What’s the Difference Between Grief and Mourning?

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American society has a hard time actively dealing with the discussion of death and loss. Many people may not know that there are different ways in which death affects us and that there’s a difference between mourning vs. grief.

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Although sometimes it can be a fine line distinguishing the two, there are some apparent differences. While grief is typically described as a normal and natural emotional reaction to loss, mourning is considered to be the outward manifestation of those emotions. 

When a person is said to be grieving, they are likely to experience emotions like sadness, pain, worry, and anxiety. But, when grief turns into mourning, it's generally defined as the public showing of that emotion. However, even with the distillation of inside versus outside, there are many differences between grief and mourning.

What is Grief? 

Every person who has lost someone or something meaningful to them may experience grief after suffering a loss. As you learn to cope with your loss, you may experience the different stages of grief associated with the healing process.

There are eight main types of grief generally recognized by therapists and scholars alike, which are the following:

  • Anticipatory grief. Feeling grief before a loss occurs. This is common when a loved one is suffering a terminal illness, when cognitive decline starts to happen to your loved one, or when you sense that your marriage is headed toward divorce.
  • Normal grief. When you’ve suffered a loss and everything seems “normal” with you to the outside world, this is referred to as normal grief. It appears that you haven’t been affected much by the loss, but the symptoms of grief come and go as you go about your normal routine. You still experience loss, sadness, and mourning, but the feelings come and go without affecting your life in any major way.
  • Complicated grief. When grief overwhelms you and takes over your thoughts and ability to function in your daily life, this is known as complicated grief. Complicated grief is uncommon and only a small number of people may experience it. This type of grief makes it difficult to function and may cause you to have irrational thoughts linked to self-harm or other unusual behavior. 
  • Delayed grief. Some people don’t experience grief until weeks or months after having suffered loss. The delayed reaction may be because of other things going on in their lives that have taken over their ability to focus on the current loss. For example, a person who has lost someone to death while concurrently welcoming the birth of their child may delay their grieving until the joy of the birth settles in.
  • Inhibited grief. When you focus your time and energy toward new or different things and away from the pain of your loss in hopes that it’ll go away, this is called inhibited grief. You may, for example, not want to face the reality that your child has died, so you volunteer all of your time feeding the homeless. You hide your feelings and emotions from everyone as you go about filling your schedule with distractors. 
  • Disenfranchised grief. This type of grief is when you are grieving the loss of someone or something that is dear to you, but others don’t recognize your grief. This type of grief can be typical following the loss of a pet, a job, or a romantic partner whom you can’t openly grieve such as in cases of extramarital affairs or other types of relationships not openly recognized.
  • Absent grief. When grief doesn’t exist or you haven’t allowed for it to manifest in a timely and healthy manner, this is considered absent grief. It’s different from delayed grief in that with absent grief, you may not have accepted the loss and haven’t yet experienced the grief that ensues. Or, it may be that the grief expected just doesn’t exist such as when a parent dies whom you’ve never met or weren’t close to.
  • Exaggerated grief. When several losses occur right after another, or all at once, you may feel an overwhelming loss that you’re unable to cope with. This is considered an exaggerated type of grief and may lead to further complications later on if left untreated.

What grief may feel l

When you’re dealing with grief on your own for the first time, it can feel rather unusual. You’re plumbing the depths of your emotional pain of losing someone or something, which may not be typical in your day-to-day life.

Though grief can be synonymous with sadness, there are a few other emotions that you may also experience that may not be considered part and parcel of the grieving process.

  • Sadness. Feeling sad after the death of someone you love is a normal reaction and symptom of grief. When your emotions are heightened beyond what is considered a normal part of grieving, it’s possible to become depressed if your grief is left untreated.
  • Longing. Longing for someone after they’ve died is when you miss them so much that thoughts of them consume you. You typically suffer deep emotional distress wishing they were still alive. You can also experience longing for other types of losses such as pet companionship, your job, or a partner who’s left the relationship.
  • Thinking and remembering. Thinking about your loved one who has died and you remembering them is a normal and healthy part of the grieving process. When thoughts of them consume you and you feel like you don’t know how you’re going to live without them, this is when your grieving transforms from something that is normal, to a more complicated type of grief that would benefit from outside help.
  • Anxiety. Feeling anxious is also a normal part of grieving. There’s nothing wrong with admitting that you’re scared or unsure about what the future holds for you, especially when you have lost someone you depended on. You should expect to feel this way during the first few weeks or months after losing your loved one. With time, these feelings should lessen as you learn to navigate your new reality.
  • Anger. It’s normal to feel anger toward others or your loved one who’s died when you’re grieving. This is especially true if you’ve lost your loved one in an unexpected way, or if they’ve contributed to their own death. Whatever the reason, know that you can find healthy ways to work through these emotions.

Examples of grief

Describing the emotions that one goes through is one way of defining grief, but experiencing grief can be another thing entirely. If you’re unsure as to what grief for you may look like, here are a few ways that grief can show up for others that may ring a bell for you as well.

One such example is crying whenever someone mentions your deceased loved one. Even if you’re not crying outwardly, you can be grieving if you feel angry toward your loved one who died of a drug overdose. Here are some other examples:

  • Cursing at the world and life in general for being so unfair
  • Withdrawing from your normal routine
  • Consuming drugs or alcohol to lessen the pain
ยป MORE: Instead of ashes, create a beautiful stone. Parting Stone helps you keep your loved ones close.

 

What is Mourning?

Mourning is when you outwardly exhibit your grief-related emotions, and/or participate in external acts related to grieving.

Depending on your culture, family traditions, and societal norms, mourning can take on a very formal approach that includes certain grief rituals and time-periods in which mourning is expected to take place.

Needs of Mourning

Dr. Alan D. Wolfelt is a grief counselor who penned the term “Needs of Mourning.” The needs of mourning are things that are considered essential to mourning similar to the stages of grief that are important for healing to take place.

The Needs of Mourning can be described as follows:

  • Accepting the reality of the death of your loved one or acknowledging the loss of something meaningful to you. 
  • Feeling the pain of that loss.
  • Remembering the person or the thing lost.
  • Developing a new identity after a loss.
  • Searching for meaning within your new reality.
  • Allowing others to help you overcome your pain and suffering.

One need of mourning that is rarely discussed is the need for validation of the importance of your deceased loved one’s life. Especially when someone dies at a very old age, friends and family may no longer be alive to attend their funeral or memorial services. 

In order for the family left behind to feel that they’re honoring the memory of their loved one, they hire professional mourners to fill the seats at the funeral. Professional mourners may also interact with the few people known to the deceased who are still alive and able to attend. 

Examples of mourning

With grief, you may mourn your loss externally at certain places, but to mourn on the whole implies an activity related to the loss. With mourning, it is typical that you would attend a funeral to honor a loved one that has died.

You might also wear clothing that outwardly shows your mourning, which is another way of displaying grief to the outside world. Some other examples of public mourning can include:

  • Sharing stories of your loved one
  • Participating in grief rituals
  • Visiting the gravesite of your loved one

Grief vs. Mourning: 5 Differences to Know

Even with the definitions and examples given above, grief and mourning can exist at the same time and blur the boundaries that define each one.

Colloquially, it may be easy to interchange the words when talking to someone about loss, but they do have some important distinctions. Here are some you should take note of when dealing with grief and mourning.

1. Internal vs. external

Feelings and thoughts are what you experience and process internally when you are grieving.

The outward acts associated with grief rituals such as lamenting and attending funerals are part of the mourning process.

2. Natural reaction vs. participation

Grief is a natural emotional reaction to loss while mourning is more of the ceremony attached to your suffering.

External acts such as wearing mourning clothing for a period of time or flying a flag half-mast are examples of some things that may be expected while crying in the shower is an example of a more personal way of expressing your emotions.  

3. Grief comes first vs. mourning comes after

The grieving process typically begins with the initial loss and the feelings and emotions tied to that event.

Most people will begin their grief journey trying to make sense of their loss before finding acceptance of it. Mourning is the process that follows death and sometimes overlaps with grief. 

4. Grief lasts for several months vs. years of mourning

Simple, uncomplicated grief usually lasts for several months before the bereaved may find healing.

By contrast, a person who is in mourning can remain in this state for many years or even for a lifetime.

5. Personal vs. ritualistic

When you grieve it’s often very personal. Many times you may find yourself internalizing your feelings and emotions while learning new ways of expressing your hurt, anger, and sorrow.

As you move toward the mourning stage, you may find yourself participating in all of the rituals and events planned around the death. Grief usually requires no formal process.

Grief and Mourning Work in Tandem

These two processes work together to help you heal when you’ve suffered through a life-changing loss or event. Either way, these timelines are not as important as finding your inner peace and healing after loss. 


Sources

  1. Wolfelt, A. D. 1997. The journey through grief: The mourner's six “reconciliation needs.” Real Life (Winter): 36–8. stillwaterscounseling.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/The-Journey-Through-Grief.pdf
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