Grief and mourning aren’t interchangeable words. They’re two distinct things that happen in the wake of a death.
Grief is internal — it’s something you feel after a loss.
Mourning is external — it’s what you do to express your grief after a loss.
The feelings of sadness, anger, denial, and so on that you experience after a loss are grief. These are feelings that happen within you, and they’re unique to you. Grief isn’t something you do with other people, even if you are all grieving the same loss.
Activities you do to share your grief and work through it constitute mourning. Mourning can be public, like attending a funeral service wearing black clothes, or private, like looking at photos of a deceased loved one. It can be shared with others or done solo.
Mourning is an essential part of the grief experience. Though grief never truly goes away, we can work through it and achieve some healing — but this won’t happen easily when feelings are bottled up and not expressed. The things we do when we mourn help us grow into an acceptance of loss.
Dr. Alan D. Wolfelt, PhD, has defined the Six Needs of Mourning. His research shows that all grievers need to do these six things at some point along their grief journey if they are to heal:
1. Acknowledge the reality of the death
You may be aware that the first of the famed five stages of grief is denial. It’s very common to feel unable to accept that a death really happened in the hours, days, and weeks following it. A death can be so abrupt and life-altering that it feels too surreal to be true.
But it’s important to come to terms with the fact that the death really happened. It’s common to replay the death in your mind, and while this can feel very painful in the moment, it helps you get out of the denial stage.
Talking about the death and sharing stories with trusted family and friends can also help with this task. It can take time to fully achieve this acceptance — maybe weeks or months. You don’t need to rush yourself, but you do need to work to resolve your feelings of disbelief.
2. Embrace the pain of the loss
One thing not everyone will tell you is that it’s okay to feel absolutely horrible after losing a loved one. You don’t need to try to appear strong and in control at all times. In fact, the more you push down your feelings of grief, the harder it will be to get past them.
Instead of being stoic and silent all the time, allow yourself to feel the pain. Cry when you need to. Talk to close friends about how hard the loss has been and express the pain you’ve been experiencing. You don’t need to do this all at once. Dr. Wolfelt says you may need to “dose” yourself, taking short periods to really feel your pain and then distracting yourself from it again, so it doesn’t overwhelm you.
3. Remember the person who died
The people we love never really leave us when they die — our memories keep them with us forever. Tapping into those memories is an essential piece of mourning. There are so many ways we do this. Attending the funeral service is one. Looking at photos, listening to your loved one’s favorite music, telling your favorite stories about your loved one, and watching old home movies are others. Even dreams in which your loved one appears are valuable acts of remembrance of the life of the deceased.
Some people mistakenly think you should avoid looking at photos of the deceased, because they can bring back painful memories of the death. But as above, it’s healthy to feel that pain, at least sometimes. And it will often be mixed with moments of joy as you remember the good times evoked by the photos, songs, videos, and more.
4. Develop a new self-identity
When you lose someone close to you, it’s like you become a different person. Instead of a wife or husband, you’re now a widow or widower. Instead of being someone’s child, you’re an orphan. Instead of being a parent, you’re a bereaved parent. But it can initially be hard to come to terms with this new identity.
You may find yourself filling roles in your life that used to be filled by the deceased — maybe they always mowed the lawn and this now has to become your job, or you’re responsible for school drop-off when you never were before. This hammers home your new identity, and it can feel weird and painful to fill these new roles.
5. Search for meaning
It’s very common to question the meaning of life after a death. You might find yourself wondering how a loving God could let it happen, or why the death had to happen in the way it did. You may also find yourself questioning your own beliefs about spirituality and purpose.
Life may feel like it has lost all meaning after a loved one’s death, but the truth is that you still have a purpose. You might have to do some work to find that purpose, and that work is part of healthy mourning. You may find it helpful to talk to your religious leader as part of your search for meaning.
6. Receive ongoing support from others
A few of the above needs have included talking to friends as a way of expressing and handling your grief. And indeed, this is one of the six needs of grief, because it’s such a crucial part of mourning and healing from a loss.
But your support network can go beyond your trusted friends. It includes family members who are also grieving the same loss as you. Your conversations with them can be mutually supportive as you remember the deceased and share your feelings of pain and loneliness.
You can also receive ongoing support from a professional counselor or therapist. Their knowledge about the mourning process can be invaluable as they validate your feelings of loss and help you understand how to move forward.
If there’s someone in your life who doesn’t seem to respect your mourning process, telling you to get over it or keep your chin up or get on with your life, you should not be seeking them out for ongoing support. Supportive friends are more likely to cry with you than tell you to stop crying — and that’s what you need as a mourner.
You’ll never “get over” your grief — that’s just not how it works. Your grief will change over time, eventually feeling less intense and immediate. But the loss you experienced will always be part of you.
Addressing the six needs of mourning, though, will help you reconcile the loss. “Reconciliation” is Dr. Wolfelt’s word for the goal of healthy mourning. When you feel less frequent and less severe pangs of loss and grief, when you start finding purpose in your new identity, when you feel ready to fully rejoin the world after your period of mourning, this is when you’ve reconciled your loss.
Reconciliation doesn’t mean you forget your loved one. You can continue actively remembering them all your life, even as you move forward. It’s a healthy way to live your life after mourning a loss.