Interview: Understanding Grieving Styles for your Funeral Home Aftercare

Among the many roles that funeral directors fill, one of the most important is serving as a compassionate resource for grieving families. By understanding the differing needs of people who have experienced a loss, funeral professionals can be equipped to ensure clients get the aftercare support they need during this difficult time.

Dr. Jason Troyer is a psychology professor, former counselor and consultant who specializes in issues related to death and grief. He has written numerous aftercare materials for funeral homes to share with client families, including the Finding Hope booklet series.

I recently spoke to Dr. Troyer about issues related to grieving styles, and what funeral professionals need to know to better serve families through their interactions and aftercare resources.

Are there basic differences between how men and women typically experience and express grief?

When you start talking about gender differences, there are always numerous exceptions to the rule. I often refer to a concept from a book that I really like, Grieving Beyond Gender. It describes two key grieving styles, instrumental and intuitive grief, which used to be called masculine and feminine grief.

The authors of that book, Dr. Kenneth J. Doka and Dr. Terry L. Martin, said they started out using gender-based terms. But when they went around and talked to people about grieving styles, they found that many people said they described their grief perfectly, but their style didn’t “match” their gender. It’s certainly the case that men are more likely to grieve in the instrumental style, and women are more likely to grieve in the intuitive style, but there are so many exceptions that those gender-based terms are no longer widely used.

What are the characteristics of instrumental and intuitive grieving styles?

Instrumental style tends to be more cognitive and thought-based. In some cases, it is more action-oriented.

The intuitive style tends to fit what is considered a “traditional” grieving style in which people are comforted by sharing their emotions and stories. They express their grief through actions like crying and feel a lot of relief from that.

What I like about the grieving style approach is that it acknowledges that both of those styles can be healthy, but they can also be unhealthy if you rely on them too much. For intuitive grievers, it’s certainly common and helpful to express your grief and emotions, but if you get stuck in your grief and still experience high-intensity grief several years after a loss, then that isn’t healthy for you. If a person who experiences instrumental grief is so focused on their actions that they’re not dealing with their own internal emotions or reactions, then that could also be a problem.

Why do funeral professionals need to know about these grieving styles to help them better serve families?

Funeral professionals get a lot of questions, directly or indirectly, about what is considered a “normal” grief experience after the loss of a loved one. I think anyone who works in a funeral home should have a general awareness of what would be typical and signs of someone who might need additional support. Being able to talk about what is normal for someone who is grieving can be really comforting.

It’s also really important for funeral professionals to understand grief styles when a person experiences a style that doesn’t match what is thought of as typical for their gender. For example, a woman may grieve in the instrumental style and find more comfort from actions that fit that style, and it’s good to know that this can be normal as well.

Do you believe there is still societal pressure for people to grieve in certain ways based on their gender?

Absolutely. That’s certainly true within the U.S. culture, and there may be other factors in specific racial and ethnic groups that can add to that. One of the most common examples is that men are often expected to be emotionally strong after a loss, although that pressure can be pushed on women as well, particularly if they have children. Some people might feel that parents should set an example to be strong or not outwardly express their grief. Unfortunately, I do think those types of pressures and perceptions still exist.

Your Finding Hope series contains men’s and women’s editions for certain topics – how do you address grieving styles in those booklets?

When I was writing the series, I wanted to focus on specific relationships and personally address, for example, widows or widowers. I wanted to make sure the material in the booklets feels personal and relevant to each reader. As a person is going through the booklet, they’ll read other people’s stories that they’ll be more likely to relate to their own experiences.

I try to avoid psychological or grief-related technical terms in the booklets, so I don't use the terms "instrumental grief" or "intuitive grief." Instead I talk about "head grievers" and "heart grievers," which are modeled on Doka and Martin's instrumental and intuitive grieving styles. There may be a few more examples of intuitive grief in the women’s editions, for example, but I also recognize that they may experience the opposite style that doesn’t match what is considered traditional for them.

How can funeral professionals address the needs of people who experience different grieving styles through their aftercare resources?

I think that just understanding and acknowledging that there are different grieving styles is an important first step for funeral professionals. If nothing else, funeral professionals should offer materials that don’t just address the traditional “share and express” intuitive style of grief.

Grief professionals have really come a long way in the past decade when it comes to acknowledging a broader range of grief experiences, so there are now more resources available to address those different needs. If your grief support resources only address one grieving style, then you might want to look for some new things.

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