Instrumental and intuitive grieving: What’s the difference?

Pet loss grief is a uniquely personal experience. Even when two people are grieving for the same animal, it’s likely that each will respond differently to their bereavement.

One of the reasons for this is because, when grieving, we all tend to lean more towards one of two types of response: instrumental grieving or intuitive grieving.

What are instrumental and intuitive grieving?

In 1999, psychiatrists Terry Martin and Kenneth Doka published a book called “Men Don’t Cry, Women Do: Transcending Gender Stereotypes of Grief”.

While the book was challenging gender stereotypes around grief – i.e. that men are strong and silent (“holding it together”), while women show their emotions (“distraught”) – it first raised the idea that we each have a preference towards instrumental or intuitive grieving behaviours.

If you’re someone who needs to be busy to cope with your grief or you think constantly about your loss but choose not to or struggle to express it, then Martin and Doka would say that you’re an “instrumental” griever.

On the other hand, if you find that you need to express your grief emotions to other people or talk more extensively about your loss, you might well be an “intuitive griever”.

Does it really matter whether you’re an instrumental or intuitive griever?

Many would argue that putting labels on how we grieve or attempting to pigeonhole us in one of two categories is pointless or even harmful.

How can we categorise something that is unique?

Of course, grief is deeply personal. No one can tell you how to experience it, express it or process it.

When talking about instrumental vs. intuitive grief, Martin and Doka openly stated that grief is a continuum and that most of us exhibit blended behaviours from both categories.

However, what their research did highlight is that understanding someone’s preference towards instrumental or intuitive grieving can help us to provide the most effective support for that individual (and to care for ourselves after a bereavement).

If you’re an instrumental griever

If you’re more inclined towards instrumental grief, the chances are that you need to keep busy.

You may find yourself frantically cleaning your house from top to bottom to occupy your mind or working out to stay busy. 

People who show more instrumental preferences often seek to problem solve. You may feel like you need to “fix” things, which can be frustrating when there is ultimately no fix for pet loss.

If this sounds familiar to you, you might benefit from finding ways to express your grief through action.

Have you thought about preparing a memorial for your pet?

If your pet died because of an accident or little known issue, is there something you could do to raise awareness or support someone else who is talking about this cause?

For instrumental grievers, it can be helpful to have something to do, as long as it’s broken down into manageable steps so that it doesn’t become overwhelming.

If you feel like you need support for your bereavement, instrumental grievers often prefer practical advice about what to do next or benefit from talking to others in an active but informal setting, such as joining a “Walk and Talk” group or volunteering for a charity.

Supporting an instrumental griever

If you’re wondering how to support someone who leans towards instrumental grief processes, then it’s important to recognise that they may appear quite calm and stoical about their loss. At least on the surface. But their feelings will still run deep.

Instrumental grievers often describe their feelings in physical terms – “I feel sick” or “It’s like I’ve been punched” – while their thoughts about their pet get stuck in a loop. It can be helpful to give an instrumental griever tasks to perform or ask for their help to fix something.

They may ask a lot of questions. This is a crucial part of their problem-solving thought processes – they need to understand what happened to their pet. 

If the pet died suddenly at the vets, for example, you might want to encourage the bereaved person to discuss the sequence of events with their vet so that they can clarify why certain decisions were made.

If you’re an intuitive griever

As an intuitive griever, you may find yourself experiencing waves of strong emotions relating to your pet loss. You may have moments of intense crying; you may even scream and shout.

It will be really important to you to express your grief. This might be by chatting to friends and family or journaling about your feelings.

Give yourself the space to let your emotions flow rather than trying to stop or redirect them. 

Supporting an intuitive griever

Intuitive grievers are often accused of being over-emotional or stuck in their grief. If you are supporting a loved one who is an intuitive griever, the most helpful thing you can do is to sit with them and let them talk, cry or express their emotions however they need for as long as they need.

Grief doesn’t come with an expiry date or follow a timeline.

Encourage your loved one to talk about their pet and share happy memories. This will help them to recognise that they can carry their bond with their pet forward with them.

Intuitive grievers often benefit from speaking to a pet bereavement counsellor or being part of a pet loss support group as these provide an outlet to talk.

Other factors influence how we express grief

There’s no doubt that how we express our pet loss grief is, to a certain extent, influenced by the society around us.

People who may naturally lean towards intuitive grief may feel they have to mask their emotions because those around them don’t understand how an animal can inspire such deep emotion.

The lack of rituals around pet loss can leave an instrumental griever feeling helpless.

In addition, Western society too often applies gender binary stereotypes to bereavement. Martin and Doka discussed in their research that people still tend to think of intuitive grief as being a feminine approach to bereavement, whereas instrumental grief is seen as masculine.

Experts have pointed out that when women lean towards instrumental grief, people are quick to label them as “cold and unfeeling” whereas a man displaying the same behaviours would be praised for “holding it together” or “being strong”.

Equally, if a man expresses intuitive grief, he might be labelled as “over-emotional”, whereas a woman is “understandably upset” given her relationship with the deceased.

Such stereotypes are unhelpful but it is important to understand how they might influence our behaviour following a bereavement.

It’s common to feel ashamed, embarrassed or guilty for grieving – especially for a pet – because it conflicts with our learned gender behaviours or cultural “norms” attached to grieving. 

Please don’t feel that we’re talking about instrumental or intuitive grief with the intention of reducing to your feelings to an “either/or” concept. We want to challenge the idea that grief looks a certain way.

Our hope is that this topic might just encourage you to look for support in your grief that matches your needs, whatever they are at this time. 

If you need to talk, would pet bereavement counselling help?

If you need to be busy, what would give you a sense of purpose right now?

There is no right way to grieve. Just your way.

Shailen and The Ralph Site team
The Ralph Site, non-profit pet loss support

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