You may have heard that people go through a period of mourning after a death. We’re going to look at what that means, at the different types of mourning period and at whether there’s a particular way to mourn a death.


What does ‘mourn’ mean?

The words ‘mourning’ and ‘grief’ mean very similar things. If, for example, you came here looking for information on the stages of mourning after death, you may be interested in what we’ve written on the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

To draw a distinction between mourning and grief, you could say that grief is a feeling, but mourning is the way you express that feeling. We tend to talk about mourning customs, rather than grieving customs, because grieving is a more private thing. You grieve internally, but you might mourn externally by following particular mourning customs, such as dressing in black, or by performing a mourning ritual such as a funeral.


What is a mourning period?

A mourning period is essentially the time you take after a death to reflect on it, come to terms with it and readjust to life. It may be formal or informal.

A formal mourning period may be dictated by your religion or society. For example, in Judaism, shiva is a period of mourning observed by the immediate family for seven days after a burial. Formal mourning periods often have particular mourning customs associated with them, such as staying at home, concealing mirrors or dressing in black.

Even if your society doesn’t expect you to mourn in a particular way, you may find yourself going through a personal, informal mourning period after a death.

Informal mourning periods can be tricky because, without the guidance of a formal mourning period that’s expected to last for a particular length of time, we can struggle to know when it’s acceptable to be seen to be ‘moving on’. For example, a bereaved person may be uncertain about whether there’s a ‘proper’ mourning period after a death of a spouse, before it’s acceptable to think about potentially finding a new partner. In her article ‘How Soon Is Too Soon to Date Following the Death of a Spouse?’, Jessica Marcellus explains that this period will be different for different people:


Others facing similar circumstances may need more time – or less – before wanting to move forward. To that end, the ‘right’ amount of time, I think, to wait before seeking out new love is however long it takes to begin feeling ready to stop surviving and start living again.


How to mourn a death

Different religions or societies may have different expectations of mourners. However, mourning is a personal thing and there’s no single right answer to the question of how to mourn a death.

If you’re mourning someone’s death, you may want to observe the mourning customs that have a particular meaning to you, whether they’re traditional or not. If you want to dress in black to show your respect, you can choose to do that. If you’re grieving someone who loved to dress in bright colours, though, and you want to dress in bright colours in their honour, that’s just as valid a choice. Grieving is a very difficult time, and it’s often best to focus on doing what feels right and helps you to cope with the grief, rather than getting caught up in questions of whether you’re mourning ‘correctly’.

However you mourn, try to look after yourself. It’s common to have no appetite or to feel lethargic when you’re in mourning, but it will be easier to heal and rebuild if you try to eat well, get enough sleep, wash and exercise.

Print this guide