"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.
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,
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: