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How Long It Takes to Grieve

» Mental Health Library » Disorders & Conditions » Bereavement » Featured Article

By Dylan Mariah, RN, LMHC, MA

Dylan Mariah, RN, LMHC, MA

I was talking to someone recently about grieving after the death of a loved one. I’ve had these discussions quite a few times. With people grieving the loss of a loved one years after they have died who worry that they “can’t get over it.” With people who are feeling impatient with someone else’s process and wondering if they are “hanging on” to the sad feelings. Some people have prescriptions that go like this: “if you are still grieving a loss several years later, you need professional help.” After a loss some people mute their feelings, go right back to work or caregiving others and come to talk to me years later after a collapse in their ability to function.

From observing many grieving people it seems to me that it is a unique process with its own life to live. How that life unfolds is determined by what the loss meant to a person, by how the person’s life was changed by the presence of the other, and by how big of a space you gave to them in your heart. It also seems to change depending on the degree to which the griever is willing to feel their experience.

Here’s what I know about the factors that influence how long it takes to grieve:

  • Some people start early. They see it coming. Some are blessed with knowing that a loved one is dying so that they can say what they need to say before the death and to prepare for it in whatever way they can. Some people move into grieving early, as if it will somehow make it hurt less when the loss actually happens.

  • Some people never “recover” from a loss. The loss was too big, too unexpected. There was a perception of wrongness about the loss that keeps them more in anger and disbelief than in sadness and letting go. They cannot or will not forgive the loss. Some people don’t want to let go, as though “moving on” in their life implies disloyalty to the person who has died. Some people have a deep belief that the person who passed away is “irreplaceable” so they close their heart to anyone else.

  • Some people have invested so much of their time, money, energy and love into another person that when that person is gone, the person feels that they lost a piece of themselves, a piece that cannot regrow or renew.

  • Some people shut down emotionally in the face of loss so much so that years later they find themselves feeling a rawness to their grief that startles them.

Grieving is much like living. You have choices. You have tendencies in how you cope with things that happen. Your personality and your beliefs influence your perceptions and behaviors. You may or may not have the willingness it requires to feel the deeper feelings that come with the territory. You can embrace grief like you can embrace life, full steam ahead. You then feel the full deal when the waves of emotion come, even if it makes you feel uncomfortable.  You can also feel your sadness in smaller doses, taking needed “time-outs” to avoid feeling overwhelmed. You can follow the natural course of the river or dam it up in places, funnelling the flow into smaller openings. Like in life, every choice you make influences the outcomes and what you will experience next.

In cultures where people cry or wail and fully express how they are feeling when someone dies, the process moves along with greater ease. In cultures, or families, where stoicism is the norm and people don’t want to expose their vulnerable side to others, there tends to be a rockier road ahead of trying to function as if there was not a huge well of sadness inside.

Grieving cannot be fully contained or controlled without suffering huge consequences, depression being one of them. Health problems are another. So if you are grieving today, I’d suggest allowing yourself to be present with the process and to give yourself safe space to do it. Make sure you are well supported by family, friends, support groups and professional help. Right after a death or other loss, you may need to take time off to let go of outside issues and responsibilities. You may feel completely overwhelmed and so deeply angry or sad that you may think you will never be the same, however, this perception will change eventually.

Here are some recommendations:

Take it a day at a time, feel what you can and come out when you need to. Breathe deeply. Keep living even while you grieve. Stay open to new things. Stay grateful. Do things that help you stay both grounded and fluid. Go for Walks. Take a hot tub or something else you find relaxing. Talk. Journal. Express yourself. Keep your sense of wonder alive. Don't wait to get support until you feel like you are floundering or lost in your process. Help from a professional, a friend or family member makes the entire process go much more smoothly.

Most of all, remember this: Whatever your loved one gave you is still within you. Your beloved friend, lover, mother, father, brother, sister, spouse…. is alive in Spirit and in your memories. Remember this, too; whatever love, affection and loyalty you gave to them you still have to give. It isn’t something that we run out of.

About the Author...

Dylan is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and a Registered Nurse with over 30 years of counseling experience. She practices in Upstate New York near Rochester using complementary alternative supports alongside of traditional psychotherapy to empower and support her clients.

Last Update: 8/18/2015

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