Difference Between Grief and Mourning Explained by a Grief Counsellor
Takeaway: If you’ve had a recent loss, you may be struggling to make sense of your experience. Know that this is normal, though it can still feel confusing and overwhelming. In this post, I explain the difference between mourning and grieving to help you better understand what you’re going through. Plus, I share some helpful strategies that have been useful for my own therapy clients.
According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), grief is a person's emotional reaction to loss. While grief is an emotion in and of itself, grief reactions can include other emotional responses such as sadness, anger, confusion, guilt, and more.
People can experience grief as a result of any kind of loss. Some examples of loss include:
Death of a loved one, including a pet
Diagnosis of a chronic illness or terminal illness
Breakups or divorce
Loss of independence
Loss of financial security
Loss of abilities
Keep in mind that this isn't an exhaustive list. There are multiple different types of loss, and all can evoke painful emotions including grief.
Emotional responses can manifest in different ways as well. Some people might be able to easily identify what they're feeling. For others, emotions may be held in certain areas of the body and produce physical symptoms. Stomachaches, difficulty sleeping, and appetite changes are common. Severe grief reactions may even take a toll on your immune system.
Grief reactions can also vary depending on the type of grief a person is experiencing. Here's a broad overview of some different kinds of grief.
People who know they will soon go through loss may experience anticipatory grief. This is especially common for people whose loved ones receive a terminal diagnosis, such as a partner developing cancer, or if an individual is diagnosed with a chronic or progressive illness, like Alzheimer's disease or Parkinson's disease.
This form of grief is now referred to as prolonged grief disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), the guide that Canadian psychologists and psychiatrists use to diagnose mental disorders. Unlike "typical" grief reactions that may dissipate in the months following a loss, complicated grief or prolonged grief experience "atypical" grief reactions that are longer and more intense.
Grief that results from a loss that may not be recognized by their culture or society is referred to as disenfranchised grief. This invalidation can make the grieving process even more difficult than it already is.
It may also leave people feeling like they don't have the right to express grief. This can make people suffer intensified symptoms of grief. People may also repress their emotions, which inevitably come out in other unintended ways.
Know that your experience of grief is valid regardless of whether you have "typical" grief symptoms or not. These categorizations are meant to provide a framework for understanding your experience, not tell you whether what you're going through is "right" or "wrong."
While grief reactions are what a person feels on the inside, mourning is the outward expression of those feelings. Many cultures and religions have mourning traditions. Families also have their own unique ways of mourning, and you may even have your own personal way of navigating the mourning process.
Here are some ways that people may mourn:
Funeral services, including wakes, sitting shiva, and more
Memorial services and celebrations of life
Wearing certain colours to signify mourning
Visiting the gravesite
Planting a tree or dedicating a bench in honour of the loved one who passed
Marking the anniversary of the loss
Writing an obituary
As you can see, these are all actions that people take to convey their grief. These rituals can bring comfort in the midst of a loss, especially when enacted with family members and friends. They also serve to help people maintain a connection to their lost loved ones.
While there are numerous ways to mourn the death of someone close to you, it can be harder to find ways to mourn a non-death loss. As we discussed earlier in this post, there are many different forms of loss. However, many of these losses aren't widely recognized by our society, which can leave people at a loss for how to navigate grief and mourning.
Here are a few examples of how people may mourn non-death losses.
Writing in a journal
Movement and dance
Rituals, such as writing something you'd like to release on a piece of paper and burning it
Getting support from loved ones
Any way that you choose to mourn is valid. There is no set way to move through this process, and the way you mourn may change over time as well. You can also mourn without engaging in any formal mourning practices.
Grieving vs. mourning: What's the difference?
While grief and mourning are closely related, they refer to two different parts of the same experience. In a nutshell, grief is the emotional experience that comes after loss and mourning is the actions people take to express their grief.
You may have also heard the word "bereavement" used alongside mourning and grief. It's a broader term that encompasses both concepts.
Having an understanding of these different phrases can help you better understand your experience. While this knowledge won't necessarily take away your pain, it can provide some reassurance that you're not alone.
Common misconceptions about grieving and mourning
Grief and mourning are not talked about openly in all cultures and societies. This can lead to misconceptions that may be harmful for bereaved individuals who are struggling to make sense of their experiences. Here, I debunk some common myths about mourning and grief in hopes of bringing some clarity and comfort.
Myth: Grief reactions must follow certain stages or steps.
You may have heard of the concept that there are five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. This framework was first proposed by psychiatrist and researcher Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross when she was working with people navigating their own diagnosis of terminal illness.
Kubler-Ross’ original book was later expanded to include a few chapters on how the family of terminally ill people move through grief. She later co-authored the book On Grief and Grieving with David Kessler, which focused even more on the experience of the bereaved.
While some people may find this framework helpful for understanding their own experience, it's important to remember that it's not a formula for bereavement. The process isn't linear, and you may experience a wide range of different emotions at different times in your grieving process. In this blog, I lay out frameworks of grief work that we've used with therapy clients.
Myth: You can only mourn for a certain period of time.
Many people experience an outpouring of support directly following a loss, only to find that it peters out in a few weeks or months. People may expect you to "go back to normal" or "get over it" in a shorter period of time than feels right to you.
Grief isn't something that we just stop feeling. It can wax and wane for a lifetime. I encourage you to continue engaging in whatever mourning rituals make sense to you, no matter what kind of external pressures you might feel. Mourning occurs differently for everyone, and your experience is valid. As Nora McInerny said in her TedTalk we don't 'move on' from grief, but rather 'move forward with' it.
Myth: Grief and mourning look the same for everyone.
You're a unique individual, and your bereavement experience will be unique as well. It can be easy to compare yourself to others or internalize negative societal messaging. However, it's important to honor your own grief and mourning process as much as possible.
It's also important to note that you might react differently to various losses or to the same loss at different moments. Try to be open to whatever comes up without imposing certain expectations on yourself. This includes "atypical" grief reactions, which may be common in individuals experiencing complicated grief as well as individuals experiencing disenfranchised grief.
Coping with grief and mourning
There is no formula for the healing process. At the same time, there are steps you can take to cope with significant loss and intense grief in a healthy way. Here are a few strategies to start with. For even more ideas, I invite you to read my blog post on healing from grief.
Bereavement can be an extremely painful process. While symptoms typically diminish in the weeks or months following a loss, they may never fully go away. You might experience a flare-up on the anniversary of a loss or at other unexpected times. Be gentle with yourself and know that it's okay to have these emotions. Kristin Neff's compassion break is a great little meditation to help you through a tough moment.
Connect with a support group
Getting social support can be incredibly healing during the grief and mourning process. Healing Hearts offers bereavement support groups across Canada for people who've suffered a loss. You may also be able to connect with a support group in your area through local hospitals, hospices or mental health organizations.
Get support from a mental health professional
As a counsellor in Vancouver, I've seen firsthand how supportive grief counselling can be during bereavement. Working with a therapist can help you learn how to identify and describe feelings, and give you a space to process and express your experience.
Whether you're mourning the loss of a loved one, grappling with grief from a chronic illness diagnosis, or struggling to cope with a different type of loss, we're here to support you. We offer in-person grief counselling in Vancouver as well as online therapy for individuals across BC.
If you're interested in learning more about how we can help, I encourage you to reach out. We offer free consultations so you can ask questions and understand whether we're the right fit for you. We look forward to connecting and holding space for you.
Founder and Counsellor