How Long Does Grief Last?
Author: Lianna Champ
When we lose someone we love, our world is shattered. An invisible mortar has dropped and exploded right in the middle of your life.
Everything as you know it has changed and you will change too — through every loss you experience. Everything changes in an instant and you may wonder, how long does grief last?
Can We Put A Timeline on Grief?
Each relationship we have during our lives is as unique as our fingerprint. Each loss we experience will be different and how long we grieve will be different too. Due to the uniqueness of our relationships, we can’t compare our emotional experiences.
We can talk about our losses and share how we feel, but we can’t judge another person’s loss experiences nor can we compare how long our grief will last. There isn’t a stopwatch timing our progress through our grief journey.
We have to accept that what we are feeling is a normal and natural reaction and we must allow ourselves to experience the grief through whatever expression feels right for us, and not to question how long grief will last. There’s no one size fits all way to grieve and certainly no timeline.
Getting ‘Stuck in Grief’
When we lose someone we love we can become pre-occupied with missed opportunities and may want to turn back time to so that we could have said or done something differently, maybe even said the things we feel we should have said or done.
This can leave us stuck in a loop as we keep playing this over and over in our minds. This can hold us in a place of pain indefinitely and keep us stuck in grief.
How to Say Goodbye to Someone When You’re Stuck in Grief
Close your eyes and bring your favourite image to mind of the person who has died. Do this with someone in the room with you who will just listen if you need to say anything, who will just listen without comment.
Think about what you need to say to the person who has died. Imagine how you would feel if they really heard you. With their image in your mind and your eyes closed, say out loud the words you want to say and release the words you need to say.
When you have said all that you need to, with this image still clear in your mind, say the word goodbye. Even though you have someone there with you, what you’re doing is saying those words to the person who has died. You may collapse and cry when you have finished. That’s okay. It takes a lot of energy and trust to do this. This can stop that loop of regret that can make our grief last longer than it needs to.
If we try to compare our losses or try to fit ourselves into ‘stages’ of grief, we go into conflict with our instincts and can end up denying ourselves permission grieve instinctively, naturally and authentically — in the way that is right for us. Staging grief can make it last longer.
There’s no right way to grieve, and there are certainly no stages to grieving. Even though we may share similar emotions to others, these emotions do not follow a particular pattern.
What Are The Stages of Grief?
In her book ‘On Death and Dying,’ Elizabeth Kuhbler Ross identifies five stages of grief following the diagnosis of a terminal illness. These stages have mistakenly been used as a guideline for stages following a death.
Trying to follow a particular framework for grieving puts us in conflict with our inner selves. We must give our grief our attention and let the emotions lead us rather than us trying to control the whole process.
No-one knows how long grief lasts, but you will know when you get to that stage where you begin to live again and have those moments of happiness which are not overshadowed by regret or guilt.
Physical and Emotional Responses to Grief
When we suffer a loss, we’re ripped out of the present moment and can lose our concentration. Grief comes at us from all sides. The simplest of tasks can become difficult. It wreaks have on our eating and sleeping patterns.
We may feel anxious and can quickly lose our self-confidence. Grief can manifest itself physically too, and we may experience nausea, headaches and jumpiness. We may think that our grief will last forever.
We’re navigating unfamiliar territory, and we’re so used to intellectually thinking about ordinary day to day experiences and deciding how we are going to react. When we suffer emotional loss, we can’t think ourselves over it; we have to let it wash over us and give it our attention.
Grief isn’t an intellectual event; it’s an emotional one. There’s no set time for grief to last. We must respect and accept the depth of our pain. We are not robots. We are emotional beings with such a huge capacity for love; therefore we have a huge capacity for pain.
There are no medals for grieving in the shortest time, and it’s not a competition. We’re all different; our relationships are all different. There’s no right length of time for grief to last.
However, if we find ourselves still struggling years after the loss, we may have unresolved grief issues which are holding us back and keeping us stuck making our grief last longer than is healthy.
Know Yourself, and Use That Knowledge to Manage Grief
There are also many factors involved in how we cope at the time and as we move forward — how we are as people, the things we learned as children, where we’re at in our lives, and of course, the nature of the relationship we had with the person who has died. All of these affect how well we assimilate our loss experiences.
Accepting that there’s no definitive time for grief to last and focusing on the relationship we had can take away barriers to moving forward. Writing down how we feel about the relationship can identify areas where we’re stuck in our grief.
This in itself can be a most healing exercise, identifying something can be a cure in itself.
Don’t Beat Yourself Up
Above all, don’t berate yourself if you feel your grief is lasting too long. It means that you need to have an in-depth and candid look at what might be making your grief last too long and discover what is holding you in a place of pain.
We must be honest with ourselves when carrying out this exercise. By breaking down the relationship, we can identify the things that we wish we could have changed, but we also need to learn the difference between guilt and regret.
Guilt holds you in a place of pain. Guilt follows deliberate wrongdoing — an action or words that we know was not the right thing to do or say at that particular time. Regret is a wish that something could have been said or done in a better way that it had been, had we known what was going to happen.
We would see the action or words in a different light — if we’d known the outcome, we would have acted differently. Instead, we acted in innocence. By letting the misplaced guilt go, we’re teaching ourselves how to grieve healthily.
Don’t Ignore Grief
We can’t expect to get through life without losing someone we love, something we need or something we thought was meant to be. Death isn’t the only cause of grief — we can also lose our jobs, our health, a much-loved pet or a relationship we value.
The process is still the same. We’re still experiencing loss, and we’re grieving because that person, that job or that thing mattered.
We can’t time grief, but we can process our losses as and when we experience them. This can help us to move forward and be open to life’s experiences.
Don’t tell yourself it takes two years to get over grief because that’s what you may have been mistakenly told. Your grief lasts until you have taken the necessary steps to complete all your emotional communications around the loss.
How To Help Someone Grieve
If you find yourself comforting a friend, family member or colleague who has suffered a significant loss, remember, don’t jump in straight away with your own experiences. Our grief experiences are like our fingerprints – unique to every one of us. Comparing our losses can minimise the importance of the other person’s feelings.
Very often we do not listen to understand; we listen to reply. Listen with an open heart and open ears.
We’re so used to people interrupting when we’re talking that we often miss the wonderful release of getting the words out, like letting steam out of a kettle.
To Open Your Heart, You Must First Open Your Ears
Listening is one of the most important things you can do to help someone grieve. We’re so used to people planning what they are going to say to us instead of listening to what we’re saying to them. What a waste of time these sorts of conversations are.
If we feel heard and there’s no return comment of comparison or judgment, we know we’ve completed an important communication.
The best thing you can do to help someone grieve is to become a great listener – it will change your life and make you very popular.
How To Ask For Help
Sometimes we find it difficult to ask for help even at the best of times and find it even harder when we’re feeling emotionally battered. The longer we grieve, the more difficult we may find it to ask for help.
We may not want to burden others or may worry what they will think of us, or maybe we fear that we’re asking too much. But asking for help does not mean that you’re losing control, and neither is it a sign of weakness.
Most of the time people love helping others, as long as they don’t already have more responsibility than they can cope with. Think of a time someone asked you for help and how it made you feel when you were able to make a real difference to their life.
So maybe we aren’t used to reaching out and asking for support, or we don’t know what support to ask for because we’ve never needed it before. Reaching out to others and sharing our emotions can positively affect how long we grieve for.
Pick The Right Person
Whether you need emotional support or practical help, decide who you would feel most comfortable asking. Be honest with them about how you’re feeling and what you need.
People who care about you will always want to help you, but sometimes you need to start the conversation.
Through grief, we learn the importance of giving expression to our pain. If we don’t, we run the risk of filling ourselves up with unresolved grief and end up living half a life. We then need to use what we’ve learned about our grief positively.
Being honest, not only with ourselves but with everyone we share our lives with will enrich how we interact with others and give greater depth and meaning to our relationships.
If you want to learn how to grieve, visit Waterstone’s to buy my book: How to Grieve Like a Champ