I came from a good-sized Catholic family with mom and dad, five siblings and lots of pets over the years. Even as a child I marveled at God’s gift of so many personalities and temperaments and the intricate dance we all did as we worked to get along. My older sister and younger brother are gregarious and fun loving. My other two sisters are reserved and wait patiently on life’s sidelines for their turn. My second brother is analytic and works to figure life out with numbers and rows. And me, well, I tend to feel life very deeply and wear my emotions on my sleeve.
As I’ve grown older (and hopefully wiser) I’ve found that my siblings and most folks fit one of four temperaments and I’ve found that to be true in grief as well. I remember well the widow who rallied the others in her support group for evenings out and talk fests, unafraid of the pain of grief. She would be a gregarious temperament.
Others were patiently quiet and shared only when they felt a profound need to release their pain — shy. Still others worked hard to understand the details of grief and develop a survival plan — analytic. And then there were those who expressed their emotions outwardly, telling their stories with tears and lamenting — sensitive.
I’ve long spoken on the importance of understanding that each grief journey is as unique as our fingerprint. Each temperament will drive its own way through the pit stops and potholes of grief. And if we discover and understand who we are in our grief, we will be better prepared to face what befalls us along the way with our own unique style.
I recall that day long ago when I learned that my dear husband Trent was killed in a car accident. Though his death occurred in early morning, due to an unfortunate error I was never notified. Three hours after the fact, his brother and I learned of his death as we searched first responder services. His brother, who I consider as sensitive as I, though visibly stricken, stayed calm and deliberate, beginning immediately to form a plan (analytic) on how to proceed.
I on the other hand had an explosive physical and emotional reaction to the news. I now understand first hand the meaning of “to keen.”
When I was able to settle myself my patient brother in law drove us to the funeral home where Trent’s body lay, then on to his father’s place of employment. Though I was not shaken by my brother in law’s reaction I still remember being stunned by my father in law’s response. After one moment of shock, he drew us into his arms and led us to a table where he immediately began, like his son not hours before, to form a plan.
I wanted more from him at that moment, being the emotional type who needed to express the pain I felt. His response was a sort of added layer of grief for me. I was bereft in my need to comfort and be comforted by those who knew Trent best.
But as when I was a child interacting with all my different siblings, I learned that my father in law, a “by the numbers” kind of guy, did the very best he could with the horror of the situation at hand that day.
None of us, of course, are purely one or another temperament. We typically are all a mix of each, one generally being dominant and our driving force. But I’ve found in my grief work that we all tap that part of us that works best for the situation we find ourselves in.
Hours after my father in law made the plans to contact the funeral home, notify family, etc., he came to me in quiet and spoke of how his greatest desire was to have words of consolation for me. But, no, he admitted, he could only tell me he still cried over the loss of his own dear wife who had been gone 20 plus years at that time. He used his sensitive side to reach out to me then.
I believe in the importance of understanding our own temperaments so as to understand more fully our style of grieving and how that drives us. If we are sensitive or gregarious, it’s important for us to find ways to express our grief in all its fury. That means we may need to tap our creative self for unique ways to release our pain.
If we are analytic like my father in law, in our need to order things we must surrender at times to our pain. And the shy must seek out a time and place to share their journey in order to move toward healing.
In any temperament we must each step back in our own situation of loss and understand that others have their own style. And that’s okay. With the myriad ways to seek support and comfort after a loss, tolerance and loving acceptance of all temperaments will see us through the darkest days and provide us with room to grow. There truly is room for every one of us.
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