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.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- Overview: Mourning vs. Grief
- What is Grief?
- What is Mourning?
- Grief vs. Mourning: 5 Differences to Know
- How Can You Tell if a Loved One Is Mourning or Grieving?
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.
Overview: Mourning vs. Grief
Dealing with loss is painful and challenging. Most people will experience the death of a close loved one, and how they react to that loss can have a lasting effect in the months or years to come. Society generally interchanges grief and mourning to describe the feelings, emotions, and behaviors following a significant loss. Although these two words are related, they aren't interchangeable.
Grief represents how an individual thinks and feels after suffering loss, while mourning is the outward manifestation of grief-related feelings. When you know and understand the differences between the two, you equip yourself to better cope with your loss.
Mourning, grief, bereavement, and loss are all normal responses to loss, and we understand grief as the psychological or physiological response to bereavement. These reactions transform as time passes, and no two people will experience loss in the same way.
Symptoms of grief may include some or all of the following:
- Profound sadness
- Longing for the deceased individual
- Shock and disbelief
By contrast, mourning is how an individual expresses their grief to the outside world and may include:
- Preparing for a funeral
- Donning black clothing
- Sharing memories
- Placing flowers at a graveside
- Crying in public
- Withdrawing from society for a time period
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 like
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
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.
How Can You Tell if a Loved One Is Mourning or Grieving?
Knowing when your loved one’s grieving or in mourning is an integral part of the grief journey. Although grief and mourning are two very distinct aspects of loss, it may be useful to know that grief is considered to be the internal processing of loss-related feelings and emotions. In contrast, mourning is the external expression of pain and suffering that follows loss.
Both of these processes are necessary for someone to heal after a loss. Sometimes they overlap, and symptoms of both may continue well after experiencing a significant loss. Each of these roles will have an equal, yet completely different, role in helping your loved one deal with death. The grief process aims to heal the internal conflicts and emotions following a loss, while acts of mourning focus on honoring and remembering a loved one who died.
After suffering a significant loss, you can expect your loved one to experience a combination of the two. Grief and mourning often go hand-in-hand, and it may be difficult to tell the difference between the two in the early stages of grief.
Following the death of a loved one, an individual can experience different feelings and emotions that they may be uncomfortable or unfamiliar dealing with. Many won't know how to deal with their loss, and their grief reactions may reflect this.
The holding in of loss-related reactions may lead to your loved one reacting in ways that are out of character for them or that make you feel shut out and rejected. Generally, the feelings that accompany loss may range from profound sadness to anger and irritability.
You may already recognize some of these symptoms in your loved one's behavior. They're all normal and natural reactions to loss and shouldn't be a cause for alarm. An individual struggling with coping with their loss will typically keep these feelings to themselves.
A person mourning may also display some of their feelings and emotions out in the open. Acts of mourning are a display of an individual's pain and suffering after experiencing loss. Mourning rituals and behaviors contribute to emotional and physical healing after loss and are an essential aspect of the overall process. When your loved one's in mourning, you can expect them to participate in death rituals, cry in public, or continuously talk about their loss.
Some grief-related experiences will overlap, making it difficult to tell the difference between grief and mourning. You'll start recognizing some of your loved one's patterns of behaviors as the weeks and months go by.
In time, both grief and mourning will begin to lessen as healing begins to take place. In the meantime, consider keeping an open dialogue with your loved ones to gauge how well they're coping with their loss.
The mourning phase typically lasts a few weeks and will gradually begin to meld into the grieving process. Once your loved one starts settling back into their daily routine, mourning turns to grief. Keep in mind that the two phases will look very much the same in the beginning, and there’s no need to try and figure out exactly where in the process your loved one’s in.
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.
- 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