How Long Does Grief Last?

Reviewed by Robert Bogenberger

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I’m a textbook overthinker, and for better or for worse, I can never seem to shut it off.

Whether it’s work or life, I like to have a plan and know exactly the route I’m taking. The only problem is that no matter how we try to control our lives, there are certain things that just aren’t meant to happen in an orderly march forward. And one of those things is grief.

By most logic, the loss I suffered shouldn’t have been that devastating. My grandpa Roger was 92 years old when he passed away in May of 2020. He lived a very long, very full life, and for most of that time he was impeccably healthy for his age. 

But one day in May, I received the news that he had had a fall. After receiving the call I was worried, of course, but overall felt confident that just like with every health hiccup before this, he would make a full recovery.

I’m sorry to say I was wrong. Even though COVID was still at its peak, I hopped on a crowded plane from Florida to Minnesota. As soon as I arrived, I was taken straight to the facility where he was being given hospice care. He wasn’t able to speak and didn’t seem fully aware of the room around him. But as I held his hand and talked to him, he turned his face towards the sound.

For a long time, I’d considered myself his favorite grandchild, in the same way that many grandchildren of sweet, doting grandparents are sure they must be the favorite. So when he passed away two days later as I held his hand, it felt personal.

At the time, I almost felt like I was being ridiculous for feeling so angry that he had been taken away. After all, he was over 90, and we all knew that regardless of how much we hated it, death is a part of life and this day had to come eventually. But I felt angry nonetheless. The grief of losing him was compounded by my grief over the pandemic and what it was costing me in my personal life, leading to a spiral of grief that it took me a long time to pull out of.

And as I struggled to recover from the loss following his death, I found myself with unanswered questions that I know many others have asked themselves.

Shouldn’t I Be Past this Stage of Grief by Now?

Whenever a loss is suffered, it seems inevitable that the stages of grief are brought up. Phrases like “It’s okay that you’re angry, it’s one of the stages,” or “Of course it doesn’t feel real, you’re in the denial stage,” seem to crop up left and right, from concerned acquaintances and other mourners alike. 

The concept of the five stages of grief was created in 1969 by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in her book On Death and Dying. Since then, they’ve become an old refrain that most people can recite from memory. Broadly speaking, they’re defined as follows:

  • Denial: In this stage, the reality of a loss has not yet sunk in and you struggle to process the magnitude of what has happened. You may find yourself saying things like, “This can’t be happening,” or “There must be some kind of mistake.” 
  • Anger: The pain of experiencing loss combined with feelings of helplessness lead to frustration and anger. Anger can serve as an emotional outlet; when you’re expressing anger it’s harder to leave space for your pain.
  • Bargaining: During this stage, you try to ease suffering by striking a deal with some higher power. It can involve ruminating on past experiences with a loved one that can’t be changed. For instance, you may think, “If only I had insisted they go to the doctor earlier, we may have caught the illness in time to save them.”
  • Depression: When the reality of your loss sinks in, it can be overwhelming. During the depression stage, you experience the pain of your loss acutely and fixate on everything that will now be missing from your life. You may feel helpless, sorrowful, and generally low. 
  • Acceptance: Acceptance isn’t synonymous with “moving on.” Instead, reaching acceptance means you have embraced the new reality of your life. You begin to look towards the future and what this new version of your life looks like.

In 2019 David Kessler, a world-renowned grief expert and colleague of Kubler-Ross, introduced a sixth stage of grief:

  • Finding Meaning: Kessler defines this stage as the time after a loss in which you can move forward and live your life in a way that honors your loved one’s memory. During this stage, you are able to look back on the memories of a lost loved one with more love and gratitude than pain.

Together these stages work to give neat, orderly titles to the messy emotions that pour out after the loss of a loved one or the receipt of difficult news.

There’s nothing wrong with these titles, and they have helped many who have grieved put words to their emotions. The only trouble comes when people try to package what they’re feeling to fit neatly into these categories and think that once they process each emotion, they can cross each stage off of a checklist.

Emotions have blurred edges, and healing is nonlinear. There isn’t a straight path progressing from a place of devastation to a place where you can feel as though the loss never happened. You experienced something that has created its own impact on the story of your life; now you need to determine how you move forward with this new version of it.

So instead of thinking about the stages of grief as a checklist you need to get through, think of them as broad descriptions that can help you understand what you’re experiencing. You may experience multiple stages simultaneously, or think you’ve “gotten through” a stage only to  find yourself returning to it. This doesn’t mean you’ve done anything wrong. Grief doesn’t have a roadmap, because everyone processes pain differently. 

Give yourself the space to experience your emotions and progress through your pain in your own time and in your own order. And understand that cycling through all of the stages of grief doesn’t mean you will never return to them. 

Does Grief Last Forever?

When you’re grieving, it’s easy to begin thinking it is a new, permanent reality rather than an uncomfortable and painful time of transition. 

Grief can be all-consuming, and losing someone doesn’t just have emotional repercussions; usually the loss impacts your day-to-day life. Whether you lost the person who was there for all of the major events of your life or the person you checked in with at the end of every day, their absence will always be noted and act as a permanent reminder of their passing. 

One popular metaphor used when describing grief is “The Ball in the Box.” Imagine a box which contains a button. This button, when pressed, causes you intense feelings of loss and emotional pain. Inside of this box is a ball which rolls around freely; the ball represents your grief. 

When you first lose someone the ball is large and fills the box, pressing the button nearly constantly. Over time, however, the ball shrinks. You will begin to find you can go longer and longer lengths of time without the ball pressing the button. But the ball is always there. And when it does hit its mark, the pain is just as real—and may be just as intense—as when your grief was new.

So the answer to the question, “Does grief last forever?” is: “Yes—but it won’t always feel this way.”

Just like your memories of your loved one, your grief will never fade entirely. But with time, the frequency and intensity of your grief will shrink. And one day you may even be able to look back on your memories and lead with joy instead of pain.

Where Can I Start?

Losing a loved one is overwhelming, and it’s hard to know where to begin your journey toward recovering from it. There are many steps you can take, both on your own and with help, to begin healing. 

  • Don’t Isolate Yourself: Because everyone experiences loss differently, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking you’re going through a loss alone. But this is rarely the case. Reaching out to others who knew your loved one will not only make you both feel less alone, but will also give you an opportunity to share memories and appreciate all of the love and good times that preceded the loss. 
  • Find a Support Group: Whether in person or online, there are many support groups of different sizes dedicated to those who are grieving. Making time to process your emotions aloud is critical, and hearing others’ stories will reinforce the truth that you are not alone in experiencing loss. If you already have a mental health professional aiding you as you process your loss, they may also be able to recommend a group near you.
  • Use Your Resources: If you don’t feel comfortable speaking about your loss, there are still many resources you can utilize. There have been countless books written on different types of loss, and the paths that have gotten people through it. Consider doing some research and finding a book that relates to the kind of loss you’re experiencing. Even if only in a written form, it can be helpful to hear out others’ experiences with loss and remember that others have gone through what you are experiencing.
  • Speak With a Professional: Grief is a very common human emotion, and mental health professionals are trained to aid you in processing it. Furthermore, grief can be complex, and can potentially exacerbate any existing mental health conditions you may have. If your grief persists, or even worsens with time, it’s especially important that you seek out professional help. If you need assistance finding a clinician to aid you as you process your loss, have a look through our directory of qualified therapists to find someone online or in your area.

Even now, more than a year after my grandpa’s passing, there are still days that I struggle thinking about the parts of my life he won’t be around to witness. But most days when I think of him, I’m grateful for the times I did have and all of the memories we had together. 

While a loss may feel overwhelming when it occurs, there is always a path forward through your grief. To love deeply means to open yourself to the possibility of real pain—including grief.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
How Long Does Grief Last?
Kirsten Fuchs

Kirsten Fuchs is the editorial coordinator at therapist.com. She is currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in English-Technical Communication from University of Central Florida, and she’s excited to be pairing her copywriting expertise and love of written language with the support and clinical insights of the therapist.com team.