8 Common Responses To Grief & How They Manifest, From A Therapist
So many of us are so ill-prepared for the grief state we are thrust into, I find that it can help to recognize our inner callings and needs. A way I like to look deeper at these tendencies is to see them as rhythms. Each Grief Rhythm exemplifies clusters of traits and habits you may exhibit at different points in the grief process.
What I want to emphasize is that each rhythm is a protector. As you look at some of the ways that grief can manifest for you, understand that there is no good or bad here. Think of these rhythms as reference points, trail markers for your experience. They can help you determine a more specific healing path when you're struggling to understand what's happening inside you.
However you choose to view your rhythm, remember that you are not grieving wrong; you never could.
Our Inner Grief Rhythms
The Survivor is a rhythm based solely on...you guessed it, survival. Whether it's pragmatic planning, taking care of kids, being a caregiver to someone else, a job that needs your attention, or simply taking good care of your own well-being.
At its best, the Survivor Rhythm can help keep us emotionally safe and focused on urgent matters.
Over time, it can undermine our emotional need to feel and get emotions out of our body. It may be a gateway to the Compartmentalizer Rhythm, where we put some emotions in boxes and push others down to prioritize surviving. It can prevent you from getting the consolation you need because the people around you witness you "keep going" and mistake that for a signal that you're OK.
Being as honest as you can with trusted people about your feelings is key to being able to move through this rhythm when the time is right for you.
This is the rhythm of information gatherers! Intellectualizers may identify and talk about feelings but rarely seem to actually feel them.
The Intellectualizer likes to know what's going on and feels safest when it can observe itself from a distance. Understanding what we are experiencing can lessen that fear of the unknown and allow for emotions to come forward. Too often, though, we use our knowledge to hide out in our minds. In time you might get so used to being in this rhythm that when the emotions do finally come forward, they take you by surprise, as you may believe you have already experienced the grief in its fullness.
Understanding that grief cycles can turn up in different ways at different times can help us remember to find a balance between our understanding of what's going on within us and our felt experience (a bodily awareness) of the emotions and sensations associated with it.
The Diver is comfortable with feelings and finds the most comfort in sharing and connecting. People with this tendency actively seek therapy and support groups, buy every book on grief, and feel all the feelings that come up.
It's a super open rhythm but can be overwhelming. Desperate to feel better, you may exhaust yourself emotionally, overload on all things "grief and loss," and neglect to listen to your body's signals that it's at capacity. You may dive into the emotions headfirst without considering your audience and experience the hurt that comes with not being seen, met, or heard.
If this is you, remember, grief isn't a race of feeling all you need to in one fell swoop. Having a break, getting some rest, setting boundaries, and taking care of yourself is essential to your healing. Bring your attention to how deeply you're diving in—it's OK to take your time and meet the grief experience with patience.
The Mover Rhythm is just about that: moving. This can be going on long runs alone, attending exercise classes, working longer hours, running endless errands, staying out of your house, or anything that keeps you busy.
People in this rhythm are uniquely game to feel grief, experiencing and processing its feelings through the body's movement. If you're a Mover, the need to "talk" about it feels less important, but the grief is a tab in the background, always running and processing new information.
To know if you're truly a Mover or if you're in avoidance mode, simply notice how the loss is allowed to be present while you are in movement. For those who are Movers, you are not consciously avoiding the loss experience but rather internalizing, processing, and integrating while also avoiding the intense emotions and sensations that can arise at any given moment.
The Compartmentalizer Rhythm sits at the control board of our feelings, ready to turn on autopilot at any moment to get through a situation without emotion getting in the way. For example, being a therapist during my own personal loss was hard, but in my work, it's imperative to be able to put my own "stuff" away and focus on the person and situation in front of me. It doesn't mean I ignore my own feelings or shove them down indefinitely; it just means that for right now, or for a determinate amount of time, my feelings must be put aside.
Compartmentalizers are experts at putting feelings into categories and boxes, to be examined at a later date. This is a vital skill when we don't have the luxury of immediately grieving because of other urgent obligations. Compartmentalizing can also be a protective mechanism to defend us against the too-muchness of our grief. Sometimes we do have to put some emotions aside to tackle something else at the moment. However, if you compartmentalize too consistently for too long, more and more emotions get shoved to the back of the closet and it may feel harder to pull them out the longer they've been back there.
Ruminators tend to spend a lot of time replaying all the things they wish went differently. The Ruminator within us will sit down with a magnifying glass to go over every detail of the loss, particularly what wasn't done or said. As a result, Ruminators can battle immense guilt, shame, regret, and responsibility for the details surrounding their loss.
Like the other rhythms, Rumination is a self-protective rhythm, bringing a sense of safety to an otherwise unsafe-feeling experience by making us believe we have had more control then we have had over our loss.
While it's absolutely normal to think back over our relationship, we have to be careful not to park in this tendency for too long. Even if we wish it so, there was most likely truly nothing we could have done to have changed the outcome of our loss either in the moment or in the future. If this is you, I want you to be able to let yourself off the hook for not knowing or being able to change anything. It may not be easy to let the narrative go, but tender reframing with a trusted person can help it loosen the grip on our story over time.
The Emotional/Spiritual Bypasser (ESB)
The ESB Rhythm will use cliches, quotes, religious and spiritual texts, or adages to comfort themselves and sidestep the agony of grief. This rhythm has a zero-tolerance policy for the painful aspects of loss so instead ESBs will convince themselves only to look on the bright side. If you find yourself saying it was "meant to be" or "this is a lesson that I needed to expand my consciousness," this might be your go-to rhythm.
In the short term, bypassing our emotions can offer relief during an intense grieving moment. But more often than not, it's like putting a Band-Aid over the kind of gaping wound that needs stitches.
I want to be clear that emotional and spiritual bypassing is not the same as having faith. It's the difference between someone who uses faith for comfort and guidance to get through painful times as opposed to using spirituality or positive thinking to circumvent them altogether.
The Quality Controller
This rhythm will want to oversee all the others and make sure they are doing them "right"! This rhythm wants to talk about their loss but not talk "too much" about it, to make sure we read the room when we are around others and also do whatever we can do to keep the grief boat moving in the "right" direction.
The Quality Controller Rhythm wants to protect you from the needless dragging out of your pain. Despite the knowledge it gains over its own experience, this rhythm can really keep us a little too buttoned up in what may be at times an otherwise supremely messy full-body experience. In trying not to have things dragged out, Quality Controllers inadvertently prolong their journeys, playing it too safe or too well behaved and taking other people's feelings too much into account.
Excerpted from Moving On Doesn't Mean Letting Go: A Modern Guide to Navigating Loss. Copyright 2023 @ Gina Moffa. Reprinted with permission of Balance Publishing, an imprint of Hachette Book Group. All rights reserved.
Gina Moffa, LCSW, MA, is a licensed psychotherapist, mental health educator, and media consultant in New York City. In practice for nearly two decades, she has helped thousands of people seeking treatment for trauma, grief, as well as challenging life experiences and transitions. This includes work with Holocaust survivors at 92Y, as well as being a clinical director for a Mt. Sinai Hospital Outpatient Program specializing in addictions. She received her master’s degree in social work with a specialty in trauma from New York University.