In the weeks following the heartbreaking shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, many people in our country and around the world have been experiencing grief. I myself have had moments where the disgusting reality of what happened has brought me to tears, and I have had to work through the intense emotions brought on by yet another national tragedy. As a child care professional, educator, and uncle, one of the first things that I think about is how are children, families, and teachers handling the news? The day of the tragedy on Dec. 14, I called my nephews and spent some time talking to them, assuring them that I love them, and that I was deeply saddened by the news, without revealing the details I had learned.
I want to take this opportunity to address a few questions I feel are very important after a tragedy. Why do we grieve? What are grieving styles? How can we support someone who is grieving?
Grief is neither a disorder nor a healing process: it is a sign of health itself, a whole and natural gesture of love. Nor must we see grief as a step towards something better. No matter how much it hurts–and it may be the greatest pain in life–grief can be an end in itself, a pure expression of love–Gerald May, M.D.
In Death and Dying, Life and Living, Charles A. Corr and Donna M. Corr write that, “Ordinary, uncomplicated grief is a healthy, normal and appropriate reaction to loss.” Along with the heartbreaking loss of life, on Dec. 14, we also lost a sense of sanctity and safety surrounding the elementary school years of children’s lives. The loss of this idea has been especially jarring for teachers, parents, and family members of young children. Grief and grieving should be considered an expression of love, and can be supported through understanding of the differing styles in which people grieve.
“Because there is no universal reaction following any given loss, one person’s grief should not be construed as a standard by which others should evaluate themselves.” Corr and Corr
Kenneth Doka PhD and Terry Martin PhD write of a range between intuitive and instrumental grievers.
Instrumental grievers temper painful feelings, and grief is more of an intellectual experience. They might channel their energy into activities, and discuss problems rather than feelings. Instrumental grievers may be less familiar with strong feelings.
On the other hand intuitive grievers experience grief through profoundly painful feelings. They tend to cry and have a strong desire to share their inner experiences with others and spontaneously express painful feelings.
Both grieving styles, and every mixture of styles between intuitive and instrumental, use primary adaptive strategies which are the principal ways of expressing grief and assimilating and adapting to loss. Watching for primary adaptive strategies is helpful when identifying what style of griever a person is. Primary adaptive strategies might be emotional outpourings, desires to discuss problems, or a person who is much more active than normal. When two people operate on separate ends of the grieving spectrum one person may feel that the other is in fact not grieving, this can be especially challenging between a parent and child or between spouses. However, they may in fact be grieving in drastically different ways and therefore will respond to attempts of support in different ways as well.
Over time, grieving patterns may change, and grief can be experienced differently based on the loss, or various circumstances. Reflecting upon, and understanding, your own grieving style can allow you to communicate ways someone offering support could be helpful. It can be equally important to simply acknowledge that someone is grieving and offer the space for them to do so in their own way.
Here are some questions to consider. Feel free to comment on ways you have found to support yourself and others in times of grief.
How do you grieve, and what can others do to support your grieving style?
How do the loved ones in your life grieve, and how can you support their grief styles?
Have you experienced different types of grief for different losses?
© Jonathan Iris-Wilbanks and Sunflower Creative Arts, 2013