Killing and grief are all over the news and social media this summer. From the shootings in Orlando to Dallas police officers gunned down while protecting protesters, and all the other killings we’ve seen, our grief reactions have a pattern.
Immediate reactions are shock, numbness, horror, sadness, anger and tears. Then come the candlelight vigils, the public memorials with flowers, flags, candles, teddy bears and hand-drawn cards expressing love and remembrance.
Grief reactions can vary based on different elements – manner of death, age of the person who died, relationship with the person, and the grieving style of each individual mourner. Thanatology – the study of death, dying and bereavement – can help us learn about the different ways people express their grief.
Many may think of Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ concept of Five Stages: anger, denial, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. However, there’s another effective framework for understanding grief reactions, from noted thanatologist Kenneth Doka, Ph.D.: intuitive and instrumental grieving.
The instrumental grieving style focuses on practical matters and problem solving.
This reaction is not determined by gender. You might think men are more inclined toward the practical approach. However, in research by Doka and Terry Martin reported in 2010, it’s a pretty even split for men and women to experience an instrumental grief reaction.
An intuitive grieving style emphasizes experiencing and expressing emotion – overt sadness, tears and withdrawal. Rather than getting busy with activities that may distract or channel emotional pain and sadness, the intuitive griever is immersed in mourning, physically slowed down by grief. While we may think of women as emotional, men are just as likely to embrace this style of grieving, although they may retreat to the privacy of a “man cave” to mourn.
Because the Orlando shooting took place in a gay night club, there’s another potential layer of grief: disenfranchised grief. Disenfranchised grief is “the grief that persons experience when they incur a loss that is not or cannot be openly acknowledged, publicly mourned, or socially supported.” (Kenneth Doka, 1989)
Examples of disenfranchised grief include not recognizing the death of a same-sex partner; a mistress unable to publicly mourn the death of or breakup with an illicit lover; mourning of other losses, such as jobs, health or friends; or pet owners who are devastated by the loss of a beloved companion animal.
The love of a pet is intense, and with the loss, there is intense grief. Yet, grief over the loss of a pet often does not get the same level of public recognition given the loss of a person. Mourners may turn to social media sites like Facebook to receive supportive comments from friends.
In 2016, people may be more a bit more understanding about mourning the death of a same sex partner. Paradoxically, a number of the victims at that evening’s Latin music event in Orlando were not homosexual.
Whether a mourner is experiencing intuitive, instrumental or disenfranchised grief, the best way to help is by acknowledging the loss, being present, expressing concern, carefully listening, and offering your support. Avoid judging, rationalizing, minimizing or trying to “fix” the loss. The mourners in your life will appreciate it.
Gail Rubin is a Certified Thanatologist (a death educator) who uses humor and funny films to reduce resistance to discussing death. Her Continuing Education presentation, The Many Faces of Grief: Mourning in the Movies, uses film clips to illustrate and explain grief reactions.
She’s the author of the award-winning books, A Good Goodbye: Funeral Planning for Those Who Don’t Plan to Die, Hail and Farewell: Cremation Ceremonies, Templates and Tips, and the forthcoming title, Kicking the Bucket List: 100 Downsizing and Organizing Things to Do Before You Die (Rio Grande Books, October 2016). A preview of the new book is available at: https://agoodgoodbye.com/celebrant-services/downsizing-information/