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How Do We Grieve?
By Maureen Kramlinger

Sometimes people trying to adjust to a loss find themselves feeling pressured by others who think they know best. "You should do this... you shouldn't do that." If you've ever experienced this you may have felt like saying, "How do you know what I need?" It's a tough spot to be in. We don't want to run off those who care about us-but we don't want them running our lives either.

An important topic on which people differ is the role of feelings in processing our grief and in coming to terms with our loss. Conventional grief theory says that experiencing feelings and giving expression to them is helpful, even necessary to reconcile with loss. But what if you're not "big" on feelings? Perhaps your feelings are not intense or you are not in touch with them. Does that mean there's something wrong with the way you're grieving?

Ken Doka and Terry Martin in Living With Grief describe two styles of adjusting to loss—one is affective or feeling-oriented; the other is cognitive or thinking-oriented. Feeling-oriented people benefit from addressing intense feelings associated with loss and giving those feelings direct expression. Cognitive-oriented people cope better by addressing “reactions to” (or challenges of) loss. They invest energy in meaningful activities—making something, doing a project, addressing a problem, perhaps to honor their loved ones or to carry out their wishes. They may find relief and satisfaction in solitary action. Even time spent with others who recognize and respect their preference not to talk about the loss, however, can provide comfort to these grievers.

What influences the way we express our grief? Surely temperament and personality play a role. Living with grief takes energy. Introverted people renew their energy through time alone; extroverts generally renew energy in the company of others.

Does gender affect how we grieve? Doka and Martin refer to feeling-oriented grieving as “feminine or conventional” and cognitive-oriented grieving as a “masculine pattern of grief.” Probably more men are cognitive-oriented than women, but many men address their loss in feeling-oriented ways. So, too, many women are more comfortable expressing their grief in cognitive-oriented ways.

Both approaches can ease the burdens of grief and help us work toward reconciliation with loss and adjustment to life without the deceased. Being able to combine elements from both approaches can be the most effective of all. When we are overwhelmed with feelings, thinking about what we can do to help ourselves and setting some reasonable goals for the day can help. Investing time in activities or in thinking about our loved one, allowing feelings to surface or tears to well, may ease our heart. The key is that we access our grief in ways that work for us. Attempts to elude grief don’t work in the long run.

More Examples of Grief Styles:
Authors Doka and Martin compare strategies likely to be chosen by those more affective or more cognitive in their approach to grief.

Affective Style
Cognitive Style
Join support groups Shelve thoughts and feelings to meet obligations; consider later in small doses
Identify others for support and understanding Choose active means to express grief, e.g., exercise, sports, hobbies, memorial task
Allow time to fully experience inner pain Use humor or other ways to show feelings (but manage anger and aggression)
Openly express feelings Seek companionship (in lieu of support)
Temporarily limit obligations to allow adequate time to experience/express feelings Use solitude as a way of reflection, adapting to life after loss
Choose expressive outlets, e.g., reading or journaling Read relevant books or keep a journal

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