The words Grief and Mourning are often used interchangeably. Additionally, the term Public Grief can be confusing. So here’s a guide to the differences between Grief, Mourning, and Public Grief.
Simply put, grief is what we feel inside of us. It’s the instinctive, natural response to losing someone we love. It’s all our thoughts, our physical reactions, our pain, our emotions.
It’s an internal experience which will remain personal and unique to us. We talk about being bereaved when we grieve.
The word ‘bereaved’ comes from Old English berēafian which means to rob, deprive of, or take away by violence.
Mourning is when you express the grief externally. There are two ways to mourn – ‘to be in mourning‘ and ‘to be mourning.’
If I say ‘I am in mourning‘, what I mean is that I’m dressed or behaving in a way that is recognized by my community as a way to express the loss of, or respect for, someone who has died.
Depending on where you live and which religion or community you belong to, these rules can be extremely complex and strict.
In Western culture, we have put aside most of these conventions, and the only one we now follow is the wearing of dark clothes to the funeral.
But even this is being rejected in favour of more relaxed or colourful options. It’s hard to believe that in the last century we used to have codified rules on how to mourn ‘correctly’.
There were manuals on mourning etiquette which told you which clothes you could wear and for how long, and what you could and could not do during the period of mourning.
Today, when we say we are mourning, as opposed to ‘in mourning’, what we mean is that we are expressing our grief outwardly in various ways.
This can include talking about our loved one, keeping a journal, praying, posting on social media, or celebrating anniversaries.
Unhindered public expressions of grief allow us to integrate the loss into our lives. It helps us come to terms with our loss.
This is because mourning not only allows others to offer the acknowledgment and support that we so need, it also affords us the space to express our sorrow.
Unfortunately, our society today is ‘mourning avoidant‘. This means that there are few opportunities to mourn openly in the community.
We often end up having to navigate grief by ourselves or in small support groups. It’s no surprise that we are left struggling –we feel that it’s not acceptable to express our grief.
We suffer from mental and physical health issues that are exacerbated by society’s discomfort regarding our pain.
It’s because of this that mourning rituals, such as those provided by the Roman Catholic wake or Jewish custom of sitting shiva, can be very helpful in alleviating the disconnection following the loss of a loved one.
PUBLIC GRIEF vs GRIEVING IN PUBLIC
Otherwise referred to as ‘collective grief‘, the term public grief is used when people die in numbers or a famous person dies and the general public mourns their passing.
Examples of public grief because of numbers would include the events that followed 9/11, the 2015 Paris terror attacks, and the devastating 2004 Madrid bombing.
When it’s a celebrity death, such as that of Princess Diana, you will see an outpouring of grief by people who didn’t know the individual personally but who nonetheless feel connected to them in some way.
Public grief can overlap with mourning because emotions and respect for the deceased are expressed outwardly even though people won’t personally know the person or people who’ve died.
Public grief brings people together. When there’s an outpouring of emotion – such as those expressed in candlelight vigils, the placing of flowers and condolence messages, publicly held memorial services, and communal grieving on the internet – people feel connected to the event and to each other.
Collective grief can sometimes also help individuals who are directly affected by the loss. That’s because they get to experience their community’s love and support.
Similarly, it can also help the community to heal following the deaths of some of its members, for example as can happen after a mass shooting, by uniting those who live within it.
So isn’t grieving in public the same as public grief?
Although at first sight, they would seem to be the same, they are not. The difference is that the first stems from the loss of a loved one, whereas the second is the public’s response to the death of many people or a famous person.
For example, if you burst into tears at the supermarket in a moment of deep grief, your emotions will be expressed freely and witnessed by passersby.
This is what’s called grieving in public and can be stressful depending on the situation.
When families read impact statements at court in murder trials or take part in televised ceremonies of remembrance, not all of them will feel comfortable doing so even though they do it nonetheless.
They may feel extremely vulnerable having strangers witness their distress.
It’s only when the bereaved are in a very supportive environment, feel safe, and their welfare is a priority, that grieving in public can be experienced as positive.
Katja Faber is the mother of three amazing children. Following her 23-year-old son’s murder, she used her legal training to work closely with private lawyers and the State Prosecutor in her fight for justice for her dead son. She hopes to inspire others in seeking justice for their loved ones and through her writing break the taboo of homicide loss and child loss grief. She runs her own farm, a magical place where she hosts private retreats for those in need of support and healing. Katja recently completed the Certification for Compassionate Bereavement Care® through the Center for Loss and Trauma in partnership with the MISS Foundation and the Elisabeth Kubler-Ross Family Trust.
To read her blog and further articles by Katja do please follow the link to her dedicated webpage in honor of her son KatjaFaber.com. You can also connect with Katja on her FB writer’s page.
Her farming IG account where she reflects on daily life in the country and the healing process of grief is on Instagram.