Grieving vs. Mourning
Author: Alan Wolfelt
I often remind myself that there is no love without loss. And there is no integration of loss without the experience of mourning.
Your capacity to love requires the necessity to mourn. To deny the significance of mourning would be to believe that there is something wrong about loving. Yet I truly believe our greatest gift from God is our capacity to give and receive love. Likewise, it is a great gift that we can openly mourn our life losses.
You may have noticed that people tend to use the words “grieving” and “mourning” interchangeably. There is a critical distinction, however. We as humans move toward integrating loss into our lives not just by grieving but by mourning. You will move toward “reconciliation” not just by grieving but through active and intentional mourning. So what is the distinction?
Grief is the constellation of internal thoughts and feelings we have when someone we love dies. Think of grief as the container. It holds your thoughts, feelings, and images of your experience when someone you love dies. In other words, grief is the internal meaning given to the experience of loss.
Mourning is when you take the grief you have on the inside and express it outside yourself. Another way of defining mourning is “grief gone public” or “the outward expression of grief.” There is no one right or only way to mourn. Talking about the person who died, crying, expressing your thoughts and feelings through art or music, journaling, praying, and celebrating special anniversary dates that held meaning for the person who died are just a few examples of mourning. Making the choice to not just grieve but authentically mourn provides you with the courage and confidence to integrate the death of someone loved into your life.
I have come to believe that to heal your grief, you must mourn it. To go on to ultimately “live well,” you must “mourn well.” By mourning well, I mean openly and honestly expressing your thoughts and feelings from the inside to the outside—no pretense, no repression, no inhibitions. Somewhere in the collision between the heart, which searches for permanency and connection, and the brain, which acknowledges separation and loss, there is a need for all of us to authentically mourn.
Authentic mourning means being consciously aware of the painful emotions of grief and feeling safe to express them. This may seem odd, because your initial response following loss is instinctive and organic. The loss has taken place, and you naturally feel core feelings such as helplessness, anxiety, fear, despair, protest, and sadness.
Herein lies the paradox—a wide range of instinctive responses occur, but you get to decide as your grief unfolds into mourning if you will truly experience these responses or instead inhibit, suppress, or deny them. Actually, befriending such emotions is what makes it possible to experience, eventually, a sense of renewed meaning and purpose in your life. Yet the emotions you sometimes most want to avoid are the ones you most need to attend to.
Being consciously aware of your need to mourn does not mean you are “feeling sorry for yourself” or wallowing in your pain. However, authentic mourning is allowing yourself to accept and to experience the natural rhythms that accompany the journey. Authentic mourning is anchored in making the conscious choice to allow yourself to mourn, to recognize that darkness sometimes precedes light, and to seek healing, repair, and transformation of your very being.
Of course, there are many reasons you might choose to grieve and not mourn. Your pain may seem intolerable. Since mourning won’t bring back your lost love, you may rationally try to “put it behind you.” After all, you tell yourself, mourning won’t bring the person back.
People around you often think they are helping when they say things like “carry on,” “keep your chin up,” and “keep busy.” Or you may feel that if you don’t “overcome” the loss, you are not living up to your testimony of faith that you have tried to live by.
No doubt, some people—or maybe you yourself—may suggest that sufficient time has passed and that you should be “done” or “finished” with your grief and mourning. Perhaps as a child or teen you were taught in your family not to express grief in front of others. Some people have shared with me that they fear they will “go crazy” if they allow themselves to encounter their grief. Or perhaps you have decided to deny or repress your grief because you feel it interferes with your ability to function at work and/or home.
All of these potential reasons and many more are often rooted in a reluctance to feel the pain of loss and a general attitude toward grief that is present in our “mourning-avoidant” culture. There is a widespread lack of understanding about how to befriend painful grief energies and use those energies for healing and transformation.
The opposite of befriending pain and allowing ourselves to mourn is control. Underneath the controlling impulse is fear: the fear that we will experience feelings that are painful.
As grief enters our lives, many of us have been taught that giving these feelings too much attention is a sign of weakness or breakdown. In fact, many people try to head off losses in the first place by controlling. After all, you don’t have to grieve and mourn if everything comes out your way.
I believe we control because we are afraid of the emotions that grief brings our way. We don’t like being overcome by the waves of grief and sorrow. We don’t like “losing control.” And until we come to realize there is a natural, normal mourning experience that can result in meaningful transformation, we have little awareness of the need to experience the pain we call grief. In addition, the emotions of grief are often referred to as “negative,” as if they are inherently bad feelings. This judgment feeds our culture’s attitude that these emotions should be denied or overcome.
Married to this observed truth is the reality that society gives us little permission to openly mourn. We realize that the better we appear to be coping, the easier it is for people to be around us. People invite you to assure them how “well” you are doing and generally encourage you to “keep busy” and “keep your chin up.” Sadly, authentic mourning is often seen as a weakness, a flaw, or a self-indulgence, instead of an emotional and spiritual necessity.
So, unfortunately, there are multiple forces working against your organic instinct to mourn in the face of loss. The choice to experience and express your grief to its fullest can indeed be difficult in our mourning-avoidant culture. Yet no matter how difficult, if you do make the choice to authentically mourn in the ways that are unique to your being, you will have begun to return to life, to living, and to loving! If you come to embrace the truth that mourning is a natural extension of loving, you will come to see mourning as part of the natural order of life.
So, each day, ask yourself this critical question: “Will I grieve this loss, or will I mourn this loss?” Having the courage to mourn can breathe life back into your divine spark. Choosing to authentically mourn can and will help you experience a time of release and renewal.
Of course, this does not mean your journey is over and done, but it does mean you are empowering yourself. To empower means to give or add power, to propel. When you empower yourself through mourning, you will begin to feel a gentle strength that runs through your body and your soul. Yes, asking and answering this critical question can help empower you.
From the pen of…
Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D., is the founder and director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition and a member of the TAPS Advisory Board. This article is excerpted from his book, Eight Critical Questions for Mourners: And the Answers That Will Help You Heal, published by Companion Press and available at centerforloss.com.