While all of us have and will experience grief at some point in our lives, there are many common misconceptions about how long grief lasts. Specifically, there’s often a lot of pressure from others and from ourselves to get over grief quickly. Understanding where those ideas come from, and learning some other ways to think about grief, might alleviate some of the pressure. Many of our ideas about how long grief will (or should) last are shaped by work. There is a strong cultural push for people living in the United States and many other countries to maximize productive work time. Grief appears extremely unproductive. Grief makes it difficult to focus; it drains us of our energy; it often isolates us. If we have a job that allows us to take time off after a loss, we might be granted two weeks of bereavement leave in a very generous workplace. Implicitly, we are being told that we have two weeks to grieve and then we should stop grieving, or we should suppress our grief so that we can work. Many of us don’t get time off at all.
Outside of the workplace, our family and friends may expect to see us grieving for up to two months after the death. Compared to a couple of weeks, this feels generous. However, after a couple of months, many people begin to note a change in how their grief is being received by those around them. They might begin to hear or sense sentiments such as “move on” and “let go.” It can be deeply uncomfortable for others to see us incapacitated (unproductive) for longer than a couple of months. One reason for this discomfort might be that it brings up their own unprocessed fears about the deaths of their loved ones or about their own death. Another reason could be that they have never experienced grief before and therefore don’t understand it. People who have never experienced grief before might buy into the cultural assumption that grief is temporary and short-term, and at some point we just get over it. When we don’t, people might begin to wonder what is wrong with us, perhaps leading us to wonder the same. We might fear that we will never emerge from grief.
Impatience or concern from those around us can increase our sense of isolation and encourage us to suppress expressions of grief. If we learn that our grief is not welcome, we may turn increasingly inward. We may begin to believe that something is wrong with us if we continue to grieve beyond the socially defined time limit. We can also become exhausted. Managing the emotions of grief requires a lot of energy and attention. It becomes highly desirable to return to who we were before the loss, when we could focus our energy elsewhere. We want to feel “normal” again. Or, if we can’t feel normal again right now, we want to know when it will end. When can I expect to feel normal again? For this reason, stage models of grief became extremely popular. Models such as Kubler-Ross’ five stages of grief (Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance) give us a process to follow that will theoretically culminate in relief. It leads us to believe that if we just follow the steps, we will be done with grief for good! However, this is not the case for the majority of people who experience loss. In reality, how long grief lasts varies greatly from person to person.
For any one person, how long grief lasts will depend on a number of different factors. Some factors that contribute to longer periods of intense grief might include:
- A strong, dependent attachment to the person who died
- Traumatic death (death by violence or suicide)
- Untimely or sudden death
- The death of a child
- Ambiguous loss (such as a missing person who was never found, or many unanswered questions about the death)
- Pre-existing mental health issues such as depression
- Previous losses
- Frequency of daily reminders of the loss (for example, if you lived with the person)
Some of the factors above may fit your experience, but it does not guarantee that you will experience prolonged grief. A solid support system and effective coping skills can all make a difference in a person’s experience of grief.
Even with ample support and coping skills, many people find that grief is a lifelong experience. This may at first be difficult to hear. However, the intensity of grief fades over time. One way to think about this is to imagine a box with a button on one inside wall. When the button is pushed, the grieving person will experience feelings of loss, longing, sadness, anger or other feelings associated with grief. Now imagine that there is a ball that bounces around inside the box. When grief first begins, the ball is large. It presses up against the button frequently as it bounces around. As time goes on, the ball gets smaller and smaller, pressing the button less frequently (credit: Twitter user Lauren Herschel). For most people, the ball never really goes away. But it does get much smaller so that feelings of grief happen less and less often. Another way to think about the process of grief is by imagining waves on the ocean. When grief first begins, the waves are big, powerful, and they wash over us again and again. They swallow us and we can barely catch our breath before another wave hits us. Again, as time goes on, the waves are smaller and come further apart. Over time, although we notice the waves, they don’t pull us under. We are able to stay afloat. This metaphor highlights the experience of many people who find that waves of grief are both less powerful and less frequent as time passes.
These metaphors might be more helpful ways of thinking about grief. When we buy into the story that grief is temporary and that we will “get over it” someday, it can feed our frustration and hopelessness when it doesn’t go away. It can be especially bewildering when we are hit with a big wave of grief after a period of relative calmness. For example, many people experience heightened grief around anniversary events such as birthdays, holidays, death anniversaries, or other significant dates. This can feel like a set back instead of a natural part of the experience of grief. We can ease some of the anxiety that might arise by reframing our understanding of grief as a lifelong process instead of a phase.
While grief in one sense may last a lifetime and be a healthy response to a significant loss, there are some cases in which prolonged grief is not normal or healthy. So how do you tell the difference between “normal” grief and what grief experts call “complicated grief”? Complicated grief has a number of distinct characteristics:
- It is persistent, with intense feelings of grief continuing one year or more after loss.
- It is not integrated into the mourner’s life. In other words, the bereaved struggles to make meaning out of the loss and integrate it into the larger story of their life.
- It can be irrational. While feelings of guilt and shame are normal, these reactions tend to lift with time and support. When they remain incessant, it may be a sign of complicated grief.
- It can involve dysfunctional behaviors. Dysfunctional behaviors might include social isolation, an inability to work, avoiding normal routines, or engaging in addictive or compulsive behaviors..
Most of us will find that grief runs its course and our job is simply to let it. Most of us have a natural capacity to cope with grief, as overwhelming as it may seem. It’s tempting to want to rush it along, but if you trust your natural abilities to cope and let go of timelines, you may even find that you grow from the experience. However, if you identify with the symptoms of complicated grief, or simply don’t want to do it alone, seeking help from a qualified therapist, support group, or a healer from your own community may help.
If you want support as you move through grief, please feel free to call us at 215-922-LOVE. We would be happy to share more information about individual counseling or our grief support group.