Articles: Recently Bereaved

How Long? How Long?

One of the most frequent questions I am asked is “How long does grief last?”

My favourite answer is to say “Grief always takes LONGER than people who haven’t been through it seem to think.” But unfortunately there is no one neat orderly answer to the question. To quote the great baseball coach Yogi Berra, “It ain’t over till it’s over.” 

When you catch a flu bug or virus, or when you contract an illness, doctors can usually give a pretty accurate time frame of how long it will take for the situation to run its course. Some think of grief in a similar way, but that is not how it works.

People traditionally thought of the grief process in terms of a “time line” that begins with a death (or indeed a life threatening situation that might lead to death) and from there they measure in weeks, months or years the time it takes to “get back to normal” How many times have you heard someone say, “It’s been 3 months, you ought to be ‘over it’ by now.”  

We see this attitude displayed in the work place where some employers feel that three days or one week is an adequate time off work to deal with the loss of an immediate family member. Often other significant emotional losses don’t even qualify for consideration. Then it’s back to work where in many cases the person is expected to just “get on with it”. Those few days may give someone time to plan and attend a service, but that has nothing to do with time necessary to process that emotional pain.

But more recently, counsellors are realizing that in fact grief does not work in a time line because in many people’s experience it doesn’t come all at once. It is not a few weeks or months and then it fades away. Grief comes and goes.

Certainly the first few months may be particularly intense. In the early stages, you can be caught up in a whirlwind of things that you need to do and work out. At first you may feel shocked and numb. What makes it more difficult is after several months, the initial support you had from friends and family may start to fade.

At the same time as people start to provide less support, you may find you start to feel less numb and more emotional. Sometimes it is when people think we should be getting ourselves together that we feel like we are falling apart. Only as these things happen can you can start to experience how different your life is without the person you loved and start to grieve for that loss.

The first year can be difficult, because it generally involves us getting through all the “firsts” just to realize how much your life has changed, both emotionally and practically. Some things only come up once a year, like celebrating a birthday, or the first Christmas or Hanukkah, the first anniversary, Mother’s Day, Valentine’s Day, “a year ago today day” and many other times that remind us of our loss. Or you having to do something the person who died used to do, like renewing the car insurance, completing the taxes, or buying a new appliance.

But we have to be careful. If I answer someone’s question “How long does grief last” simply by saying “it takes as long as it takes; or “it could take a year”, that could sound like a life sentence, since their level of pain day by day may be so intense.

The problem with each of these different answers is that they all perpetuate one of the greatest of all grief myths, namely that “Time heals.” But actually the passage of time has nothing to do with actually moving through the pain of loss.

When we say to a bereaved person “you just need some time” or “time heals all wounds”, we are really saying “Just sit back and in time you’ll no longer have this sadness, anguish, yearning, guilt, anger and fear you’re feeling now. They’ll fade away, and you’ll be fine.”

WOW! Wouldn’t that be wonderful … except it doesn’t work! Think about it. Why would it apply to grief when it doesn’t this apply to the rest of our lives? After all, we have to look for a new job, search for the right house, study to get through school. Even if we want to win the lottery, we still have to buy a ticket. We always have to take the initiative to do something in order to cause something else to happen.

The point here, though, is that time does NOT heal all wounds. A more apt saying is “IT’S WHAT YOU DO WITH THE TIME THAT HEALS.” Like any other aspect of life, mourning is an active, working process, not a passive one.

So here are a few suggestions.

  1. Be patient with yourself, remembering that “he who has no time to mourn has no time to mend”. Allow yourself time to grieve, and feel comfortable in your own time frame even though that may not be in tune with someone else’s expectations.
  2. Mention the person’s name.Whether it has been 1 month, 5 or 10 years, speak of them. Remember that they lived and celebrate the fact that there was a time when they were here. Grief invites us to remember, not to forget.
  3. Always remember, you are not failing at grief or at life if you still feel broken, empty and sad even after some time has passed. Time alone will not mend the broken or fix the unfixable. Only you hold the key to that.

So perhaps the best answer to the original question is this:

“The amount of time grief lasts is directly related to the time needed for the grieving person to decide to take effective action to deal with their grief.”