If you’re still in the first year after a loss, I imagine the title of this article alone might have knocked the wind out of you. Just knowing that some people think the second year of grief is harder than the first is enough to send some people into a panic. But it is a discussion that comes up time and again, often from folks feeling confused as they fumble through the second year after a death and beyond. So, take a deep breath – we want to walk through this question step by step. And I promise that it isn’t all bad news.
I don’t think there is one source to blame for the widely-held belief that the first year of grief is the hardest. In fact, I’d guess it comes largely from humans trying to rationally make sense of grief’s trajectory. If you can get through the first year, then you have some ‘practice’ with grief. So logically year two must be easier, right?
Not exactly. No surprise, there are a lot of gray areas.
The first year after a loss does allow our brains to become more accustomed to a world without our loved one. That doesn’t make it easier to accept that they’re gone or magically make life easier. But it does take away some of the shock and debilitating overwhelm of early grief. In that first year we learn who is there to support us. Ideally we find some coping tools along the way. We begin the slow process of proving to ourselves that we can survive. It’s tempting to think that with all that in place, year two MUST be easier.
In some ways, it absolutely is. But there are also a lot of reasons it is completely cut and dry. That’s where we’re going to spend our time today – understanding the nuance of the second year of grieving.
Now, it wouldn’t be a WYG article if we didn’t throw in a disclaimer, would it? We’re tackling a question today to which there is no right or single answer. No one can tell you exactly what to expect in your grief on day two, year two, or decade two because your grief is unique to you and what you have lost. There is nothing in grief that is objectively ‘easier’ or ‘harder’ for all people in all situations all the time. But we can tell you some common experiences that commonly impact people in the second year of grief and why they can be a challenge. And don’t worry, we’ll also share some ideas at the end.
7 Reasons Why The Second Year of Grief is Hard
#1 You assume it will be easier
Common refrains we hear from people grieving in the second year are things like, ‘I thought this year would get easier’ or ‘Shouldn’t I be doing better by now?”. Though most people grieving would agree that it isn’t reasonable to think flipping a date of a calendar would magically ease the pain of grief, it is still a subtle message that people have often internalized. The assumption that it will be easier means people engage in more self-judgment about their grief and more self-doubt, worrying they’re not grieving as well as they ‘should’ be.
#2 You show yourself less compassion
As time keeps passing, we can become far less patient and gentle with ourselves. That voice in your head during the first year of grief might say things like, “of course getting back to work is hard, your husband As time keeps passing, we can become far less patient and gentle with ourselves. Whereas that voice in your head during the first year of grief said things like, “of course getting back to work is hard, your husband just died” or “don’t worry about organizing the Memorial Day family barbeque, it’s your first year without her”. The second-year-og-grief voice might not be so gentle. The self-doubt, self-judgment, and expectations kick on. Suddenly that voice is saying, “I can’t believe you’re still feeling apathetic about work and so distracted” or “you really need to get it together and have the barbeque this year. It shouldn’t be this hard”.
#3 People aren’t checking in as much
The reality isn’t simply that our expectations change. Other people’s expectations change too. People might be checking in less often. Both those offers for practical help and those ‘hey, just checking to see how you’re doing’ texts slow down. Though some people may still be checking in on birthdays or anniversaries, many people may not. This can leave you feeling more lonely or forgotten.
#4 Asking for help feels more difficult
Some people know they could still use support but they feel more hesitance, embarrassment, or guilt about asking. We hear many grievers worrying that asking for help in year two is no longer as socially acceptable. They’re concerned friends and family will start to view them as a burden, needy, or “stuck”. This can mean knowing that you need help, but being too reticent to ask.
#5 You’re able to look further into the future
The first months and even the first full year of grief can feel like survival mode. You’re operating one day at a time (sometimes one breath at a time). You’re just trying to figure out how to live in a world where your loved one is missing. After the first year, some people describe feeling like year two was when the reality of ‘forever’ set in. The shift from ‘how do I just survive’ to ‘how to I start planning for a future without the person I lost’ is not an easy one. It isn’t to say one is ‘easier’ or ‘harder’ (feeling more confident in your ability to survive is amazing, after all!). But it feel like a new challenge for some.
#6 You spent year one tending to everyone’s grief but you’re own
Don’t worry, you would not be the first person who fell into this trap. For those of us who are natural helpers and caretakers, it is easy to put others’ grief ahead of our own. Many people realize that immediately following a loss they put all their energy into taking care of their grieving children or grieving parent or grieving sibling. This is a place you might feel very comfortable, but it also can be a form of avoidance. As those people start to regain their footing in the world and need less support in their grief, you might realize that your own grief has been on the backburner.
#7 What helped you in year one of grief isn’t helping you in year two of grief
You may have done a really great job finding things that helped you in your first year of loss. You may have found helpful people, self-care routines, professional grief support, rituals, etc that all helped you to feel able to function. One of the tricky things about grief is that it is always changing. That means that your grief coping needs are always changing too. You may suddenly realize that the challenges of year two are different than those of year one, so those people and self-care routines don’t seem to be meeting all your needs any more. The rituals that felt so meaningful two months after the loss might no longer feel quite right, leaving you wondering how you’ll stay connected to your loved one. Don’t worry, many of those people and things will likely still be useful, but finding new coping and support can be an unexpected challenge.
Yikes! How do you cope in the second year of grief?!
I know, looking at lists of challenges can feel daunting. Don’t worry, one of the important things to remember is that we have agency in how we cope. Just being aware of these challenges can help, because they won’t be as likely to catch you off guard. And just a few small things can make a big difference in coping with year two after a loss and forward.
#1 Work on showing yourself self-compassion and grace
I know, for those of you looking for a real nuts-and-bolt action plan, this probably sounds a bit soft. But this is a very real and very important step. Start listening for those self-judgements. If you’re criticizing yourself about where you “should” be in grief, remind yourself that there is no timeline. Read through some of our concrete tips for going easy on yourself and showing yourself compassion as you continuing grieving.
#2 Communicate and give feedback
I know, yuck. Being vulnerable by saying you’re struggling more than you’d thought you’d be in year two isn’t easy. But it’s important. Your friends and family can’t read your mind, so being honest helps them help you. If you don’t tell people you need practical help or would like them to check in more, there is no chance you’ll get it. If you do tell them, there is still a chance they won’t give you what you need. But you’ve asked, and you’ve let them know what they need to do to be a good year-two-and-beyond support person.
#3 Revisit things that you wrote off in year one
To say the first year of grief is a roller coaster is understatement! You’re thinking and feeling things you’ve never thought and felt. Emotions and needs can rapid-cycle from one day to the next. While you’re learning to accept, tolerate, cope with, and carry your grief in those early days, there may be people, places, and things that you just weren’t ready for. Looking at certain pictures or listening to certain music brought so much pain that you’ve avoided them ever since. You wanted to go back to the place you always vacationed together, a place you love, but just the thought of it was too much that first year.
Whether you’re aware of it or not, you have been slowly learning you carry your grief differently. Your brain has had more time adjust to the reality that your loved one is missing in the world. You now know what that feels like. It is still just as devastating, but it is no longer new. And you’ve hopefully found some ways to self-soothe and ground yourself when the thoughts and emotions come.
With this in mind, revisiting some of those things you thought were ‘impossible’ or ‘too much’ in year one can be a really good thing. You may find yourself better able revisit certain places, people, or reminders. Yes, it will still be painful. But you may be able to now tolerate that pain so that you can now also find some comfort. Continuing this process of visiting and revisiting throughout grief, knowing that what you need will always evolve, is a helpful skill.
#4 Remember, you can always seek support
Often the first year is when hospitals, hospices, OPOs, and funeral homes send you information about grief support groups or other professional support. If you didn’t take advantage of it at the time, it can suddenly feel like it is too late. It is never too late! There is no expiration date on grief support. Grief will ebb and flow throughout your lifetime. It is always okay to recognize that your grief is proving challenging in new ways. You can always find a counselor, group, or check out new online support options.
What’s your experience with the second year of grief?
We invite you to share your experiences, questions, and resource suggestions with the WYG community in the discussion section below.