Monday, November 23, 2009

Grieving vs. Mourning

By Rose Carlson

A few weeks ago, several of us from Share attended a workshop given by Dr. Alan Wolfelt, who is an internationally known speaker and author on grief issues. Dr. Wolfelt has written many different books for those who are grieving, from children to widows and widowers, to families of suicide victims to bereaved parents. He has also written books for those who care for people who are grieving, and he owns and operates a beautiful retreat center in Colorado.
Each year, one of our local funeral homes brings Dr. Wolfelt to our city. On the first day, he presents a workshop for people who are grieving the death of a loved one, and the next day, he presents a workshop for those who care for and work with those who are grieving. This is the workshop that I attended last week with my co workers. It was titled “Exploring the Spiritual Aspects of Death, Grief and Mourning.” While it was a very inspiring workshop, that is not what this blog post is about. I may be compelled to write on this topic sometime soon as I did have many thoughts about this topic swirling around in my head at the end of the day. Actually, I could probably write several different posts on this topic. But, what I’m going to write about now is something that has been on my mind since I attended the workshop last week. Dr. Wolfelt only touched on this briefly a few times as it wasn’t the focus of his presentation.

Grieving vs. mourning.

Honestly, this is not something I have given any thought to before. They would seem to be the same thing, yet according to Dr. Wolfelt, they aren’t, even though most people use the terms interchangeably. He says that grief is made up of the internal thoughts and feelings we all experience when someone we love dies. On the other hand, mourning is taking the internal experience of grief and expressing it…that real healing occurs not just by grieving, but through mourning. He says that most people in North American culture grieve, but they don’t necessarily mourn. He talked about how many years ago, those who were grieving wore black for a certain period of time so that everyone they encountered knew they were mourning the death of someone important in their life, and that this was a crucial part of their healing because even complete strangers knew they were grieving and would ask about their loved one. We don’t do that now. In fact, most people don’t even like to talk about grief and mourning, and quickly try to change the subject when it is mentioned. As most all of us have discovered, most of our society is uncomfortable with outward expressions of grief, quickly change the subject when the grieving person brings it up, and often will go so far as to tell the griever to “get over it and get on with life.”

This is apparent for pretty much all grieving people, but I couldn’t help but think as I listened to him talk that this is probably most apparent among parents who have experienced the death of a baby, even though he didn’t specifically mention that. Dr. Wolfelt believes that people don’t mourn because of the many conditions that are placed on them by society and the things grieving people are told. In the case of parents grieving the death of a baby, this would be things such as “be thankful, there was probably something wrong with the baby.” Or, “You’re young, you can have more children.” Or, “At least you lost the baby early before you got to know it.” Or, “It wasn’t meant to be.” These types of statements can make grieving parents feel as if they must keep their feelings to themselves, and so they don’t mourn the way they need and want to. The way they should be able to, surrounded by loving family and friends who give them the care and support they so desperately need as they try to navigate their way through a life they hadn’t planned.

Not only are bereaved parents who have had a baby die strongly encouraged to “move on,” have another baby and forget about the one who died, but those who outwardly express their grief in healthy ways of mourning are often looked at as unstable or crazy, and I find that very sad. Parents who outwardly express their grief are often told to “get over it,” “why do you keep bringing it up?” or “be thankful for what you have!” I believe that the people who say these things aren’t trying to purposely be mean or insensitive, yet they often come across that way. And comments such as these leads to parents suffering in silence and not mourning the way they need to.

As we all know, you don’t ever “get over” the death of a baby, no matter when the death occurred. In fact, I don’t think you ever “get over” the death of anyone you love and who is important to you. However, through real mourning, according to Dr. Wolfelt, you do eventually integrate your loss into the fabric of your life. In fact, according to him, mourning properly is essential to integrating your loss. He says that when a mourner is unable to express his or her feelings, they may become “stuck,” that the feelings of intense grief and pain may last longer.

In all of my years at Share, I never thought of it quite that way, but really, that is the heart of our mission…helping parents integrate their tragic loss into the fabric of their lives so they can move forward from those intense, raw early days and eventually be able to once again lead joyful, productive lives. We let them know that expressing their grief is not only healthy, but it is necessary. We help them understand that grief is not something with a time limit on it, but a lifelong process. And just as importantly, we help their family and friends understand that doing things that are meaningful to them, and that being able to talk about their baby as much as they need to is indeed healthy, and in fact, necessary.

All of us at Share hear time and again from parents that they don’t know what they would have done, don’t know where they would be, if not for Share helping them validate their baby’s life. Yes, we do validate their baby’s lives, and that is so important. But after listening to Dr. Wolfelt, I think what makes all the difference is that we help families mourn. And we help them see that mourning their baby IS a lifelong process. We encourage them to share their grief publicly…to wear a special pin or piece of jewelry, to share their baby’s photographs, to talk about their baby. These are the things that will eventually lead to some healing and peace.

Does what Dr. Wolfelt says make sense to you, that grieving is different from mourning?
Do you see any situations in your own life where you feel your healing is hindered because you aren’t allowed to mourn?
What things have you done to mourn so that others know about the grief you were/are experiencing?


Rachelle said...

This post is fantastic! Thank you so much for sharing this. I agree that there is a difference and you have hit on something so important that so many of us have lost the ability to mourn with those that mourn. After my first miscarriage, I didn't know who to talk to. It was hard to find someone to talk to, to trust that they wouldn't immediately diminish my loss. Only when I could embrace what had happened did the healing begin and unfortunately it was much later than it should have been.

Natalie said...

Really wonderful post, thank you. It really is so necessary to mourn in order to really process it. So many people I've seen around me have not gotten the support they needed - being forced back into work a week after the loss of a baby, family members dismissing them, and so on. I was very lucky in many ways and feel that I am better off for it. I wish our society could realize how very important mourning is, and give grief and death the respect it demands.

Jill said...

What a great post! Thank you for sharing this information you learned. I never thought of there being a difference between grieving and mourning. It is good to know the difference. I am so thankful to those of you who attend the meetings and workshops to help other bereaved parents.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post. I am now grieving my second miscarriage in less than six months and am feeling like I just need to push on because my losses were in the first trimester. One weekend off of work is just not enough - I can't get out of bed and I feel like I am crazy for feeling this way. The only thing I'm doing to mourn is to write my own blog but not many of my day-to-day firends/family are aware or care to read it. No one in my immedieate circle know how I am feeling or mourning. Or care to . . . thanks for sharing.

Salma said...

Great post...I am asking myself this question all the time. The validating is so important but I don't know if people who do not have the experience really know what to do.

It's been a really lonely place, yet blogging has even become depressing because I feel I say the same things over and over, and in essence nobody wants to hear about it. I don't know, just my thoughts.

I think I'm being hindered at home more than anywhere else because simple chats about our baby (me and hubby) becomes a dramatic and ridiculous take on who is grieving more, or who is stronger.

Thanks for this.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Thank you everyone for your kind words about my post. I am sorry, I haven't been back to check for any comments since I posted this a few days ago.

Crystal, I'm so sorry for all of your losses. It is so incredibly hard to keep having miscarriages and have no answers. I'm glad you have found Share...have you joined the message boards? If you haven't, you might want to as that is a great way to get support from others who have been where you are. There are several members who post there who have had recurrent, unexplained miscarriages.

Alison, I'm sorry about your miscarriages, too. You definately are NOT crazy...And I'm sorry that none of your friends or family really cares how you are feeling. Keep on writing, even if no one seems to care or be reading it. Do it for can be so healing, and months down the road, it will be nice for you to look back and reflect on where you are right now and see how far you have come.

Salma, again, write for YOU, not anyone else. If you feel like writing the same things over and over, that is okay. You aren't doing it for anyone else, you are writing to get your thoughts out, and if you enjoy writing, that can be very therapeutic and healing. I know it's hard to do, but try not to worry about who is reading what you write or what they will think.

Thanks again, all of you. I feel bad for any of you who have felt as if you had to put your feelings aside because you had no one to share them with. As Rachelle said, you do have to embrace what has happened before real healing can begin. It's not an easy process, but if you have even one person in your life who is willing to listen and be there for you, it can make such a difference.

cathy said...

Hi,My name is cathy and I am 39 years old. I have been with my husband for 9 years and we have no children and 3 miscarriages. I feel hopeless and sad all the time. At times I feel like being good to myself all these years did not pay off at all. Growing up I was not a partier, drinker,smoker or did any drug and yet I look around everyone is pregnant, yes the smoker, drug users and drinkers. I guess I was put on earth to just enjoy others budle of joy. As the days goes by my eggs get older and chance of pregnacy decrease and miscarriages increase. I keep telling myself it will get better but when?

Anonymous said...

Hi Cathy,

Please be strong and don't give up.


Anonymous said...

I am 31 been married for 3 years , had 4 miscarriages and one stillbirth 5 months ago today. I have all but given up, I don't see how this could get better even if I was to have a child ... I still lost so many. I too have a clotting disorder and the meds worked only until they didn't. I am still very sad and honestly still don't see the difference between grieving and mourning, all I can tell you is it doesn't feel better yet. Yes I can get through most days without crying but its not better.

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