Don’t Say that Word!

In a workshop I attended several years ago, 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 the dusty dictionary on your bookshelf 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 any loss of significance, 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 sweetheart 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 tweet or text, 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.




During grief, mourning helps. If you’re part of a faith community, the public rituals of a funeral can provide friends and family a temporary way to care for you. Joining a support group might help you express and understand some of 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 easily seen and understood public symbols. I wonder if we should return to wearing black after the death for a month or a year or . . .?

In Peter Weir’s 1985 film Witness, the Amish characters dressed in black on a daily basis, but the dark, somber clothing becomes more pronounced after a loved one’s death. In real life rather than “reel” life, today’s Amish continue to wear plain clothing, but—as Weir’s film depicted—do wear the symbolically black clothes for a period of mourning. Does this overt expression 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 is a clear indicator of a recent death?

Mrs. Jackie Kennedy and Coretta Scott King at Martin Luther King Jr’s Funeral photo Moneta Sleet Jr/Ebony collection

It’s unlikely our modern, frenetic, youth-obsessed culture will revert to using traditional garb. Is that good, bad, or does it matter?

What do you think?

My overblown job title at the hospice where I work is Bereavement Support Specialist. It’s so long that you’ll probably be low on oxygen when you finish saying the words! And the title also contains a word similar to grief and mourning that might be off-putting: bereavement. Last fall, a couple of the agency’s administrators asked “clients” who’d used our grief support services to gather in a focus group.

What did we do well? What could we improve?

Several participants volunteered that they didn’t like the word, “bereavement.” Apparently, others in the group immediately nodded assent. The word felt heavy. Like an old cloak covering you. Like something you’d want to avoid.

I truly am of two minds about this. I don’t want anyone to feel uncomfortable with the words or titles used for death and grief. However, honestly talking about death and openly seeking to heal as we grieve will always be uncomfortable. While our words (or even clothing) can be debated, and can change in each new generation, I agree with writer Anne Lamott’s blunt, vulnerable reminder:

All those years I fell for the great palace lie that grief should be gotten over as quickly as possible and as privately. But, what I’ve discovered is that the lifelong fear of grief keeps us in a barren, isolated place, and that only grieving can heal grief. The passage of time will lessen the acuteness, but time alone, without the direct experience of grief, will not heal it.

No one wants to be bereaved. Or to grieve. Or to mourn.

But outwardly and inwardly, there are seasons in our lives where those are today’s best—though difficult—choices for tomorrow’s ongoing healing.

(Hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with how I share my experiences. Any names used are fictitious. Events are combined and/or summarized.)

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  1. I found in my experiences both personal and as part of my responsibilities as a Christian, that the ‘traditions’ have a real value in the process. When I was a young mom, one of the women who helped with funerals at my church gave me great advice that at first I ignored but eventually adopted and have tried to pass on to others. I had volunteered to help serve food at the reception following a funeral. I asked what I should wear? She smiled, shook her head and asked what I normally wore? I had been lucky not to have had to attend a funeral so I had no reference point. She told me to go and find something nice, washable and comfortable to wear. She said to think about it as my funeral uniform. She said it was important to wear something I felt comfortable wearing. She talked about the outfit she wore and that it was just for funerals. I found a nice dress and used it to help serve food for about 5 years at funerals. I attended a few funerals wearing it and while I wore it a few times for other occasions it came to be my funeral uniform.
    I replaced the outfit over the years and came to understand that wearing that outfit, helped me prepare mentally for the challenges that were coming and reminded me of the people I’d lost in my life and while each one was difficult, I had indeed made it through and through that symbol of death and remembrance I would be okay.

    • Great comments! In churches I’ve served, I can picture the various folks that usually helped at funerals. They offered themselves, making sure food was ready or greeting folks at the door. I suspect a few of them, like you, had comfortable clothes they always wore. They understood the importance of quietly serving others at a most difficult time.

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