How Long Does Grief Last? An age old question.

Understanding Grief / Understanding Grief : Eleanor Haley

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"How long does grief last?" is a logical, valid, and common question. Grief, especially early on, causes distress in many forms — mental anguish, emotional pain, physical depletion (etc., etc.). And all of these terrible things seem to happen at once, so it's only natural to want to know when the pain will end.  

For a little while, you may even believe that you can fully return to "before." You're used to waking up from nightmares to find you're the same old you, and all the fear and loss was a false alarm. In reality, you intellectually know everything has changed, but your brain is still playing catch up. And each time you remember that "before" is forever gone, you may experience another little mini-loss. It's not nearly as bad as when you first experienced the real thing, but it does feel like unthinkable despair.  

So how long does grief last, then?

Deep down, you may suspect you already know the answer to the question, "How long does grief last," but you hope Google will prove you wrong. Though some people say things you want to hear -- for example, that grief is predictable, time-limited, and something you can "get over" or "move on" from -- most people who have experienced significant loss will tell you grief is unpredictable and not something that comes to a neat and tidy end.

If you find this notion scary, intimidating, or maddening, it may be helpful to know that grief usually starts off near its worst and de-escalates. I'm not saying things won't feel complicated, stressful, sad, and like many other loathsome adjectives for quite some time. And of course, there will always be ups and downs, and some downs, even years later, may feel very down. But bit by bit, as you learn to cope with your losses, forge new connections, and find some semblance of balance, the intensity and unmanageability of the early days will lessen overall.

how long does grief last

Acute Grief vs. Integrated Grief: A Review

We've discussed integrated grief in detail in a past article, but this discussion bears repeating. Specifically, the distinction between acute and integrated grief may be helpful for people wanting reassurance that their grief will eventually quiet down enough to allow some semblance of healing. 

Put very non-clinically; acute grief is the most terrible chapter in your grief story. This period brings new and intense thoughts and emotions. It's surreal, devastating, dark, and disorienting. And it's not just a sad spell here or there; it's everything.

As the Center for Prolonged Grief notes, in acute grief, "Thoughts are mostly focused on the person who died and it can be difficult to concentrate on anything else. Acute grief dominates a person's life."

Related Article: What the Newly Bereaved Should Know

An important distinction is that when people say it's normal for grief to last forever, they don't mean the overwhelming intensity of acute grief will last forever. Instead, they mean integrated grief, which happens as a person adapts to and copes with their losses. Again, let's look to the Center for Prolonged Grief to describe the concept of integrated grief.

Integrated grief is the result of adaptation to the loss. When a person adapts to a loss grief is not over. Instead, thoughts, feelings and behaviors related to their loss are integrated in ways that allow them to remember and honor the person who died. Grief finds a place in their life.

Related Article: What it Means to Change Your Relationship With Grief

So, you may now wish to revise your question from "How long does grief last?" to "How long does acute grief last?" Sorry if this seems like a bait-and-switch, but we can't give you a timeline or prediction. As noted, integrating grief happens as you adapt to loss, and the what, when, and hows of adapting to loss are incredibly specific to you and your loss. Unfortunately, it's beyond the scope of this article to help you find ways to do that, but we have hundreds of other articles that may if you look around the site.

To those asking "How long does grief last?" when they are further along in their grief.

Perhaps you worried because months after loss, or maybe even years, you notice your grief is still a presence. Your pain and distress have likely gone through several iterations, but it hasn't completely dissipated. And didn't you hear somewhere that grief is supposed to go through some stages and then resolve?  

Hopefully, what we've already discussed has reassured you that it's normal to have difficult grief thoughts, emotions, secondary losses, and experiences long after loss. And it makes sense that grief would stay with you. Doesn't it? 

Loss is a significant experience that becomes a part of your history and changes who you are both now and into the future. If you've experienced the loss of someone you love, they become a part of your past, present, and future. The person who died is no longer physically present, but plenty of bonds and attachments exist independent of one's physical presence. Death cannot break the bonds that live in your heart and mind.

It's important to note that some people experience acute-like grief that remains intense and overwhelming in a way that impacts their daily living for a prolonged period. In these instances, it may be helpful to reach out to a mental health counselor. As therapy can be a helpful tool when you're feeling stuck or are struggling to find effective support and coping tools.

We wrote a book!

After writing online articles for What’s Your Grief
for over a decade, we finally wrote a tangible,
real-life book!

After writing online articles for What’s Your Grief for over a decade, we finally wrote a tangible, real-life book!

What’s Your Grief? Lists to Help you Through Any Loss is for people experiencing any type of loss. This book discusses some of the most common grief experiences and breaks down psychological concepts to help you understand your thoughts and emotions. It also shares useful coping tools, and helps the reader reflect on their unique relationship with grief and loss.

You can find What’s Your Grief? Lists to Help you Through Any Loss wherever you buy books:

Let’s be grief friends.

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7 Comments on "How Long Does Grief Last? An age old question."

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  1. Stephanie  August 2, 2023 at 12:59 pm Reply

    I lost my amazing 47yo husband unexpectedly in July of 2017. I am STILL having terrible short-term memory problems. I have reached out to over 100 different types of mental health professionals over the years, and no one has any answers for me.

    I haven’t been able to be successful at a full-time job, I don’t qualify for disability and I don’t know where to turn. Do you have any suggestions? Thank you for your time!!


  2. Jp  July 30, 2023 at 11:59 pm Reply

    My adult children seem to be the same as yours…no support at all. I guess I have to figure out this navigating grief thing without their help. Jesus is a friend who is closer than a brother. Good thing! I need a friend!

  3. Elizabeth Maclean  June 17, 2023 at 7:14 am Reply

    I lost my beloved husband of 44 years 15 months ago. I still feel his loss acutely, but it seems that many people, including some family, expect me to have got over it by now. One extremely close member even said I should be “thinking more positively now” It really hurts to hear things like this or to be abandoned by friends who were a real support early on, but think I don’t need it now.

    • Jp  July 30, 2023 at 11:55 pm Reply

      I’m so sorry for your loss. I think people who haven’t lost someone they are close with just don’t understand.

  4. Patty Eckstein  June 7, 2023 at 3:23 pm Reply

    How can you find the best grieving program for surviving spouses. My adult kids really don’t understand my depression. They are going by what others tell, not a professional. I asked for help prior to my husbands passing. I am being compared to others that had spouses passed. Statements like “This person’s husband died the same time as Dad and they are doing fine”! Good for them, I am sorry if I don’t meet your expectations. Of course, this has put a strain on my relationship. I think my daughter-in-law is feeding my son with advice any her personal opinions. She is not a professional, but he listens to her. Also, basically they are keeping the grandkids away from me.

    • Mary Manera  June 17, 2023 at 10:27 pm Reply

      Some folks find it helpful to share articles from this website with their friends and family, to help them understand that everyone grieves in their own time and way.

  5. Charles  May 17, 2023 at 9:11 pm Reply

    Integrated Grief describes my grief. Recent loss of relative of my ex spouse family spark the flame of the grief of the divorce , loss of my sibling, parents and connection to in law. There are layers of grief marked for each loss. Finding comfort in others is difficult because no one wants to hear your story. Have no idea if others experience the deep sadness for each loss in ones lifetime.

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