What Does It Mean to Be ‘In Mourning’?


When a person who's grieving accepts their loss and enters the next stage, they're known to be “in mourning.”

Mourning is considered the outward manifestation of those emotions related to grief. It includes participation in traditional rituals associated with mourning and the public display of sorrow, such as a funeral or a memorial ceremony. However, not everyone who mourns has suffered the loss of a loved one. 

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Other types of losses can also cause mourning. They may include those that are life-changing and oftentimes unexpected. People suffering from the loss of their home due to a tornado, for example, may also be in mourning. There are many ways that people express mourning across cultures and religions.

When dealing with the death of a loved one, tradition dictates certain rituals take place, while religion mandates others. Before beginning to understand what's expected during the mourning stage, you must first understand what mourning is, how long it lasts, and how to recognize when it ends.

What Does ‘Mourning’ Mean?

Mourning is when you outwardly display the emotions suffered during grief. It includes participating in traditions and rituals customary to honoring the dead, and those that offer support to the persons who have suffered a loss.

Part of the mourning process also includes grief work known as the tasks of mourning. There are four tasks of mourning that were identified by renowned grief therapist, J.W. Worden, that you should expect to go through as part of the healing process.

They include:

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1. Acceptance

When you’ve suffered a significant loss in your life it’s sometimes difficult to accept it as true. You may go about your normal routine and push back any feelings or emotions. This is a typical reaction to your loss so that you don’t have to accept it.

It's a coping mechanism where if you don't accept it, then it isn't' real. You may find yourself hanging on to old habits, doing the things you used to do together before they died, or pretending that the loss didn’t affect you in any large part. 

Sometimes, the numbness that you feel leads you to believe that your loved one will return and that they're only temporarily away. This stage of the mourning process may take weeks or even months to resolve before you fully accept the reality of your loss.

2. Processing

As you process your loss, you may begin to feel an overwhelming yearning for your loved one who has died. When you yearn for someone you feel as if you can't go on without them. Your thoughts are consumed with how much you miss them and want them back. This can lead to an unhealthy obsession with their return.

The yearning stage sometimes follows the numbness stage related to failure to accept what is real. When you haven't accepted the loss, your mind tricks you into thinking that you can will your loved one back to life if you desire it intensely for enough time.

3. Adjusting

Adjusting to your loss may take a few months or even years for you to feel as if things are back to normal. You’ll most likely suffer through all the stages of grief and the tasks of mourning before you begin to feel that healing is taking place. Try to keep in mind that feeling pain and sorrow following a significant loss is normal, and you’ll need time to heal. 

When you've suffered a loss of someone close to you so many things change along with it. You should expect bouts of crying, anger, and numbing pain all of which are a necessary part of healing. In time, you’ll adjust to your new roles and your pain will lessen. 

4. Maintaining

When you let go of the emotional energy tying you to the pain of your loss is when you begin to move forward from your grief and mourning. You may feel confused at this stage and not understand why you're no longer feeling grasped by your anguish. A part of you may want to hang on to the pain and suffering as a way of proving your loyalty to your loved one who has died. 

When you begin to feel this way, remind yourself that it's normal and that it should be expected as you go through the tasks of mourning. Eventually, the wounds will heal and you’ll build a new life for yourself as you learn to let go.

Where Does ‘In Mourning’ Come From? 

The concept of being in mourning dates back to Victorian-era principles of grief and bereavement. In the Victorian age, it became customary for families to go through the elaborate grieving process for their loved ones who died.

This included taking part in detailed death rituals, dressing for the occasion, and honoring the memory of the deceased. Victorian mourning lasted for a set period that varied depending on social customs according to class and gender.

The style of dress worn during bereavement was an outward display of internal grief-related feelings and emotions. Bereaved individuals wore black clothing to depict mournful sorrow. However, the rules of mourning were complicated and varied from one social class to the next. Journals were printed to guide grieving families towards appropriate dress and behavior.

These journals outlined the length of bereavement for each class, gender, and relationship to the deceased. For example, the expected mourning period for a widow was two years. For men, there was no usual or customary dress or period of mourning. They wore their standard dark suits and business attire.

Children weren’t expected to wear special clothing or to be in mourning. The Victorian era set the tone for many of today’s grief rituals and social standards of acceptable behavior at funerals.

Differences Between Grief and Mourning

Grief and mourning are often confused as the same thing, but they’re very different. Grief is what we feel as a result of a significant loss in our lives. It doesn’t necessarily have to do with the death of someone we love. It can also be related to a loss due to divorce, amputation, job termination, and such.

Grief is related to feelings and emotions connected to that loss. Mourning, on the other hand, is the outward manifestation of those emotions. It’s also representative of the death rituals and symbols of mourning associated with this stage. 

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How Long Does Mourning Usually Last?

Mourning usually lasts between four months to four years following a significant loss. Some religious practices observe mourning periods lasting from three to 40 days, with some lasting longer.

When looking at mourning from a strictly religious perspective, the requirements of mourning are very clearly laid out. There are both a beginning and an end to this period where you are expected to behave in certain ways and abstain from participating in certain celebrations and events. 

Examples of Mourning

Mourning rituals vary across religions and cultures. It’s sometimes difficult to tell whether the custom stems from religion or culture because they’re sometimes so intertwined. Below is a brief overview of mourning across religions.

1. Sitting shiva

The Jewish mourning period known as sitting shiva is a week-long mourning tradition following the death of a loved one. There are five stages of mourning in Judaism with sitting shiva being the third.

The time period of sitting shiva begins immediately after the burial. It consists of the family who’s mourning receiving guests into their home to provide emotional and physical support. Guests sit with the family, feed them, and share stories to help ease their pain and sorrow. They’re also expected to sit in silence with the mourners as long as it is needed.

The goal is to keep the mourners from ever having to grieve and mourn in isolation. The community is expected to surround the mourning family with support until the end of the seven days. This is to allow the opportunity for mourners to express sorrow, talk about their deceased loved one, and transition back into society.

Where there isn’t a community already established to provide these services, professional mourners are often hired to fill these traditional roles. 

There are five stages of mourning in Judaism:

  • Between death and burial
  • First three days following burial
  • Shiva (sitting for 7 days): Custom and tradition calls for the men who are mourning to grow their hair out for seven days. They must also cut their clothing at the collar with a knife or scissors in a ritual known as keriah. This garment must be worn throughout the entirety of shiva as a symbol of mourning along with a black ribbon at the arm of their outer clothing for the entire seven days.
  • Shloshim (30-days following burial): The 30-day period where mourners are prohibited from cutting their hair, listening to music, shaving, trimming their nails, wearing new clothes, and attending parties. 
  • 12-month period (including shloshim) where life goes back to normal. The time period begins with the date of death and ends 12-months later. The mourner's Kaddish is recited for 11 months at the end of every prayer service.

2. Islamic 40-day mourning period

Islamic tradition calls for 40 days of mourning following the death and burial of a deceased loved one. During the first three days following the death, the Islamic community is expected to gather and provide food and support to the grieving family.

After the initial three-day period, guests are expected to visit with the family, sit and recite from the Quran, and pay their respects. A widow is expected to observe a four-month and ten-day mourning period where they are prohibited from interacting with men who may be potential suitors.

3. Catholic types of mourning 

The Catholic faith has three types of mourning that must be observed after the death of a loved one. The time period has shortened over the years from six years of mourning to a year and a day as it concerns widows. The three types of mourning consist of the following time periods:

  • Heavy mourning. This is the time period where a person who is mourning should dress in all black clothing and where the tradition of wearing black to funerals began. There should be no other adornments worn with the mourning outfit. This stage typically lasts for thirty days. 
  • Half mourning. A mourner can ease up on the wearing of all black and can now incorporate touches of white clothing. 
  • Second mourning. The final stage of mourning where a person can gradually begin to incorporate other colors into their wardrobe such as greys, mauves, and pastels. The duration of half and second morning consists of time remaining after heavy mourning equally divided between the two.

4. Buddhist Mourning Rituals

Buddhists' funeral rites vary from one sect to another depending on the branch of Buddhism followed. For many Buddhists, there's a mourning period lasting forty-nine days. They have a special prayer for the dead that's recited every seven days for seven consecutive weeks.

It's believed that the prayers help the departed progress through their journey into the afterlife. Most Buddhists cremate the physical body of the deceased following a prayer and meditation service. Buddhists also have a strong belief in the afterlife, where Karma plays a significant role in how the soul returns to earth or fulfills its earthly duties. 

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5. Hindu mourning traditions

The more popular Hindu tradition is cremation within one day from the date of death. Hindus believe that the physical body experiences death, but not the soul. As a result, they place no significance on the physical body after death. Intense mourning lasting thirteen days follows cremation where the family must confine to the home without attending any functions or celebrations.

They're restricted on the foods they eat, clothes worn, and places they can go. In addition, they are not allowed to visit family and friends but can accept visitors. There's one year of mourning followed by a Shraddha, or memorial service, one year after the date of death. 

6. Wicca mourning customs

Wicca is a religion based on nature, and as such, they view death as a natural order to the circle of life. Some Wiccans belong to groups called covens who lend support to one another in both their religious practices and in times of death. Their belief is generally that the soul reincarnates, so there's no fear of death.

Crossing over ceremonies are held to honor the deceased and help the soul continue on its spiritual path as it crosses over. Samhain is a traditional Wiccan holiday where the deceased are celebrated. This holiday is also the formal mourning period in honor of the dead. 

7. Shinto mourning traditions

The Shinto religion is practiced primarily in Japan and bears a closeness to Buddhism but is recognized as its own separate and distinct religion. They practice the cremation of their dead much the same as Buddhists do, with a particular twist. After cremation of the body, people who practice Shintoism will use chopsticks to pick any remaining bones from the ashes and bury them in a graveyard.

They practice what's known as kichu-fuda, which is a one-day-long mourning practice. Men wear black suits and white shirts, while the women wear black kimono or dresses. The funeral kicks off a forty-nine-day official mourning period.

8. Native American customs

The traditional Native American way of mourning their dead starts with an elaborate ceremony led by a tribe's Shaman or spiritual leader. Although many of the Native American nations don't share a standard belief system, many of their mourning rituals have similarities from one to the other. In many of these traditional celebrations of the dead, an elaborate ritual takes place where masks are worn.

All the deceased ancestors are invited to participate in the ceremony. Depending on the tribe, mourning rituals typically last no more than four days. After the fourth day, the deceased's name is no longer spoken out loud out of fear of summoning back their soul.

9. Baha’i extension of mourning into daily life

Members of the Baha'i faith come from different cultures and traditions. They base their teachings on the simplicity of human existence, and they believe that consciousness exists separate and apart from the human physical body. The ultimate belief is that of unity among all faiths and traditions.

Their funeral customs don't permit cremation or embalming unless required by law and are held within two to three days from the time of death. They have no formal mourning rituals in place as they believe that mourning disrupts the deceased's soul in its divine realm.

10. Agnostic beliefs regarding mourning

Agnostics face death without religion as a foundation for their funeral customs and mourning traditions. However, just because they don’t believe in a higher power or a divine creator doesn’t mean that they don’t mourn the death of a loved one.

Most people who believe in Agnosticism will grieve the death of a loved one, but won’t dwell on the ceremony that often accompanies death in different religions. They view death as a matter of fact, not needing to be celebrated nor memorialized, and therefore they have no such mourning traditions or customs. 

Mourning After Grief

Mourning is the process necessary for recovery from loss. Traditional mourning rituals help you heal and set a standard time-period to follow as guidance in your own journey toward healing.

The rules have been relaxed as modern times have made old traditions a bit more flexible. You can choose whether to follow these standard protocols of mourning or go about your own personal journey to healing.

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