Grieving: Should You Dive Into Emotion or Jump Into Action?
The surprising answer bucks conventional wisdom on "the right way" to grieve.
Posted January 10, 2017
Grieving is an integral part of being human. It is a normal and necessary reaction to the death of a loved one, the break-up of a significant relationship, or the loss of a home, health, job, or way of life. But instead of finding yourself depressed, tearful, or withdrawn, what if you remain busy and active? What if you really don’t want to talk about how you feel? What if it’s just not appealing to attend a support group or write emotional entries in a journal? Does this mean you are in denial? Are you suppressing grief? Are you lacking love or commitment to what was lost? Is there something wrong with you?
Indeed, grief and mourning are commonly equated with painful emotions and emotional expression. Grief counseling has been based on the premise that in order to “work through it,” you must express your deepest feelings of sadness and despair. But research reveals that grieving needn’t be emotion-oriented in order to be healthy or productive. Healthy grieving can also be activity-oriented.
Kenneth J. Doka and Terry L. Martin explore this terrain in their book Grieving Beyond Gender. They observe that practically everyone experiences a blend of “feeling” and “doing,” though many people have strong tendencies toward one or the other. Reading the two lists below, you’ll likely see yourself reflected in both—perhaps a balanced mix, or maybe you clearly favor one over the other.
Emotion-oriented grievers focus on feeling and expressing:
- Emotions of grief are intensely, deeply felt.
- Their narratives tend to be emotional accounts that reflect on feelings about what happened.
- Inwardly, they experience grief as an emotional challenge full of intense feelings.
- They direct their grief energy toward exploring emotions and they find relief in expressing them.
- They connect to grief in the body through the feeling and expression of emotions.
- Outlets include crying, writing or talking about their emotional experiences; attending support groups; sharing feelings with a friend or partner; spending contemplative time at the grave or a special spot; looking at photographs, handling keepsakes, and reviewing memories.
- They tend to immerse themselves in painful thoughts and feelings. They fulfill their most important tasks and responsibilities in manageable doses, so they can go with the flow of their grief emotions.
- It’s as if grief and mourning flow emotionally.
Activity-oriented grievers focus on assessing and doing:
- Emotions of grief are not as intensely or deeply felt.
- Their narratives tend to be factual accounts that reflect on what happened when.
- Inwardly, they experience grief as an energizing physical restlessness.
- They direct their grief energy toward assessing and accomplishing what needs to be done.Source: Deborah L. Davis
- They connect to grief in the body through activity, including physical exertion.
- Outlets include gathering information; writing, thinking, or talking about what happened; identifying problems and solving them; keeping the household running; getting back to work; organizing rituals, events, or good works to commemorate the loved one; creating or building memorials; advocating; physical activities such as sports or working around the house or yard.
- They tend immerse themselves in activity. They experience grief emotions in manageable doses, skirting emotional triggers so they can focus on finding solutions, setting goals, and completing tasks.
- It’s as if grief and mourning flow mentally and physically.
Both styles get the job done
All bereaved people encounter much of the same mental, emotional, social, physical, and spiritual distress, but emotion-oriented grievers experience distress more intensely. This does not mean they are better at grieving, more caring, or more loving; it means, simply, they are more inclined to feel and express emotion in the face of adversity. In turn, activity-oriented grievers are more inclined to assess and do in the face of adversity. And while people who tend toward “feeling” excel at tolerating a lot of pain, people who tend toward “doing” excel at moderating the amount of pain they experience. And when it comes to mourning, any griever can be adept—whether it’s finding emotional, physical or mental release.
Embracing both styles in yourself (and others)
Remember, even though these lists clearly delineate the two styles of grieving, most people experience a blend of both, such that even if you are clearly inclined toward one (your primary style), you’ll have moments or periods of being inclined toward the other (your secondary style). This means that a primarily activity-oriented griever can also experience moments of deep feeling and some might benefit from a good cry. Likewise, a primarily emotion-oriented griever can experience moments of assessing and doing, and can benefit from engaging in meaningful activity.
While many people notice differences along gender lines, men and women alike talk about diving into emotion and jumping into action. Still, what’s natural for you may seem unnatural to someone else, and it’s normal for each of us to wonder whether someone who is markedly different from us is “doing it right.” But grieving the “right way” is simply engaging in one’s own unique and natural blend of feeling and doing.
The importance of grieving according to your nature
Whatever your blend, when you grieve according to your nature, you can successfully come to terms with any adversity, and eventually find a sense of peace. The first key to success is staying connected to your body and its sensations, as that is where the tension of your grief is held when it is seeking expression. The second key is letting grief find expression in alignment with your internal experience of it. For instance, if you’re sensing a welling up of emotion, feeling sensations in specific parts of your body, your grief is likely seeking emotional expression; if you’re sensing a generalized physical or mental tension or restlessness, your grief is likely seeking physical/mental expression. If you’re not sure what you’re sensing or if you’re sensing both, then your grief is likely demanding a mix of expression, such as crying during a hike or recalling deeply emotional experiences as you make good progress on a project.
Whether you’re in “feeling mode” or “doing mode,” you are grieving. And every step of the way, as you grieve, you are also healing. By being true to your body’s tendencies, you can tap into your strengths. You can find your natural flow and you can determine which adaptive strategies fit and work best for you. You can even expand your repertoire, which may include counseling, treatment for trauma, or learning new skills. The profound experience of mourning may inspire a range of grief responses and adaptive strategies, all of which can enrich and ease your journey. And you will not only survive, you will emerge transformed—not because you were dealt adversity, but because you learned how to cope, adjust, and find peace in the face of it.
Doka, KJ and Martin, TL. Grieving Beyond Gender: Understanding the Ways Men and Women Mourn (2nd Ed.). Routledge, 2010.
Davis, DL. Empty Cradle, Broken Heart: Surviving the Death of Your Baby (3rd Ed.). Fulcrum, 2016.