropriate and at the child’s level of understanding. A child under age five needs comfort and support rather than detailed explanations, whereas a child over age five needs information that is simple, accurate, plain and direct.
Explain that in the circle of life all living things will die someday, and that death causes changes in a living thing.
Help children understand what “dead” means (that the body stops working and won’t work anymore) and that death is not the same as sleeping (that the sleeping body is still working, but just resting).
Don’t use confusing or misleading euphemisms such as “passed away,” “lost,” or “gone on.” Such phrases imply the one who died is on a trip and will return, leave children feeling rejected or abandoned, or encourage them to go searching for the individual or hold out hope for his or her return.
Explain how we might feel when someone dies: sad, mad, or confused – and we may cry sometimes. Let your children know that laughing and playing are still okay, too, and that you respect their need to be children at this sad and difficult time.
Relieve the child of any feelings of responsibility for the death; magical thinking may lead a child to conclude that something s/he did, wished or imagined somehow caused the death.
Avoid telling children that the dead person was so good or so special that God wants him or her to be with Him in heaven. Children may become angry with God or fear that they (or you) will be chosen next.
Respect and encourage your children’s needs to express and share feelings of sadness. When you bring up the subject, you’re showing your own willingness to talk about it. When in doubt about your children’s thoughts and feelings, ask.
Don’t feel as if you must have all the answers; sometimes just listening is enough. Expect that young children will ask and need answers to the same questions over and over again.
Find and read some of the many wonderful stories and books written especially for children to help them better understand death and grief.
Don’t cut off their feelings by noting how well your children are handling their grief or how brave or strong they are. Let them see you upset and crying, which implies that it’s all right to cry for those we love and lose.
Children and adolescents may be reluctant to express their thoughts and feelings verbally. Encourage them to express their grief and preserve their memories in a variety of ways, including art, music, journal writing, story-telling and picture collecting.
Let children and adolescents plan and participate in commemorative family rituals.
If the Mourner is an Adolescent:
Recognize that teens are already struggling with the enormous physical and psychological changes and pressures of adolescence. No longer children, but not yet mature adults, they still need adult supervision, guidance, and consistent, compassionate support.
Don’t deprive teens of their own need to mourn by pressuring them to “be strong” in support of a surviving parent, younger siblings or other family members.
Understand that teens don’t like to stand out and feel different from their friends; they want to belong, and normally turn to one another for support. But if a teen’s friends have never experienced the death of a loved one, it’s unlikely that they can fully understand what the bereaved adolescent is feeling or experiencing. Grieving teens do best when they’re helped to connect with other teens who’ve also experienced a death.
Assure adolescents that conflict in relationships between teens and adults is a normal part of growing up, and offer them every opportunity to vent their feelings about their relationship with the person who died. Teens striving to separate from authority figures and find their own identity normally feel somewhat alienated from parents, siblings, and other family members, and if a loved one dies during this turbulent time, they can be left with feelings of guilt and unfinished business.
Give teenagers permission not to be grieving all the time. If they’ve expressed their feelings and talked about the loss with others (family, friends, teachers and other helpers) it may not be useful for them to focus further on their loss. It’s not disloyal of them to want to put their grief aside and enjoy life again.
Be on the alert for signs that a teen may need extra help (depression; drastic changes in sleeping or eating habits; falling grades; substance abuse; sexual acting out; deteriorating relationships with family and friends.
Children and adolescents will cope only as well as the adults around them; helping yourself will help your children.
Alert significant adults in your child or adolescent’s life (family doctor, teachers, school counselor, caregivers, neighbors, relatives, friends) about the death in your family. Ask their help in keeping a watchful eye on your youngster, and ask for their additional support and understanding during this difficult time.
Consider enrolling your child or adolescent in one of the children/family bereavement support groups offered by your local hospice or by other agencies in the community.