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Taking Questions

How long does grief last?

(Excerpts from Beyond Acceptance by Thom Dennis)

How long does grief last? Six months, a year, eighteen months, three to five years? I am inclined to believe that grief lasts a lifetime. One quick word of caution: this does not mean that I am suggesting that early grief will last forever! Grief changes over time. Grief looks and feels different at six weeks or six months than it does at six or sixteen years. Despite what the "experts" might say, those who have experienced a profound loss will tell you that feelings may change or dissipate, but they never really go away. The reality is that the task of adapting to life without a loved one remains an ongoing challenge.

Perhaps the error that most people make starts with the assumption that grief is over when you stop feeling sad. Grief is much more complex than just the feelings of sadness and yearning we feel when someone dies; it involves all of the thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations that we associated with the death of a loved one over the source of a lifetime. The loss will have physical, mental and spiritual consequences. It may require adapting to changes in economic status and in social relationships. It may challenge our sense of identity and sometimes force us to reevaluate the way we look at and live our lives. Like the ripples on a pond, the effects of grief extend long after the actual death.

Even many years later we experience what might be called, "grief spikes." These intense emotional reactions occur when a significant family event occurs such as a birth, graduation or wedding, when someone else dies, or whenever we face a new crisis or challenge. On those occasions, we are reminded of how much we miss the deceased and how drastically our lives have changed. We may feel angry at our loved ones for leaving us to deal with the problem on our own, but after a period of feeling sad, we usually resolve to carry on as best we can. However, it is normal to still miss or think about them every day for the rest of our lives.

Integrating the loss involves finding something to hold on to while simultaneously adjusting to whatever else life has in store for us. We are constantly creating "new normal." The task of integrating a loss is ongoing, but the good news is it will not be all misery and gloom. There may still be moments of sadness, but there will be plenty of happy, new memories created as well. Over time we may not even notice the subtle adjustments that are required. We just get better at something the more we do it. A man in a support group said it best when he concluded, "You don't get over grief, you just get better at it."

Even at the end of life the grieving continues. As we grow older and approach the end of our own journeys, our thoughts naturally gravitate toward our personal mortality. We use all of our previous losses as reference points, we engage in life review. We look over the whole course of our life journeys and think about the choices we have made. We remember people and examine events that have impacted us, and we grieve again about whatever needs to be grieved. Our goal for a peaceful death will depend largely on our ability to conclude that we did the best we could, given the circumstances. Our previous losses give us a guide for our own advanced directives and end-of-life decisions. Depending on our faith perspectives, we may look forward to the time when we will rejoin our loved one who have preceded us in death.

Many people say it is strangely comforting to learn that grief has no timeframe. They say it seems disrespectful to suggest that six months or a year is enough time to grieve someone they have invited into the secret recesses of their hearts. They were people who had a central role in our lives, and sometimes they are someone with whom we have shared a lifetime. Grief should never be measured in time. We would all be better served if we moved beyond the idea of acceptance and focused on finding the resources that will help us with the ongoing task of integrating the experience of loss.

Reprinted with permission from Grief Digest, Centering Corporation, Omaha, Nebraska, 402-553-1200. Grief Digest, Volume 8, Issue #2 (October 2010)

Suggested questions for future editions can be sent to goodmourning@archildrens.org (please put "Taking Questions" in the subject line).

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