How long does grief normally last?
If the person who died has been extremely close to us, the grief we experience may last for as long as we live. As long as we are able to recall memories of that person, some level of grief can be present. The important thing to remember is that the intensity of such grief changes over time.
For those of you who are recent grievers and concerned about how you can possibly go through the rest of your life given the level of grief you are currently experiencing, let me say this. Whereas the intensity of your grief is currently quite high, it will diminish over time as you gradually adjust to the death you have known.
It is also important to remember that all deaths do not impact us in the same way. The grief experience is more intense and lasts longer following the death of those individuals to whom we are the closest. For others our feelings of loss, though initially strong, diminish and end over a shorter period of time.
Experiencing the death of a close loved one can be similar to an amputee’s experience of losing a limb. Initially thoughts are focused on whether one can actually continue their life without that limb being present. But once the initial response of disbelief has subsided and work has begun in using a prosthetic device, the individual actually begins to believe that on-going life may indeed be possible. However, even years later when the individual is proficient in using the prosthesis, some level of grief remains when thoughts about life before the amputation are brought to mind. Those feelings of grief are there, but with nowhere near the intensity as when the loss first occurred.
Someone once defined the grief following a death as “un-learning” the expected presence of a loved one. It takes years for us to truly cement our relationship with a loved one, and it may, in turn, take just as many years to adjust to the fact that they are no longer present. For that reason, some degree of grief related to their death may last as long as we live.
Paul V. Johnson has developed a life-long specialty in grief education and support in funeral home and hospice environments. Nationally recognized for his work, he is also a university professor in St. Paul, MN.
Paul, thanks so much for sharing your beautiful insights. I especially appreciate your analogy of losing a limb. Grief really can feel like a sudden amputation. And it usually takes quite a while (by trial and error) to find a “prosthesis” with the right size, right fit, and right function to give us mobility again. That “grief prosthesis” might be a combination of supportive family/friends, reflective times alone, creative ways to honor our loved one, journaling, music, prayer, etc. — healthy ways to support us as we learn to walk again….without that precious limb. Our new normal isn’t exactly the same as before, and we’ll always treasure the memories of our loved one, but we CAN discover how to keep on going….