How long does grief last?

August 18, 2021
Almost everyone experiencing new or acute grief asks this question.  The pain seems unbearable.  Surely no one can survive this for a long period of time.  How long will this last? The answer to this question is a bad news/good news response.

Our impatience about how long grief lasts is fueled not only by the pain of grief, but also by the mistaken ideas in our society about grief timelines.  We are a death-avoiding society, so we avoid honest discussions about death and grief, leaving us unprepared for the reality of facing a loss. We also do everything we can in our society to avoid pain, so there is a tendency for others to rush you in your grief and set unrealistic expectations around when you should be “over it.”

The bad news is that there is no clear timeframe, and you are never “over it.”  Everyone’s grief is unique because all relationships are unique.  Grief takes as long as it takes, and that is usually longer than you want it to be.  The length of your grief will definitely be longer than your friends and family would like it to be, because seeing you in pain is hard for them.  You are never “over it,” because the loss of someone important in your life changes you forever

The good news is that grief is a continuation of your loved for the deceased.  It makes sense that the more you loved this person and the longer your relationship, the longer your grief will last.  It does NOT make sense that if you loved someone deeply, your grief would end quickly.  In fact, that doesn’t even feel desirable.  Viewing your grief as a reflection of your love and the all the times you shared together can help lessen the pain and allow you to focus more on what you shared together than simply focusing on what you have lost.

The good news is that over time (again, probably a longer time that you would like), the intensity of your grief will lessen. The pain won’t be as sharp and overwhelming.  In the early days of grief, the pain is intense and grief is present during all waking hours.  You may even wake up in the night feeling the sadness of your loss.  The pain of your grief interferes with your thinking processes, making reading and remembering very difficult.  You may find you have trouble remembering what day it is, how to do the simplest tasks that used to be routine, and difficulty remembering basic self-care tasks such as eating, drinking fluids, etc.  This is all normal and will not last forever.

Very slowly, over time, you will find that grief fills your thoughts less frequently.  At first you may be aware of brief moments when you are able to think of other things.  You may even be able to feel moments of pleasure.  Slowly, these breaks from grief occur more often and last longer.  This is the natural progression of grief.  You may find that you feel guilty when you realize you have actually enjoyed something, but this is a normal part of moving along your grief journey.

There are some things that can help you move forward in your grief.  The first is to allow yourself to feel the pain of your loss.  Lean into the sadness and tears and allow time to grieve.  Running from grief by staying busy doesn’t make it go away; instead, you will find that you have simply delayed the grief process, and it will pop up again and again until you allow yourself to release the pent-up emotions and fully experience the pain of this loss.

Although spending time alone to grieve is essential, limiting how much time you spend alone is also important. Too much isolation can hamper your grief process by allowing you to remain stuck in the sadness.  Forcing yourself to get out and spend time with others is also important.  Spend time with people who will allow you to be more subdued and don’t expect you to put on a happy face.  Give yourself permission to enjoy life without feeling guilty, and also give yourself permission to limit your times with others as needed.  Pretending to be okay takes too much emotional energy, so allow yourself to be genuine with others.

Another bad news part of the story is that grief is not a linear process.  At times you feel much better, only to be thrown back into your grief again.  Times of grief can be triggered by reminders, special dates on the calendar, holidays, family times, and a host of other things that serve as reminders of your loss.  You will also find that grief sometimes returns for no particular reason and without a certain trigger.  At these times you may be tempted to feel that you have made no progress.  But in reality, you will find that these times of re-grieving are just a little shorter each time, and your ability to recover is a little easier each time.  This back and forth process is normal.

The bad news/good news reality is that your grief will be with you in some ways for the rest of your life, but the good news is pain of that grief will not be as debilitating as the early days.  You will experience the slow return of energy that has been robbed by grief and will be able to enjoy life again.  Eventually, your tears of pain will be replaced by smiles as you are able to remember the many good times you shared with your loved one and the ways in which that person made your life better.  You will carry these cherished memories with you which keeps your loved one in your heart forever.

Remember the famous quote from Mitch Album in Tuesdays with Morrie:  “Death ends a life, not a relationship.”
Author:  Dr. Karen S. Scott
Dr. Karen Scott is a licensed counselor who has worked in the field of grief for more than 30 years, providing individual and group counseling, crisis response, and grief education.  She co-founded Lost & Found Grief Center, served as the Executive Director, and is currently on the Board of Directors.  Dr. Scott taught college courses on Death & Dying for many years, and is currently grief a consultant, trainer, and author.