The words grief and mourning are often used interchangeably, but there is an important distinction between the two. Grief refers to the internal experience of loss – the thoughts and feelings that one has after someone has died, for example. Mourning, on the other hand, is external – it is the expression of those thoughts and feelings. Grief happens only on the inside, in your head or in your heart. Mourning is the way that we process and “let it out”.
Why does this distinction matter? The words themselves are not as important as recognizing these two aspects of human nature in the wake of a loss: both internal and external processes must be acknowledged and experienced in order to move forward. Most people will experience grief following loss, but many will struggle with mourning. Mourners need to feel safe and supported in their outward expressions of grief; family, social, and cultural expectations have a significant impact on this sense of safety.
Does this mean we need to push someone into mourning if we sense that they are hurting?
It’s not uncommon for me to work with clients who express concern for someone in their family who doesn’t seem to be expressing their feelings. “I keep telling my dad he should come in for counseling, but he just doesn’t want to.” “I’m worried about my son. I ask him how he’s feeling, but he pushes me away.” “I wish my husband would open up to me; I know he’s hurting.” Sometimes I sense that my clients are looking to me for backup on actions that they’re already taking at home (“See? Even my counselor says you should talk more!”). What these well-meaning concerns fail to recognize is that the process of grief and mourning is individual to the mourner – your working through doesn’t necessarily look the same as someone else’s.
You may have noticed that all of the quotes above are directed at men, and that’s pretty consistent with the way these concerns show up in my office. Even so, this isn’t so much a gender divide as it is a difference of grief and mourning patterns. In their study of gender differences as they relate to grief and mourning, psychologists Martin & Doka identified three patterns of grief: intuitive, instrumental, and dissonant. While their research began by comparing men’s and women’s responses to loss, what they found is that these different styles reach across a broader continuum.
In brief, the intuitive pattern is one in which grief is experienced primarily as feelings, and expressions of mourning are emotion-based: crying, shouting, etc. People with an intuitive pattern of grief are best supported with activities that help to vent these emotions. On the other hand, the instrumental pattern is one in which grief shows up in more active and thought-based ways. People with an instrumental pattern of grief are best supported by activities that connect with thoughts and actions: reading self-help books, working with one’s hands, or exercising, for example. Finally, the dissonant pattern shows up when mourners identify with one style, but are pushed (by family expectations or social constraints) to express in the opposite style.
These patterns lie on a continuum: an individual mourner may identify fully with the intuitive pattern or the instrumental pattern – or they may lie somewhere in between. This continuum may align with gender roles, as well – or it may not. In Western culture, women tend toward the intuitive end of the spectrum, whereas men tend toward the instrumental end – but again, this varies according to the individual.
In terms of supporting people who are experiencing grief, then, one of the most important things we can do is to allow for their individual responses to the loss. The healing that comes from mourning shows up in many forms: talking, crying, shouting, dancing, reading, writing, running, building, singing, laughing, painting, drumming, hugging, … the list goes on and on. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to the work of mourning, and in our fix-it American culture, that can be frustrating. Allowing space for – and even inviting – talking and crying over one’s loss is great. We must remember, though, to also allow space to decline that invitation, and adapt to the individual mourner’s needs.