Instrumental vs. Intuitive Grief: 5 Key Differences


It’s a rather challenging task when it comes to categorizing, classifying, or labeling the different types of grief. Typically, a wide array of grief responses can be considered normal grief reactions. No two people will ever have the same feelings and experiences after a death. This is true even of those people who’ve suffered the same loss within the same family.

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It’s worth examining the generalization about gender differences in the way men and women grieve and cope with loss. When it comes to gender, society tends to emphasize gender roles when it comes to grieving styles.

Instrumental grief and intuitive grief are two grieving styles identified by psychiatrists Terry Martin and Kenneth Doka. Both of these grieving styles can be seen through the lenses of gender in Western society, though anyone can exhibit these emotions and actions. Typically, Western society expects men to be strong and stoic, while women should be emotional and sensitive.

What's the Intuitive Style of Grieving?

Intuitive grief is a grieving style that emphasizes a bereaved person's feelings and emotions associated with loss. Feeling sad or angry and the expression of these emotions are also types of intuitive grieving. A person who emphasizes their feelings attributed to the pain and sadness of their loss over holding in their feelings is known as an intuitive griever. 

In general, Western culture emphasizes an emotional grieving process, which is characteristically more female. Tears and sadness are commonly associated with grief and mourning. Our society sees this as an appropriate and acceptable way to express sorrow attributed to loss. Doka and Martin categorize this type of emotional grief response with the intuitive style of grieving. 

What's the Instrumental Style of Grieving?

A person who suppresses their grief-related emotions is said to have a grieving style related to instrumental grieving. This type of grieving is more cognitive-focused and is characterized by a problem-solving approach to healing. People who exhibit these qualities tend to direct their energy into the physical manifestation of grief.

Simply put, an instrumental griever will focus more on doing things rather than on their emotions. They may approach their healing from a more problem-solving approach as opposed to an emotional one. A

n instrumental griever is one who thinks rather than feels their way through the grief process. They’re known to ask many questions and look for a hands-on approach to finding a solution. This grieving style is a masculine approach to grief, although any gender can fall into this category of grieving. 

What Are the Main Differences Between Intuitive and Instrumental Grieving?

People who identify within the gender binary as either men or women may deal with their grief differently. Men are typically thought of as being less emotional than women. Although men often suppress the outward manifestation of grief, it’s not to say that they don’t feel the same intense pain and suffering following a loss as women do. 

Their different grieving styles are typically associated with being characteristically "masculine" or "feminine.” However, gender in these grieving styles contributes to the differences between intuitive and instrumental grieving.

It is important to remember that these assumptions are unhelpful because they will never fit someone all the time. Yet we might feel ashamed, guilty, or weak for not feeling or acting our part, according to our learned gender behaviors. Because of this, it is expected that some men tend to focus on what they think about their loved one's death, and some women tend to focus on how they feel about their loss. This is one of the main differences outlined between instrumental versus intuitive grief. 

You can see below the other ways in which these grieving styles compare and contrast.

1. Instrumental thinking vs. intuitive feeling 

A person who takes action or is more into doing rather than feeling is known as an instrumental griever. This style of grieving expresses in ways that are more physical and thought-inducing rather than emotional.

Instrumental grief is physical rather than sentimental. A person who experiences instrumental grief is not someone who may like to get in touch with their feelings or openly talk about them. Although they may feel the same emotions as intuitive grievers, they express them differently.

An intuitive griever is apt to express their grief through feelings and emotions. They go through the grief process in ways that are more emotionally extreme than others. They also heal by sharing with others their thoughts, feelings, and emotions.

Characteristically, their grieving style reflects their feelings mirroring their behaviors. A person who is an intuitive mourner will progress toward healing by exploring their feelings and sharing them with their support group. An intuitive griever will do well by seeking online grief counseling or therapy. 

2. Intuitive expressing vs. intuitive holding in

A more stereotypically feminine way of expressing grief is through crying and lamenting. These feelings and emotions are typically expressed in public and in front of other family and friends who can relate to the mourner’s grief over their loss. Both men and women express grief intuitively.

It is also important to remember that this style of grieving is not reserved for the female gender. When describing their lamentations, the outward manifestations of grief mirror their inner experience. A person who exhibits outward expressions of grief is typically also feeling these same feelings on the inside. 

On the other hand, an instrumental griever has successfully adapted strategies of holding back their feelings and emotions. They are better able to stifle the grief experience and outward expression of feelings. Holding in one’s feelings is typically seen as a masculine trait. However, both genders can generally be reluctant to talk about their feelings and emotions following a loss. The overall contributing factor is seen as one of self-mastery over one’s feelings and environment.

3. Intuitive showing vs. instrumental doing

A typical feminine style of grieving is showing an outward expression of grief. Sadness, mourning, and crying are all examples of expressing your grief. These external manifestations are usually associated with the feminine way of grieving. In showing how grief has affected them, women let others know that they’re suffering, subconsciously inviting members of their social circle or support group to comfort and help as they mourn their loss. 

It is expected by contrast that men generally keep busy to avoid their feelings. They tend to put their feelings into action and experience grief physically rather than emotionally. A man will generally deal with loss by focusing on what’s next on their to-do list and on other goal-oriented activities. They instead do things rather than sit around talking about their feelings or crying over their losses.

This is why you’ll see a man jump to action in planting a memorial garden or chiseling away at a memorial stone. These types of activities offer a man the opportunity to accomplish things directly related to his loss as he experiences his grief. 

4. Inability to concentrate vs. focused attention to detail

For an intuitive griever, there are times when they may feel confused, unable to focus, disorganized, and disoriented. These symptoms and grief-reactions link to the grieving style of a more sensitive and emotional person. Like all other grief-related symptoms, these will gradually ease with time. You can work your way out of these general feelings of unease by focusing more on healing from your grief and working through it rather than trying to get over it. 

Instrumental grievers are typically masters at problem-solving. They have generally mastered strategies that help them keep their feelings and emotions under control. Anyone can fall under this grieving style, although it’s typically associated with a more masculine kind of grieving. One of the downfalls of this approach is that it still leaves room for brief periods of inability to function cognitively. Confusion, forgetfulness, and even obsession can creep into an instrumental griever’s grief journey. 

5. Physical exhaustion vs. enhanced energy levels

Because an intuitive style griever puts in a lot of physical emotion into their grieving, it’s not unusual for them to experience physical exhaustion, overwhelm, and anxiety. A person who’s continually crying or lamenting over their loss expends a lot of energy on their grieving. It’s not unusual for an intuitive griever to make comments such as, “I stayed up crying all night,” or “I feel so exhausted from crying all day.”

A person who’s having difficulty controlling their emotions or who cries incessantly and uncontrollably for days on end will benefit from talking with a professional grief counselor who can coach them through the different stages of grief. Together, they can develop a plan to ease their pain and suffering as they work toward healing.

Alternatively, a person who experiences grief instrumentally will not only suffer enhanced energy levels but can, as a result, miss some of the more subtle grief symptoms as they come up. These can include feelings of melancholy, sadness, and sorrow. While trying to keep themselves busy, not confronting their feelings and emotions, they miss the telltale signs of grief.

Not being aware that they’re suffering in specific ways makes it more difficult to heal from grief. In the long run, the suppression of grief’s outward expression can lead to more complicated grief later on in life. 

How Can You Support Someone With Instrumental Grief?

Instrumental grievers respond to grief in unique ways from intuitive grievers. Comparing how they experience distress from one person to another is nearly impossible as everyone has a unique way of processing their feelings and emotions. An individual who grieves instrumentally experiences their grief in cognitive or physical forms.

Instrumental grievers also tend to keep their grief reactions to themselves, making it less known about their feelings. They'll usually work through these feelings and emotions on their own. Here are a few ways to help a loved one get through their grief when this is their grieving style. 

Encourage them to talk to a professional

An instrumental grieving style may leave a bereaved person wanting to talk about their loved one. They tend to over-share details about the relationship with their loved one or how they’re dealing with their loss, but not about how they are feeling inside. While talking incessantly about their loved ones may seem helpful, it may turn into an obsession as time goes on.

You may want to encourage your loved one to talk about what they’re going through while also suggesting that they seek appropriate grief therapy or counseling if there’s no improvement to their sorrow or sadness after a few weeks or months. 

Steer them into productivity

The death of a loved one to instrumental grievers may create a physical reaction and an emotional one within them. They're likely to describe their grief in material ways by saying things like, "their death hit me like a freight train." Or they may liken their suffering to a gut-wrenching pain or other physical reaction every time they think of their deceased loved one.

A helpful way of helping someone overcome the physical pain of loss is to encourage them to direct their energy into doing something productive instead. Try distracting them from their symptoms by going for a walk or reorganizing the kitchen utensil drawer.

Help them create a legacy

Instrumental grievers want to find ways to keep the memory of their loved one alive. They do well in processing their grief when they redirect their feelings and emotions in ways that help create a legacy or memorialize their loved one who died.

Aside from storytelling to those who'll listen, an instrumental griever may do well in processing their grief when they work toward honoring the person who died. Helping them create a legacy can include things like:

  • Building and installing a memorial bench in the garden
  • Volunteering to help others in need
  • Educating others about their loved one's condition

How Can You Support Someone With Intuitive Grief?

A person dealing with intuitive grief will suffer in ways that are much different than an instrumental griever. One of the goals of healing from this type of grief is working through the pain and sorrow rather than moving on from a significant loss.

Intuitive grief's responses include thoughts, emotions, affected patterns of behavior, and other physical and spiritual reactions as well. This grieving style affects those who are more in touch with their feelings and emotions as well as of others around them. You can help a loved one process this type of grief in some of these ways.

Encourage continued bonds

A highly intuitive person who’s lost a loved one is likely to feel their loss in very profound and sorrowful ways. The impact on them from this type of loss may leave them with lost hope and will to live. Encouraging the continuation of the relationship with their deceased loved one is one way to help someone who grieves intuitively get through their pain and sorrow.  You may want to encourage your loved one to talk to the deceased while visiting their graveside, write letters to them, or invite their loved one who died to see them in their dreams. 

Give them needed time

Intuitive grief comes in ebbs and flows. One day, your loved one may feel fine and seem to have their feelings and emotions under control. Then out of nowhere, they may experience an uncontrollable wave of grief and sadness. One way to help someone experiencing this type of grief is to allow them the needed time to process their grief without trying to fix anything. 

Usually, normal grief responses will resolve on their own within six to twelve months. This one-year mark doesn’t mean that all grief will end at that time. It just means that this is when the bereaved may start to feel better and be ready to move forward.

Be patient and kind 

Highly intuitive grievers will need all the kindness and support that you can give them as they learn to cope with their loss. Their grieving style may leave them highly affected by the death of their loved one, and they may not readily know how to handle their pain and suffering. Try not to worry too much about what you can do to help them feel better.

Sometimes just being there for them is of great help. You'll learn to take your cues from their behavior. At times it can seem more helpful to let an intuitive griever cry it all out without intervening or trying to calm them down.

Looking at Instrumental vs. Intuitive Grief

Our society places a high value on what are appropriate responses to grief following a loss. The traditional roles men and women face having a direct effect on how they grieve. Instrumental and intuitive grief are only two of the ways that people process their grief. There are many other ways to successfully cope with grief, including a hybrid of these two styles. 

You’ll instinctively know what grieving type you fall into after arming yourself with knowledge and information. Remember, there’s no wrong or right way to grieve. Focus on getting through your grief one day at a time until you feel emotionally healthy enough to take the next steps toward healing. 


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