Is there a Difference Between Grief and Mourning?

I am not interested in arguing over the meaning of some words but knowing the difference in these two words might help us understand the whole process of grieving a little better. Grief is the noun or the name of the grieving process. Mourning is the verb or the act of expressing or experiencing our grief. We can be in grief without ever allowing ourselves to actually mourn. I used the two words to describe the journey of grief to a father whose twenty-one year old son had recently died of brain cancer. I said that while grief is the overall condition the mourning is an active process that involves several specific areas or needs caused by the presence of grief.

I told the father that the first area of mourning is working through what the loss means to you. Our first response to any loss is to wonder what will happen to us. My best friend died. When the call came that he was put under hospice care and was terminal, my first thought was, “How will I live without this person in my life?” That was not a selfish thought on my part. Our first need is to survive so our first reaction to loss is working through what will happen to us.

The father related to that thought immediately. He began to tell all of the things he knew would change in his life because of the loss of his son. He wondered how he could stand the pain; if he would be able to do his job or relate to others. He was relieved to know these thoughts were not selfish. These thoughts were a surprise to him and he felt there must be something wrong with how he was thinking and feeling. He expected that all thoughts would be about his son, and none about him.

I remember telling an audience that the first reaction to a death is to work through how the loss will impact us. A woman told me she was very glad I had shared that. She said “when my grandmother died, the first thing my grandfather said was, ‘Who will cook for me now?’ I thought he was the most selfish man in the world and wondered how he could worry about cooking at a time like that. Now I understand that he was simply relating to how the loss would impact his life.”


The second reaction is the need to establish the value and significance of the person who has died. The active mourner seems to need to be sure the world knows how important this life was. They want to establish the significance this life had, not only to the family, but to all who knew him.

The last trip I made to work with the victims of 9/11 I was amazed at how many people lined up just to show me pictures of their loved ones. There seemed to be far too many stories and too few ears there and the only way they had to tell their stories was through pictures. I remember one woman who had hundreds of laminated pictures of her husband who was one of the firemen who died trying to rescue others. She had his story written below the picture and I tried to read and listen at the same time. When I handed the picture back to her she asked that I keep it and I still have it on my desk. As she walked away I marveled at how simply finding someone to hear her husband’s story seemed to matter to her and seemed to be an active part of her mourning.

I think the third area of mourning is to establish the value the person had to others or the social significance of the life. That is the purpose of having a funeral. We gather to tell the family how much the person meant to us as well. Very few things help as much as hearing how someone besides the family loved and were impacted by the life. The family is thrilled even more when someone remembers months or years after the death.

Mourning then is the active working through how the loss of a loved one impacts our lives, how valuable and loved the life was, and what impact they had on others. Anything that helps us work through those areas help us continue to work through our mourning and move toward healing.