It is popular these days to highlight differences between men and women, especially since the publication of the book "Men Are From Mars, Women are from Venus." For instance, people readily proclaim that men grieve differently than women. Yet there is danger in generalizing too much. You risk losing your credibility (and your clients) if you assume gender differences in areas that are not backed by research. Grief is one of those areas, and your wrong assumptions during a client’s toughest times could take a chunk out of your practice.
Two noted psychologists, Kenneth J. Doka and Terry L. Martin, designed a study to determine how men and women grieve differently. To their surprise, they discovered there is no consistent “male” or “female” way to grieve. Instead, there are two grieving styles that readily cross gender boundaries.
Instrumental grievers are “head people,” who cope by understanding facts and taking actions. They are more likely to go it alone, clean out the closet two weeks after the funeral, set up a memorial fund and ask what they can do to get through their grief. More men than women are instrumental, but a surprising number of women are also instrumental grievers.
Intuitive grievers are emotion-based “gut people,” who cope by talking through their feelings. They are more likely to leave the closet untouched for months, go to a support group and ask how they can process their emotions so they feel better. Although women dominate in this area, a surprising number of men are strongly intuitive.
Of course, very few people are 100 percent one or the other; we are all on a continuum between the two. It is important to pay attention to your own preference, and then listen to grieving clients to determine their style. Honor their preference, even if it is different than yours, and never judge how a client is going to grieve based on gender.
One strategy for uncovering a client’s style is to ask open-ended questions that allow varying answers. For instance, in a post-funeral appointment: “Before we get to business, would you like to tell me what happened or what you’re experiencing now?” The instrumental griever will tell you facts and statistics: what happened, how she found out, medications administered, and what the doctor said. The intuitive griever will describe the experience: how shocking or surreal it felt, who was there and whether they were supportive, and what was whirling through his mind. Encourage an instrumental griever by following up with, “What was that like for you?” Ask the intuitive, “How did that feel?” If you aren’t sure of their style, it’s always better to ask, “What was that like for you?” If you ask about feelings, you will shut an instrumental griever down. If you ask what it’s like, the intuitive griever will interpret it through the lens of feelings anyway.
Tell an instrumental griever, “We’ll walk through this process step-by-step, doing everything we can to make it easier for you.” Tell an intuitive griever, “I will always listen as you cope with this; and as a team, we’ll get you through to the other side.”
Encourage an instrumental griever to talk one-on-one with a grief coach or counselor, and give a book about grief that highlights research and science. Recommend ongoing support groups for intuitive grievers, and give books based on stories of other people in similar circumstances.
There is much more to know, but try these quick tips. Support your grieving clients now, especially in ways that others don’t, and they will stay with you for life.