Grief and mourning. Are they the same?
Not quite. When someone we love dies, we have a very visceral internal physical and emotional response. This is grief.
And while many people think grief and mourning are the same thing, they’re not.
Knowing the difference between these two concepts may just mean the difference between running through a maze of grief blindfolded compared to using a map to find your way out.
Think of it this way: Grief is what you feel inside, and mourning is what you do outwardly to express this grief—things like crying, sharing memories, wearing black, lighting candles, putting together photo albums, journaling, sharing stories and other similar activities.
Grief is what you feel inside, and mourning is what you do outwardly to express this grief.
Mourning is not a way to escape your grief, but it’s the only way to work through it in a productive and healthy way.
Why is mourning important?
Despite what our cultural norms say, the goal is not to just “move on” after we lose someone we love. Grief is not an illness we can cure, or let “run its course.”
Grief is a part of us. In fact, the main physiological task our body is undertaking during grief is literally learning a new identity—actually building completely new neural pathways to “learn” how to live without the presence of our loved ones in our new life.
While our body does this, it’s our job to meet each of the “six needs of mourning.” According to Alan Wolfelt, PhD, director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition in Fort Collins, Colorado, and author of “Understanding your Grief,” who created the concept, the “six needs of mourning” are like a “to-do” list for actively expressing – or mourning – your grief.
By meeting each of these six needs of mourning, you’ll begin to move forward and build a new life—one that has meaning and purpose once more.
The six needs of mourning
The following is adapted from the book “The Journey Through Grief: Reflections On Healing” by Alan D. Wolfelt, PhD.
1. Acknowledge the reality of the death
Confront the physical loss of the death. Come to terms with the fact your loved one will no longer be physically present on this earth in your lifetime.
2. Embrace the pain of the loss
Confront and express the pain, but do so in small doses so you can reconcile it. Doing it all at once may be too intense. It’s often easier to avoid, repress or deny the pain of grief, but doing so can result in psychological disturbances such as complicated grief, also known to practitioners as “prolonged grief disorder.”
3. Remember the person who died
The relationship with your loved one transforms into one of the memories. This step involves pushing yourself to develop this relationship of memory into a robust and meaningful lasting relationship and share it outside of yourself.
4. Develop a new self-identity
A portion of our self-identity comes from our relationships with others. When we lose relationships, our self-identity changes; the way we define ourselves and the ways society defines us change when a loved one dies.
…the way we define ourselves and the ways society defines us change when a loved one dies.
Many people uncover positive facets of themselves during this need. Some find a confidence and assertiveness they didn’t have before or a caring, kindness and sensitivity that was difficult to express before the loss of their loved one.
Be open to what you find here.
5. Search for meaning
You’ll naturally question the meaning and purpose of life when you work on this need. Your philosophy of life and religious and spiritual values will also likely come into question as well.
You’ll likely ask the “hows” and “whys” of your continued state of aliveness: Why now? Why this way? Why me?
Feelings of powerlessness are common during this stage, as are feelings of sadness and loneliness.
Remember the key to mourning is to express your feelings outward. So, express this search for meaning outside of yourself to find the momentum and comfort you need.
6. Receive ongoing support from others
Of all pieces of advice, this is the most vital: You cannot do this alone, and nor should you try to.
Needing other humans is part of being human. If you take every opportunity you can to draw on the experiences and encouragement of friends, fellow mourners or professional counselors, you’ll find yourself in such a better place than if you choose not to do so.
However, there is one caveat: Each member of your support team must fully realize and appreciate the impact this death has had on you. They must not only allow you to mourn but also encourage you to do so—long after the death.
To paraphrase the words of Dr. Wolfelt, grief is not an enemy to be vanquished but a necessity to be experienced as a result of having loved.