How Long Does Grief Last?

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Immediately following the death of a loved one, your despair or sadness may feel unrelenting. You can’t imagine a time when you won’t feel the loss so intensely, when the grief isn’t front and center—a thick fog between you and the rest of the world. But life does go on, and your grief will ease over time. Here’s what to keep in mind:

Everyone’s timeline is different

When George Bonanno, a grief researcher and author of The Other Side of Sadness, followed 1,500 elderly individuals for several years he was able to intimately track the emotions of more than 200 of them who lost a spouse during that time. What Bonanno’s study found is that the main symptoms of grief (shock, depression, anxiety) had lifted within six months for 50 percent of the participants.

But six months is hardly a rigid sentence: Some improved much faster, while roughly one-quarter saw symptoms start improving only after six months. About 10 percent actually felt a sense of relief (and an improvement in pre-existing depression) from the death.

That massive amount of variety isn’t only among bereaved spouses. When you factor in the many different types of relationships people can have with someone who died, it’s clear there’s no one-size-fits-all timeline for grief’s progression, says Jill Cohen, a New York-based grief counselor.

How close you were to the person who died may play one factor, but grief’s timeline also has to do with your own psychology. A lengthy duration isn’t a badge of devotion or a sign that you loved the deceased “more” than your sibling who seemed to bounce back more quickly. Everyone truly does move through grief in their own time, and “there is rarely a ‘normal’ when it comes to mourning,” says Cohen.

In the immediate aftermath of a death, you may struggle to concentrate, to maintain your appetite, or to complete even routine tasks. Cohen says that, for many people, those intense symptoms begin to lessen around six to eight weeks. But that rule of thumb shouldn’t be taken as a proscriptive schedule, by any means.

Delays happen

Sorting out the legal and financial paperwork after your loved one dies. Cleaning out the house. Rehoming the cat. Selling the car. The tsunami of logistical details that follow a loved one’s death can be overwhelming. But, for some, that never-ending to-do list is also a welcome distraction from their own emotions.

For those people, true grief may not begin until months later, when the distractions are finally taken care of. “The reality of the death may not fully hit until much later—maybe even a year—but when it does, it hits the bereaved as if the death just happened,” says Cohen. Mourning your mother a full six months after she died may take you by surprise, but delayed grief is perfectly normal.

Think pendulum, not progress

You might hear people talk about moving through the stages of grief, as if mourning were perfectly linear and you could wake each morning knowing that you wouldn’t have to retread the emotions of the day before. But in reality, grief is more of a roller coaster or pendulum than a linear progression.

When a researcher at the University of Akron tracked the daily moods of recent widows for three months, she found that most emotions fluctuated wildly. A widow might feel despondent one day, buoyant the next; distracted and anxious one morning, optimistic and focused that same afternoon. But over time, the intensity of those fluctuations calmed, until the person returned to a more stable emotional state.

“The trajectory is never a straight line of phases or stages, but closer to oscillating waves,” says Cohen. Even if you’ve felt closure for months, certain milestones, such as the loved one’s birthday, the anniversary of the death, or important holidays, may act as a catalyst to throw you back into your grief.

Your body grieves along with your brain

Even if you’re determined to put on a sunny disposition, your body may betray that you’re not actually done grieving. That’s because grief doesn’t only manifest emotionally or with classic symptoms of tears and sadness. It can also manifest physically, with symptoms that can include:

  • Headaches
  • Trouble falling or staying asleep
  • Unusual fatigue or listlessness
  • Forgetfulness or difficulty concentrating
  • Stomach aches or body aches
  • Loss of appetite and/or weight loss; or increased appetite and/or weight gain

Physical symptoms aren’t a cause for concern, but they are a very concrete reminder that “you can’t rush through grief,” says Cohen. “If you rush to say it’s over, when it’s not, you’re robbing yourself of the time and attention needed to adjust.”

Sometimes you need help

People grieve in their own way and at their own pace—and even after you reach resolution you may find that certain anniversaries or milestones cause your grief to return. Yet working through your grief doesn’t have to be a solo endeavor: If you find that, even several weeks after the death, your bereavement is interfering with your day-to-day life or feels overwhelming or unrelenting, you may want to consider seeking out the support of a grief counselor.

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