Grieving and Mourning: What’s the Difference?

Dia de los Muertos, Mexico City 2019 photo credit: Thomas_H_photo (@thomas_h_photo1) • Instagram photos and videos

For most of my life I have used the words “grief” and “mourning” as if they are interchangeable. It wasn’t until my spouse passed away, after I’d read some books and some necessary poetry, that I came to know that each of these words has its own strength. Grief is that feeling that brings you to a place of sitting on your floor in a corner, sobbing, snotty-nosed as a child. Anguish is a word I associate with grief. It is ugly, raw, and personal.

Mourning is the outward face of grief, and can be associated with public. Mourning is the part of us that seeks out the “what are we supposed to do” with the funeral director, when he guides you to line up with your family before you enter the church sanctuary once guests are seated. It is the part of you that decides to plant a particular tree in memory of a loved one. Or to take part in, or to create, some piece of ritual. On the anniversary of my spouse’s passing, my middle son makes a video montage of all the foursome photos he has taken post golf games over his past year…just as his father did every Christmas. Maintaining this tradition to mark his father’s passing will be a significant piece of mourning for the years to come.

Mourning is you dealing with the death of a robin in burying it with your child, choosing to wrap the bird’s red breast and wings in Grandpa’s handkerchief, and marking the site with a pile of stones and flower. Grieving is what you feel as you do this. Grieving is the tear you wipe, and the hug you share with your child before you walk away, back into the house for that hot chocolate cheer up.

How death and grief and mourning are dealt with, world-over, are so very different. For the most part, in the part of the world I live, there are no longer “funerals” — if you define a funeral as a ceremony in which a body is present. Bodies, for the most part, are generally hidden. And then disposed of in some way. Death is, in general, something we do our best to keep at long arm’s length. It is — I think it fair to say — as removed from life as we can make it. Once a memorial service is over, it is unlikely that there will be any other sort of public time allocated to the loss. Yet in other parts of the world, death is acknowledged, marked, included. Think of Mexico, with its midnight picnics in cemeteries, to which family members bring the deceased’s favorite food. There, there is a special bread, both home- and bakery-made, and type of flower — marigolds — for the occasion. It is a holiday. It is Dia de los Muertos. It is inclusive of all-ages. I have used a photo taken by a photographer friend, who loves to visit Mexico at that time of year. And there is something about the image of a child asleep in the midst of symbols of death. It speaks to a certain acceptance, a level of comfort. It does not take away from the power and pain of death — it holds great power over us, even over those who believe in eternal life. But there is strength and courage in being open about dying and death, and in being unafraid to express the breadth and depth of emotion. There was a time when mourning was indicated by wearing a band on one’s sleeve; it is a shame we have lost this. How did we let this go? Why did we stop?

My oldest son marked his father’s death with a sleeve tattoo, an embodiment of both principles of grief and mourning, a coupling of personal and public. The tattoo did not focus on his father in any overt way. Rather, it illuminated the change in my son’s life. With a respectful nod to his paternal Norse genealogy, the visual was of Odin, with his two younger brothers and the wolves. It explored my son’s new role of oldest male in the family, of looking out for his two younger brothers. The amount of thought and discussion with his tattoo artist, Shannon O’Shea, was reflected in the work of her needles. The tattoo was an act of mourning.

The acts that create the process of mourning can mark the progress of grieving, too, and — all together — nurture healing. Sobbing in a corner can be broken with some piece of ritual. But notable and public acts of mourning are a challenge in this time and place. We need to be creative. Each, in our own ways, can consider what that means, whether a tattoo, planting a tree, an annual hike or collage, or a midnight spent with a picnic… what is the physical, the tangible, the public, of your grief?

Alison Acheson’s latest books: memoir of caregiving, Dance Me to the End: Ten Months and Ten Days With ALS; picturebook, A Little House in a Big Place.

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