How to Best Support Someone Based on Their Grief Archetype

Illustration for article titled How to Best Support Someone Based on Their Grief Archetype

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For the most part, our society has a very narrow definition and shallow understanding of grief. We know that when someone close to us dies, we’re supposed to feel sad, spend a few days wearing black and eating casseroles while in mourning, and then resume our normal lives as if nothing happened.

But in reality, grief doesn’t come with a set timeline or format. Sure, there are the well-known “five stages of grief” developed by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, but those were never meant to be a checklist where, upon completion, a person is no longer grieving.

And while we’re on the subject, there are many things people grieve that aren’t death, including the end of a relationship, the loss of a job, moving away from friends and family, even the loss of your own identity that could come with mental health issues or after developing a chronic illness. There’s also the collective grief and trauma that accompany long-term events or challenges like a global pandemic or centuries of systemic racism.

And, according to Dr. Annette Childs, a licensed psychotherapist and author, how we grieve also depends on our “grief archetype.” Here are the four she has identified, and how to provide support for someone who is grieving based on each.

What are grief archetypes?

After 25 years as a grief therapist, Childs noticed that her clients tended to follow four distinct grieving patterns, which she has defined as “grief archetypes.” Similar to the love languages, the idea behind grief archetypes is to help us better tailor the care, support and coping mechanisms available to the person experiencing a loss. Childs explains the archetypes in an interview with MindBodyGreen:

There’s no ‘right’ way to do grief, but there are known pathways to take, and the archetypes can help you shine a light on which path you may be taking and give you insight into others that you may be well served to veer toward in the future. They aren’t a steel box that we have to stay in. They’re more like a street we’ve chosen to take, and at any time along the way, particularly with education and support, we’re likely to merge into a different lane and change up our coping patterns.

Here are Childs’ four grief archetypes, and how to support to people who fit into in each category.

The Pilgrim

In her own practice, Childs sees more Pilgrims than any other archetype. They tend to seek out supportive relationships, including through therapy, AA or faith-based support. “They’re gentle and trusting by nature, and during their time of loss, they become wary and unsure of the path ahead,” Childs explains.

How to provide support

Pilgrims aren’t looking for a quick fix; they want to build deep and lasting relationships with the helpers in their lives, Childs notes. So if you want to support a Pilgrim, understand that if they’re able to confide in and trust you during and after their time of loss, they may continue to turn to you, even once they’ve started coping better with their grief.

The Villager

Villagers are planners; they make a point of having a support system in place in their lives, along with a toolkit for managing their emotions—but they are also open to the idea of expanding both. According to Childs, the hardest part of grief for Villagers is that it tends to catch them off guard. It’s not something they are able to plan for.

How to provide support

Given how prepared they are (or at least try to be), Villagers often find themselves helping other people, even while they’re grieving. For example, they could end up being the “strong” person the rest of the family comes to for support. Or maybe after a death, they went into autopilot mode and were able to plan a funeral like some type of mourning machine, and because of that—and coupled with being everyone’s “rock”—they have a lot going on.

This is all to say that if you know a Villager, you can be straightforward and ask them what they need and how you can best support them. This allows them to get back into their usual “planning mode,” using you as a resource and adding you to their “toolkit,” and giving them the chance to articulate the kind of help they need most.

The Pioneer

Pioneers are the archetype Childs sees least in her practice. They tend to respond to grief and loss by diving into something new, like exercise, new hobbies or travel. As Childs explains, it’s not that Pioneers skip over grieving; instead, “they just move through it differently, tearing off bits of their loss in small pieces to avoid wallowing in heavy emotions for too long.”

How to provide support

If you’re supporting a Pioneer, do so on their terms. This could mean anything from going on a weekend day trip with them, to trying out a new activity alongside them. Understand that this is their way of working through their grief, and don’t insist that they “face reality” or “do the work” when it comes to grieving. That’s exactly what they’re doing, just in their own way.

The Voyager

Voyagers are constantly looking to find meaning in loss and use it as a way to prompt their own growth. And according to Childs, Voyagers tend to be more comfortable sitting with their grief and seeing where it takes them, rather than following a set path.

How to provide support

To support a Voyager, trust that they are grieving at the pace that is best for them—noting that it may be completely different than your own. Also keep in mind that the aspects of their grief that they find most meaningful might not align with yours. Follow the person’s lead instead of “brightsiding” them.