Definitions of Terms
Grief is defined as the primarily emotional/affective process of reacting to the loss of a loved one through death. The focus is on the internal, intrapsychic process of the individual. Normal or common grief reactions may include components such as the following:
- Numbness and disbelief.
- Anxiety from the distress of separation.
- A process of mourning often accompanied by symptoms of depression.
- Eventual recovery.
Grief reactions can also be viewed as abnormal, traumatic, pathologic, or complicated. Although no consensus has been reached, diagnostic criteria for complicated grief have been proposed. (Refer to the Prolonged or Complicated Grief as a Mental Disorder section of this summary for more information.)
Bereavement is defined as the objective situation one faces after having lost an important person via death. Bereavement is conceptualized as the broadest of the three terms and a statement of the objective reality of a situation of loss via death.
Mourning is defined as the public display of grief. While grief focuses more on the internal or intrapsychic experience of loss, mourning emphasizes the external or public expressions of grief. Consequently, mourning is influenced by one’s beliefs, religious practices, and cultural context.
There is obvious overlap between grief and mourning, with each influencing the other; it is often difficult to distinguish between the two. One’s public expression (i.e., mourning) of the emotional distress over the loss of a loved one (i.e., grief) is influenced by culturally determined beliefs, mores, and values.
- Stroebe MS, Hansson RO, Schut H, et al., eds.: Handbook of Bereavement Research and Practice: Advances in Theory and Intervention. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2008.
- Jacobs S: Pathologic Grief: Maladaptation to Loss. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Press, Inc., 1993.
- Prigerson HG, Jacobs SC: Perspectives on care at the close of life. Caring for bereaved patients: "all the doctors just suddenly go". JAMA 286 (11): 1369-76, 2001. [PUBMED Abstract]