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Grief vs. Mourning: What’s the Difference?

Last Updated: December 11, 2023

Editorial Policy | Research Policy

When we lose a loved one or someone we care about, we can experience grief and mourning. These are natural experiences that are part of loss and related to one another, but each has its distinct impact.

When we lose someone in our lives, it’s painful and difficult. Most people will experience a significant loss of a loved one at some point in their lives, but everyone reacts differently. You might feel the effects of the loss coming and going for months or years.

We tend to hear the terms grief and mourning used to describe the feelings and behaviors we go through after a loss. While some will use them interchangeably, they aren’t the same. They represent different aspects of a loss.

Grief is characterized as the thoughts and feelings experienced after a loss. Mourning, on the other hand, is the outward way we express our grief or grieving process. Knowing the differences between the two makes it possible to understand how to cope with a loss.

Grief: Psychological Symptoms

Grief is a psychological response following a loss or death. There are both psychological and physiological symptoms of grief that can occur, and they can change or evolve.

Most people will go through an acute phase of grief, which is directly after experiencing a loss. Acute grief symptoms include sadness, anxiety, and anger. These symptoms can also have an intense longing or desire to be with the person you lost and experiencing memories and thoughts about them.

These are all considered normal reactions to the loss of someone you care about. Grief isn’t the same as depression, even though the symptoms can appear similar. Grief doesn’t require a clinical diagnosis either, and there’s no right or wrong way to experience grief. Over time, feelings of grief gradually subside, and rather than dominating thoughts and feelings, they can fade into the background.

For some people, however, feelings of grief may not become less significant or more manageable. This indicates complicated grief. Not following usual patterns, complicated grief doesn’t decrease over time, and it can be a disruptive experience to the healing process. These disruptions can cause distress for the person experiencing them and interfere with their daily lives and ability to return to a sense of normal function.

Mourning: Outward Expression of Grief

Grief is an internal experience of loss, while mourning is outward. Mourning is how we outwardly express grief. These can vary based on culture as well as individual experiences. Mourning, for example, can include preparing and holding a funeral, sharing stories, or wearing black to signify the loss. Rituals and cultural practices create a structure surrounding the process of grieving.

There’s no formal approach to mourning, and the processes, while often culturally driven, also depend on the individual. Mourning is a way for the brain to begin to process and ultimately accept a loss or death, and it’s a way to create long-term memories. You can adapt through the outward expression of mourning to living without someone so important to you.

Mourning is considered a healthy albeit painful process. It’s a way to preserve memories of your loved one and regain hope about moving forward in life. It can also serve as a way to begin to re-engage socially and feel a sense of joy again.

Recognizing the Difference Between Grief and Mourning

While closely related to one another and often co-occurring, the difference between grief and mourning is focused on the processes as internal vs. external.

Grief is about the feelings and thoughts that come with a loss, such as anger or sadness. Mourning is how we show our grief publicly. We can engage in behaviors or acts that let others know the deep hurt we feel after the loss of someone we love.

Grief and mourning, while different, complement one another as part of the more extensive healing process. Both can be very intensely painful directly following a loss but decrease as healing and acceptance begin to occur.

How to Cope with Loss in a Healthy Way

Learning how to cope with a loss is painful and challenging, but there are parts of both grieving and mourning that can help you move towards a fulfilling and joyful life. Rather than trying to deny a loss or avoid what you’re feeling, you have to address it so that you can then process it and reduce grief over time. 

If you use avoidance as a defense mechanism, it can lengthen your grief, and it can raise the risk that it becomes complicated grief. Grief is a way to honor the memory of someone you love but also work back towards feeling happy and socially connected.

Healthy coping strategies following a loss include:

  • Sharing memories
  • Talking with people you trust
  • Focusing on positive aspects of the relationship, you lose
  • Self-reflection
  • Self-care

Help for People Struggling with Grief

If you feel like coping with a loss is more than you can handle on your own, or you’re experiencing symptoms of a mental health disorder or substance use disorder related to it, help is also available. 

A professional approach can help you have a safe place to discuss what you’re going through and navigate the processes surrounding both grief and mourning. The Recovery Village Kansas City offers both substance addiction treatment programs and standalone mental health services. Contact our Recovery Advocates to learn more, whether you’re seeking help for yourself or someone you care about.

Sources

Mental Health America. “Bereavement and Grief.” Accessed November 29, 2023. .

American Psychological Association. “Grief.” Accessed November 29, 2023. .  

Shear, Katherine M. MD, et al. “Bereavement and Complicated Grief.” NIH National Library of Medicine, November 2014. Accessed November 29, 2023.

Wolfelt, Alan. “Grief vs. Mourning.” Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, October 17, 2018. Accessed November 29, 2023. 

Wein, Harrison, Ph.D. “Coping with Grief: Life After Loss.” NIH News in Health, October 2017. Accessed November 29, 2023.