Grief is a complicated and multi-faceted response to losses, and one of the most traumatic losses is the death of a loved one or bereavement.
When someone you loved dies, your whole world stops, time stands still, and you often find yourself trapped in the “grief loop.” In other words, your grief runs continuously, and you are consumed by a wide range of emotions, such as sadness, anger, despair, fear, anxiety, and worries.
But as time goes by, and as you embrace and engage the grieving process, the “grief loop” begins to break into intertwined moments and memories of denial and acceptance, sorrow and joy, despair and hope, fear and courage, vulnerability and resilience.
So, how long does grief last?
Studies suggest that most bereaved persons adapt to the loss with reduced grief intensity after six to twelve months. But the truth is there is no set timeframe for grief because people grieve differently. Furthermore, several factors have been suggested to impact the duration and severity of grief. For example, the relationship with the deceased, cause of death, types of losses, coping styles, and cultural differences.
Is there a timeline for grief?
Many people equate grief to suffering, heartache, and painful emotions and memories. Therefore, it is expected that we do not want grief (pain) to linger, and we try everything to make the grief go away as soon as possible. But the reality is we grieve because we are human, and we love and care for others. In other words, grief is an expression of our love and devotion to the people who mattered to us.
For most people, grief fluctuates throughout the timeline, and the grieving experience and expression show up differently.
It is important to note that we cannot map the grief neatly on a timeline, and in fact, the grief timeline is somewhat a misnomer. Nevertheless, grief’s intensity, frequency, and impact tend to oscillate and diminish (not disappear) over time. For example, the acceptance of death tends to settle in as shock and disbelief wear off; sadness and loneliness are less intense and frequent, and the hope to adjust and adapt to a new life becomes more of a reality.
While we may feel and think less of the grief over time, the love and longing we have for our loved ones remain strong and steadfast.
Let’s look at the grief timeline to examine how long grief will last. Once again, the grief duration varies from individual to individual. In addition, the timeline serves as a description of the experience rather than a prescription of an expected timeline.
The first few days
Grief is in the acute phase. Some people are in shock and denial when the loss happens. Grief is intense, overwhelming and can last for every minute. But for others, they may feel numb, surreal, and cannot experience the pain of grief yet.
The funeral is an essential grief ritual to celebrate, remember and reflect on the loved one’s life.
Some people find acceptance, support, comfort, hope and healing during the funeral as they process their grief and pain. The reality of the loss begins to sink in and settle, and they may experience a sense of relief as they say goodbye to their loved ones through burial, cremation or other forms of the funeral.
For others, the funeral may intensify the grieving experience. They may wail and scream as they hold tightly to the casket, burst in anger when the body is cremated; they may break down in exhaustion and despair when the funeral is over. Grief tends to peak at the funeral.
After the funeral
The funeral is one of the significant milestones that brings acceptance and closure.
It is expected that the bereaved may yearn for the loved one after the funeral, and the pining comes and goes like the waves. Some people will ruminate more frequently than others. For example, they may spend hours in the deceased’s room, hold on to a significant item, isolate themselves from other people, and talk to the deceased. Others may invite friends and family to grieve together, go for a walk, engage in memorial projects and begin to rebuild a life without the deceased.
The grief is still intense, it comes in waves and moments, and people tend to move between grieving, resting, working, living and grieving.
The grief is still there, perhaps not as intense and frequent as the initial loss. For some, you may look back at the weeks and months of heartache and longing and suddenly realise how far you have come in living with your grief and rebuilding the “new normal” without the deceased. But for others, the approaching and arriving of the first anniversary can trigger fresh pain and memory of the loss and amplify the emotional roller-coaster of grief.
A few years later
The grief is still around. Many people have found ways to live with their grief and establish a continuing bond or connection with their loved ones. They may have formal or informal rituals to celebrate and reminiscence the legacy or create moments to soak in grief – to allow themselves to feel the tears, wrestle with unanswered questions, and wish that their loved ones are still alive.
At the last hour
What will you be thinking at your last hour? The sorrow of leaving the living behind? Or the joy of joining your loved one? Honestly, I don’t know. My hunch is you may have befriended your grief and even appreciate it because it has kept your love for your loved one alive.
When will I feel better after a loss?
Your grief is as unique as your fingerprint. In other words, everyone grief differently and therefore, the duration, frequency and intensity of grief will vary from one person to another.
Many people report that they feel “better” after some time, and the timeline varies from moment to moment and weeks to years. The “better” can mean “My heart is still aching, but I feel the warmth of the sunrise”, or “I am in a mess, so I decided to catch up with a good mate to share my pain”, or “I feel hopeful and energised today, and I am going to work on the veggie patch that John and I had started.”
How long is too long to mourn?
There is no set timeline for how long a person should mourn. Your mourning is a constellation of your memories and affirmation of your love for your loved one.
Studies show that the intensity of grief can peak between six months to two years, but with individual and cultural differences. The result from the studies does not mean that mourning is over after two years. Many people have learned to live with their grief rather than get stuck in it.
But if you find yourself mourning to the extent that the pain and sorrow have debilitated your day-to-day life and wellbeing, you may be at risk of developing complicated grief or prolonged grief disorder.
Some symptoms include persistent disbelief about the death, excessive rumination about the deceased, incessant sorrow and maladaptive coping strategies. You may want to seek professional help if you experience these symptoms.
Does the grief ever go away?
Your grief is like the ebb and flow of the waves. Sometimes, you swim across the calm and still water of emotions for weeks or months without feeling the sorrow or longing. Another time you may crush by the tidal waves of pain and sadness and can barely keep your head above the water.
You can take comfort and confidence that as time goes by, you can learn to wade through the coming and going of grief and live a meaningful and fulfilling life that honours the legacy of your loved one.
Do I need professional help?
Because grief is a natural response to a loss, many people go through grief without needing professional counselling or therapy. Nevertheless, some people find it helpful to share and express their grief with a registered counsellor who is compassionate, respectful, non-judgmental and skilled in understanding the dynamics and complexities of grief and loss.
Sometimes, grief is so overwhelming and painful that it significantly disrupts your thoughts, feelings and behaviours. Moreover, grief has impaired your day-to-day functioning for a long time. If that is the case, you may benefit from grief and loss counselling.
One quick checklist you can use is to assess the severity, impact, and duration of grief. You can ask yourself:
(i) To what extent is my grief disrupting my thoughts, feelings and behaviours?
(ii) How is my grief impacting my relationships with others, health and wellbeing, work and day-to-day functioning?
(iii) How long have I felt sad, depressed, guilty, confused, angry, worried, anxious and fearful?
If your grief persistently and significantly impacts and impairs your wellbeing and day-to-day functioning, you may consider seeking professional help from a grief counsellor.