Grief vs. Mourning: Understanding the Differences

Published August 27, 2020
Senior man on mourning

The terms grief and mourning are often used interchangeably, despite having different meanings. Understand the difference between grief vs. mourning.

Understanding Grief vs. Mourning

Grief is a personal, internalized psychological process that is unique to each individual and can occur after a death or loss. Unlike mourning, which is an outward expression, grief may or may not be outwardly expressed. Grief may lead to:

  • Emotions such as sadness, heartache, loneliness, and anger
  • Mental health symptoms or disorders such as depression, anxiety, eating or feeding disorders, sleep disorders, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
  • Exacerbated pre-existing mental health symptoms or disorders
  • Withdrawing behavior
  • Physical aches and pains associated with the loss

What Does It Mean When Someone Is Grieving?

When someone is in the midst of grieving, their brain begins processing their emotional responses and re-organizing their new reality. This can be incredibly exhausting and can lead to feeling fatigued, mentally foggy, and somewhat disconnected from reality. When someone is grieving, they are internally processing a loss.

What Are the Stages of Grief?

The stages of grief may or may not be experienced in a certain order, and some stages may be skipped altogether. The stages include:

  • Denial: feeling numb and in disbelief
  • Anger: feeling angry and like the loss is unfair
  • Bargaining: willing to do anything to not experience the loss, or to have the loss reversed
  • Depression: experiencing feelings of deep sadness, lack of motivation, and difficulty with acts of daily living as you process the loss
  • Acceptance: feeling as if the loss is not front and center in your mind, knowing that you are okay to move forward despite still feeling the weight of the loss to some extent
woman on mourning at funeral

Recognizing Mourning vs. Grief

In comparison with grief, mourning is an external process that may or may not be a genuine expression of grief. While grief tends to be private and an internalized expression of a loss, mourning is what others see externally. Mourning may include religious, cultural, spiritual, and/or community based traditions surrounding a loss, personal family death rituals or traditions, and unique individual practices. Examples of mourning may include:

  • A family tradition of visiting the grave of a loved one once a year
  • A community-based tradition of celebrating loved ones who have passed away
  • Attending a funeral, even if you aren't grieving

Grief and Mourning

Grief and mourning are complex topics that are often confused for one other. Think of it this way- you can grieve with or without mourning, and you can appear to be mourning with or without experiencing grief.

Why Is Mourning important?

Mourning can help those who are grieving feel communal support, which is an important aspect of processing grief-related emotions. Mourning, to some, may feel healing, offer closure, and provide more of an official mark to the loss.

What Is Mourning a Death?

Mourning a death may mean:

  • Holding a funeral, memorial, wake, and/or celebration of life ceremony to honor the loss
  • Wearing a certain color garment depending on your cultural and/or religious beliefs
  • Sharing memories with loved ones
  • Practicing certain death-related rituals depending on your beliefs

How Long Does Mourning Last?

Mourning can last anywhere from weeks, to months, to years depending on an individual's cultural, religious, or community practices. Keep in mind that mourning is the outward expression of grief, so someone's mourning period may be much shorter than their grieving period.

Grief vs. Mourning and Bereavement

Grief is the internalized psychological processing of a loss, while mourning is the external expression. Bereavement is the time period after a loss has occurred where grief and mourning may take place.

What Is the Difference Between Mourning and Grief?

Keep in mind that the main difference between grief and mourning is that grief is an internal process, while mourning is an external one.

Grief vs. Mourning: Understanding the Differences