In a bereavement workshop, Dr. Alan Wolfelt explained the distinctions between grief and mourning. Wolfelt’s a renowned expert, the founder of Colorado’s Center for Loss & Life Transition. His understanding likely won’t be found in a hardbound dictionary or online at Wikipedia. And though I could consult my scratchy notes, I’ll share my simplistic recollection of what he said.
Grief is internal. Mourning is external.
How obvious! Doesn’t everyone know that’s the difference between those two experiences? But I’ll confess: if you’d asked me before the workshop, I might’ve muttered, “Grief and mourning mean sorta the same thing.”
When humans experience loss, emotions roil us. Physically, we are floored. Our spirits sag. Energy wanes. Waking up is a chore; going to bed is dreaded. Have you been fired or downsized from a job? How’d you feel? Did you get dumped in high school or college by the person you were convinced was your lifelong “soul mate?” How’d you feel? In the course of our lives, grief will be our inner companion. You’ll never predict (or desire) grief’s arrival, but we can’t prevent it from visiting. No one escapes grief’s anguish. But when a loved one dies, even though we’ve known grief—lost jobs, a Dear John email, a house foreclosed—the interior pain of grief becomes unimaginable. Which is normal, though labeling the worst feeling you’ve ever had as “normal” doesn’t matter. You. Just. Hurt.
During grief, mourning helps. If you’re part of a faith community, the public rituals of a funeral can provide friends and family a way to care for you. Joining a support group might help you express your pain. Talking about your loss with the group’s strangers may transform them into companions. I intentionally wrote can, might and may. There are no guarantees outward mourning will salve the inner pain. Some never cry while others can’t stop weeping. Some are shy, others gregarious. Regardless of our differences, I’m convinced the death of a loved one must be grieved and mourned, must be an inward and an outward journey.
As helpful as mourning may be, today’s culture has shed many of its public symbols. I wonder if we should return to wearing black for a month or a year or . . .? In the 1985 film Witness, the Amish characters dress in black on a daily basis, but the dark, somber clothing becomes more pronounced after a loved one’s death. Does this overt display help the one grieving and those supporting the griever? Is it easier to talk with someone about his or her loved one, or to ask how he or she is feeling when the apparel honors their attitude? What do you think?
Death changes the living and we grieve.
The living mourn the loss and together we can help bring renewed life.
(Like all medical fields, hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with what I share. Names will be changed and some events combined and/or summarized.)
Image from here.by