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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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.