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Grief vs. Mourning: What’s the Difference?

As I reflect on my experience with grief after losing my mother suddenly in August 2021, my thoughts were: was she in pain; did I help her to feel comfortable; was she aware of my presence. Grief and mourning are natural parts of healing after the loss of a loved one or friend. While grief and mourning relate to each other, they can each have a distinct impact.

Grief and mourning are common terms to describe feelings and behaviors following a loss. Although sometimes used interchangeably, grief and mourning represent different parts of loss. While grief represents the thoughts and feelings experienced following a loss, mourning includes outward expressions or signs of grieving. Knowing the differences between grief vs. mourning can help you understand the different aspects of coping with loss.

Coping with the loss of someone or something you love is one of life’s biggest challenges. You may associate grieving with the death of a loved one — which is often the cause of the most intense type of grief — but any loss can cause grief, including divorce or relationship breakup; loss of health; losing a job; loss of financial stability; a miscarriage; retirement; death of a pet; loss of a cherished dream; a loved one’s serious illness; loss of a friendship; loss of safety after trauma and selling the family home.

Mourning: External Expression of Loss. 

Mourning is best defined as acts or outward expressions of grief. Some common examples of mourning can include preparing for a funeral, wearing black, or sharing memories or stories about a loved one. These parts of the mourning process can be impacted by cultural practices or rituals and can give structure to the grieving process.

There is usually no formal guide for mourning, and the process can vary from person to person and can depend on the type of loss experienced. Losing someone can be considered a threat or risk of harm to the brain, so the process of mourning can help people to accept and emotionally process death or loss. The process of mourning allows people to form long-term memories of a loved one and includes adapting and learning new ways to carry on without a person they cared deeply about.

Mourning can be a lengthy and painful process, but it is a healthy part of bereavement. Mourning can help people preserve the memory of loved ones and feel hopeful about living a happy and fulfilling life without them. Although mourning can be painful, the mourning process allows people to re-engage with their daily life and to feel joy and happiness again.

Seeking Support for Grief and Loss.  

The pain of grief can often cause you to want to withdraw from others and retreat into your shell. But having the face-to-face support of other people is vital to healing from loss. Even if you’re not comfortable talking about your feelings under normal circumstances, it’s important to express them when you’re grieving.

While sharing your loss can make the burden of grief easier to carry, that doesn’t mean that every time you interact with friends and family, you need to talk about your loss. Comfort can also come from just being around others who care about you. The key is not to isolate yourself.

Turn to Friends and Family Members.

Now is the time to lean on the people who care about you, even if you take pride in being strong and self-sufficient. Rather than avoiding them, draw friends and loved ones close, spend time together face to face, and accept the assistance that’s offered. Often, people want to help but don’t know how, so tell them what you need — whether it’s a shoulder to cry on, a listening ear, or just someone to hang out with. If you don’t feel you have anyone you can regularly connect with in person, it’s never too late to build new friendships.

Accept That Many People Feel Awkward When Trying to Comfort Someone Who’s Grieving.

Grief can be a confusing, sometimes frightening emotion for many people, especially if they haven’t experienced a similar loss themselves. They may feel unsure about how to comfort you and end up saying or doing the wrong things. But don’t use that as an excuse to retreat into your shell and avoid social contact. If a friend or loved one reaches out to you, it’s because they care.

Draw Comfort From Your Faith.  

If you follow a religious tradition, embrace the comfort its mourning rituals can provide. Spiritual activities that are meaningful to you — such as praying, meditating, or going to church — can offer solace. If you’re questioning your faith in the wake of the loss, talk to a clergy member or others in your religious community.

Join a Support Group. 

Grief can feel very lonely, even when you have loved ones around. Sharing your sorrow with others who have experienced similar losses can help. To find a bereavement support group in your area, contact local hospitals, hospices, funeral homes, and counseling centers, or see the links below.

Take Care of Yourself as You Grieve.

When you’re grieving, it’s more important than ever to take care of yourself. The stress of a major loss can quickly deplete your energy and emotional reserves. Looking after your physical and emotional needs will help you get through this difficult time.

Face Your Feelings. 

You can try to suppress your grief, but you can’t avoid it forever. In order to heal, you have to acknowledge the pain. Trying to avoid feelings of sadness and loss only prolongs the grieving process. Unresolved grief can also lead to complications such as depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and health problems.

Don’t Let Anyone Tell You How to Feel, and Don’t Tell Yourself How to Feel Either.

Your grief is your own, and no one else can tell you when it’s time to “move on” or “get over it.” Let yourself feel whatever you feel without embarrassment or judgment. It’s okay to be angry, to yell at the heavens, to cry, or not to cry. It’s also okay to laugh, to find moments of joy, and let go when you’re ready.

Talk to a Therapist or Grief Counselor.

If your grief feels like too much to bear, find a mental health professional with experience in grief counseling. An experienced therapist can help you work through intense emotions and overcome obstacles to your grieving. Here at Symmetry Counseling, we will come alongside you to be that safe space; to witness all of your emotions, and help you to process them in a supportive way. Get in touch with us today to see how one of our experienced and compassionate counselors can support you.

Book Resources 

I Wasn’t Ready to Say Goodbye: Surviving, Coping and Healing After the Sudden Death of a Loved One (Dealing with Grief and the Effects on Mental Health) Paperback – May 1, 2008 by Brook Noel (Author), Pamela Blair (Author)

Grief Day By Day: Simple Practices and Daily Guidance for Living with Loss Paperback – September 25, 2018 by Jan Warner (Author), Amanda Bearse (Foreword)

On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief Through the Five Stages of Loss Paperback – August 12, 2014 by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross (Author), & 2 more

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