Grief vs. Mourning: What’s the Difference and How Do You Move On?

When someone is grieving, we say they are in mourning, but what does that mean? Grief and mourning are two words with similar meanings that are often used interchangeably to describe the thoughts, emotions, and behaviors following a loss. While similar, grief and mourning describe two different aspects of loss. Grief is what you’re feeling and thinking, and mourning is how you publicly show those thoughts and feelings. Understanding these differences can help you as you move through a loss. Or, if someone in your life has experienced a loss, understanding what grief and mourning are can help you support them as they move through this difficult time. 

What is Grief? 

Grief is the normal emotional and psychological response to a loss. While we are discussing grief in the context of losing a loved one, grief occurs in response to any significant loss, such as losing a job, a home, or a friend. Grief encompasses the thoughts and feelings of losing someone you deeply love or care about. Your internal experience of anger, sadness, fear, etc., after a loss is grief; you are grieving the one who passed. While intense, grief is most often an acute or short-term experience, though it likely won’t feel short-term at the moment. It usually becomes less severe after about a year as you heal.

Sometimes though, grief can be prolonged by certain circumstances that block the healing process. These circumstances can be internal or external. Denial of the loss and the feelings of grief can make grief last longer. Or external events, such as losing financial stability along with the loss, can interfere with the grieving process. This is called complicated grief. If you think you’re experiencing complicated grieving or struggling with the healing process, please reach out to a support group or mental health professional.

What is Mourning?

When we say someone is in mourning, we are referring to their outward actions, such as wearing black. Mourning is how we publicly express our grief over losing a loved one (person or animal). Sometimes mourning is structured by cultural or religious practices, such as the Jewish tradition of sitting Shiva after someone beloved passes. Other mourning behaviors could include:

  1. Planning a funeral or memorial service.
  2. Scattering your loved one’s ashes.
  3. Planting a memorial tree
  4. Taking time off of work to grieve.
  5. Wearing cremation jewelry.
  6. Displaying an urn.
  7. Sharing memories about your passed loved one.
  8. Marking your loved one’s resting place on Ecorial’s Memory Map and creating an online memorial
  9. Making cremation keepsakes.
  10. Donating to your loved one’s favorite charities in their name. 
  11. Listening to your loved one’s favorite music, watching their favorite movies, etc.

Mourning helps you establish long-term, loving memories of your passed beloved and process the intense thoughts and emotions of grieving. When we mourn, we honor the one who passed while helping ourselves heal. 

Grief vs. Mourning

Simply put, grief is internal, while mourning is external. Grief happens in the inner world, while mourning is how we express that grief publicly. Grief is full of emotions such as anger, rage, sadness, longing, and fear; mourning is how we show those emotions. Grief and mourning work together to help you heal after a loss. Like with grief, your mourning will likely decrease over time as you process and heal. 

How To Deal with Grief and Mourning

Here are some things to do that might be helpful as you grieve. 

Do feel your feelings. Yes, it may be wretchedly painful and intense, but as the saying goes, energy cannot be created or destroyed—it can only change forms. The feelings after a loss are powerful and need to be felt by you so that they can move through you. One theory about emotions is that true feelings last for about 90 seconds. After that, we are consciously or unconsciously restimulating ourselves. Try the 90-second rule for feeling feelings and then move on to healthy coping mechanisms. Avoiding your feelings is a short-term solution that can make your grief feel worse for longer. As painful as loss is, it’s a good idea to limit or entirely avoid alcohol and drugs while grieving. They can numb your feelings and prolong your grief. 

Movement is helpful for big emotions. Whatever kind of movement is doable for you will help—this may not be the time to start a new exercise regimen. Do what you usually do, or take a step back. A walk outside might be just what you need. Time in nature is also a classic healing technique. Another traditional source of comfort during grief is being with animals. Love on your pets, or borrow your friend’s dog for the afternoon. Horseback riding can also be very soothing. And, of course, talk it out. Talking with trusted family or friends, a therapist, a support group, or a journal can go a long way to easing your heartache.

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