Is Bereavement the Same as Grief? 3 Differences


The loss of a loved one is seldom easy to accept or process. Even at times when death brings an end to suffering, the feelings of grief and sorrow can still be overwhelming. These feelings of despair and sadness can create confusion as the grief process begins to take shape. Understanding how grief works, the stages of grief, and the difference between mourning vs. grief can help you as you navigate your way through this often complicated process of healing. 

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Bereavement and grief aren’t the same thing. They sometimes act in similar ways or can overlap, but they’re two distinct things that are dealt with differently. The following can help you to learn the difference between the two, how they sometimes act alike, and how to tell when you’re suffering from one or the other. 

What Is Bereavement?

Bereavement is what defines the period of time after loss. This includes the time in which grief is experienced and mourning occurs. Sometimes the words bereavement, grief, and mourning can be used to mean the same thing.

Although they're closely related, they all have different meanings. When you understand how each comes together to define the grieving process, it makes it easier to begin working through your grief. 

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Examples of bereavement

Bereavement is not always tied to the suffering of a loss due to death. There are other times when you might experience bereavement attached to other types of significant losses in your life. Loss of any type can have a lasting effect on your emotional and psychological well-being.

Some of those examples are:

  • Loss of a spouse due to divorce
  • Your best-friend getting married and moving away
  • Getting fired from your job
  • Your puppy running away
  • Your house burning down

Although it may sound extreme to read the above examples, these things can and often do happen in people’s lives. Not all loss is tied to the loss of life. When you suffer these other types of losses, you’ll likely experience the same types of grief as if you’d suffered a loss of a loved one. 

What is Grief?

Grief is defined as a natural reaction to loss. It's typically experienced as an overwhelming reaction to loss in the form of emotional pain, sadness, or sorrow. Any type of loss can cause you to suffer from grief. Like bereavement, it's not only the loss of human life that will cause you grief.

A person suffers from grief when a loved one dies, or when they suffer other significant losses in their life. Feelings such as anger, jealousy, and indifference resulting from loss can also define grief.

Examples of grief

Grief is experienced in many unique ways. It affects everyone differently. Depending on things like your experiences, emotional and psychological well-being, cultural beliefs, and relationship to the deceased or attachment to the loss, your level of suffering will vary from others. No two people will grieve the same even if they’ve suffered the same type of losses.

For example:

  • A person who has lost their pet will experience grief. This type of loss is often overlooked, and can cause the same type of suffering as the loss of human life. When you lose a pet, you can expect to go through the stages of grief due to pet loss. You can also expect to feel pain and sadness over their loss for several weeks or months. Another person who has also lost their pet might just go out and get another one without suffering much grief, if any.
  • A mother who has lost her son to a drug overdose might feel guilty and responsible for his death. She’ll likely blame herself for not being a good mother. She’ll spend the first part of her grieving process accepting the death, finding fault, and laying blame. If you throw into the mix other complicating factors, her grief may turn from ordinary to complicated grief. For example, if she gave her son the money that he used to purchase the drugs, her level of self-blame is likely to increase. She may become angry at herself, her son, and the drug-dealer. 
  • A person who was driving drunk and caused the passenger’s death can feel grief that might include feelings of shame and guilt. A person who causes the death of another will suffer in ways that are unique to everyone else who is experiencing ordinary grief.  This type of grief will likely not follow the usual stages of grief, and may take longer to resolve. This person will not only be dealing with processing their grief over the death of their loved one, but will also be dealing with the consequences of their actions and secondary losses. 

Grief vs. Bereavement: 3 Differences to Know

Generally, people tend to see grief and bereavement as the same thing. It’s sometimes hard to tell the difference between when someone is grieving and someone who is suffering bereavement when you don’t fully understand what the terms mean.

Subtle things differentiate one from the other, while others clearly define each. In general, grief is an emotional reaction to loss. And, bereavement is the time period that a person can grieve and mourn that loss. The two are often confused. Some differences to know are:

1.Time vs. emotion

This is one of the biggest differences in telling apart grief from bereavement. A person who has just been given the news that their loved one has died will suffer an emotional reaction to that loss. They may be in shock at hearing the news, they may lash out in anger, or begin to sob uncontrollably. These are all examples of an emotional response to that loss. These reactions are tied to grief. 

A person may grieve anywhere from several weeks to several years. They may be unable to function at work and ask for a few days of bereavement leave. The end of their bereavement leave and return to work does not signal the end of their grief. It just means that they’ve exhausted whatever time off their employer was obligated to give them.

Bereavement ends when the initial part of suffering and mourning ends. A person is said to be in bereavement for the time that it takes for them to process their grief and mourning. Eventually, there’ll be a shift in the person’s emotional state of being, and the bereavement period will end. 

2. Stages of grief vs. bereavement cycles

A person who suffers from grief will go through different stages of emotions as they learn to cope with their loss. There are five defined stages of grief that a person who’s grieving is expected to experience. Not everyone experiences all of the stages, and there’s no particular order that everyone follows. But what can be said about the stages of grief is that they all lead to the healthy resolution of grief.

A bereaved person will experience those stages when dealing with their grief, but will also experience changes in mood, emotions, and feelings as part of the cycle of bereavement. The two are closely tied and it’s sometimes difficult to pinpoint whether you’re bereaved or grieving. The best way to come to terms with this understanding is that bereavement comes in time cycles.

It’s possible to enter into multiple periods of bereavement if you’ve suffered losses back to back. For example, you may have suffered a loss in January which created a bereavement period, and then another in June, which created another. Those are two distinct periods of bereavement. You may have experienced cycles of bereavement in each as you dealt with your grief and loss.

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3. Grief is the response to bereavement

This is where it gets a little tricky in understanding the difference between grief and bereavement. When you look at it from a different perspective, it becomes easier to understand the difference between the two.

When you suffer the loss of a loved one, your immediate emotional reactions are manifested in the form of grief. Those responses typical of grief include shock, disbelief, anger, bargaining, and acceptance. These are also what define the five stages of grief when talking about the grieving process and “working through” your grief. 

Bereavement begins from the moment that you suffer the loss. You may not experience grief immediately after hearing the news, but your period of bereavement would have already begun. How you respond to the news is related to grief. It’s an emotional response.

The actual happening of the event is what triggers the start of bereavement. This is a time-related period and not one that is triggered by an emotional response. You will suffer stages of bereavement that are closely tied to those emotional responses. Grief is what you work through and bereavement is what you go through. 

Grief is Closely Tied to Bereavement

Grief and bereavement are often used interchangeably and sometimes even professionals get the two confused.

The most important thing to remember when dealing with grief and bereavement is that grief involves your emotional reactions, and bereavement involves the time period immediately following the death of a loved one, or the experience of another type of significant loss.  


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