How Long Does Grief Last?

Originally posted on Monday, ‎July ‎18, ‎2011, ‏‎1:45:00 PM

The short, over-simplified answer: 3 years.

The honest, complicated answer: forever.

Here’s the truth, as I’ve experienced it.

Grieving is incredibly painful. There are all sorts of advice columns aimed at teaching people how to deal with that loss, anger, and sorrow. Some of them are helpful; some of them are overly prescriptive; some of them are actually harmful. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that you should feel a certain way, react in a certain way, or feel better by a certain time. No matter how well intended, some advice will just not work for you. That’s okay. But this is key: 3 years is not a guarantee. It is an average. It is a number to set in your mind’s eye as something to look forward to – the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel.

3 years might sound like a lot, especially if your loved one has recently died. All I know to tell you is that yes, it is a lot. And no, it is not impossible. You get through those 3 years in any way you can: wallowing when you need to wallow, denying when you need to deny, remembering when you need to remember, and celebrating when you need to feel joy. There is no shame in any of this. There is no right answer. Simply do what you must. I give you permission to grieve, heal, and survive in whatever way feels right for you.

So how can grief last 3 years and forever? The easiest way I know to explain this is that “active” grieving lasts about 3 years. That feeling like you’re seeing the world through a shattered lens, or that you aren’t really absorbing any of the things that happen to you – the deepest part of depression and the most tearful nights all come and go for about 3 years.

So after the 3rd anniversary of your loved one’s death, do you magically feel better? Yes and no.

Yes: A good friend told me the 3-year thing, and I admit that about a week after that day passed I did feel indescribably better. Lighter, cleaner, almost tearfully relieved and joyous. Some of that might have been the power of suggestion, but I don’t see any problem with that. If you’re reading this post, you might experience that same phenomenon. And if you ask me, that’s a good thing. I welcomed it with open arms. 3 years is a long time to be sad.

No: Here’s a harder truth to hear. Grief never goes away. I truly believe that when someone very close to you dies (as in one of your “special” people), you never get over that. When a little chunk of our heart is hollowed out, it doesn’t fill back in. We simply learn to live around it. This sounds rather melancholy and morbid, but it’s not. It doesn’t mean we will never be happy again; it means that we will always carry a place that misses that person. Living with grief is our way of remembering – of honoring that person. It’s not something to dread. It’s something to embrace.

So how do you live with that subtle, post-3-year grief for a lifetime? Obviously, I haven’t lived a lifetime yet. But I can feel the stillness in my heart where my father used to be. It’s a soft, strangely peaceful place, and I’ve learned that the best way to live with it is to acknowledge it. Don’t hide it or ignore it or obsess over it. Just let it be.

Just let yourself, your grief, and your healing be what they are.

If you are in that first, overwhelming wave of grief, please don’t give up. I know it seems unbearable – and maybe it is – but you will learn to adjust. You will make it to year 3.

There is hope. You will feel better. Hang in there.

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  • rik

    wow annie….i don’t know how u have this magical power of words but u do.. I’m a 43 year old male from Southern California more detailed to be San Fernando Valley in the Heartland of Los Angeles(The City that everyone Loves to Hate).As I say this all the time. I am a Musician and Recording Engineer who became an IHSS(In Home Supportive Social Services)worker for my dying totally blind Mother. As of Jan.18, 2012 she has passed from her disease of Cancer which she refused to get chemo or any type of treatment.She was 74 when she passed. I was taking care of her all by myself with help from hospice nurses and at the end nursing homes that just over medicated her and couldn’t deal with her kind. Being that she is very vocal and she is very judgemental . Even to me. It seems my whole life I always had a Mother Son Relationship with my Mother, so bad when I was 14 , I was bitten by an akkita dog, named Tinker Bell, the lawyer sent me to a psychologist. 1st meeting with him i went alone and the next time two different dr.s took up in seperate rooms and told us at the same time we had a incestuous relationship. I ran out of the room saw my Mom n we walked out of that office got in the car and were laughing so loud how these professional dr.s could even think like that. I was the type of son that I went with my Mom to the Grocery Store everyday. She liked to have fresh Food. But still rarely bought fresh vegetables and filled the freezer to make the frozen ones not go bad. She grew up in a Northern Indiana Suburb of Gary called East Chicago about 1 hour from Chicago, Illinois. Her parents were bakers and owned there own bakery. She had a twin brother who was born after her by what 2 minutes and she was married to my dad who was involved in the resteraunt business(specifically being McDonalds Corp.) My Parents were told they couldn’t have kids so they decided to adopt my older brother Brian who was born in 1963. Back in the day I think it cost them $10,000. My mother always had eye problems with one eye but through the pain of having two more children(Natural Births)my brother Mark and me(Rik). She lost total vision in her left eye. Although she could drive a car it was devastating on her. When my brother Mark was conceived, my Dad accused my Mom of cheating(which wouldn’t happen ever). She went to the dr. and they told them that she was fine and then diagnosed my Father as being sterile. Mark was born on Mar.24, 1965 in Skokie, Ill. and about 3 years and 3 months later Mom Magically got pregnant again with the same allegations from my Dad of infidelity. They go back to the same Dr. as before and diagnose my Dad and tell them he is sterile in only 1 testicle. The joke being which is not really funny but I say it all the time,”I was conceived with only 1 ball, God I hope it was the right ball”. to be continued since my Mom recently dying I go everyday to where my brothers and I released the ashes, to visit her spirit and talk to my best n only friend I ever will have that Loved Me Unconditionally. In partAnnie I found u oddly enough not intending to find out how wonderful your writing and poems are. Me being the creative side of Music , Voice and Sound. Your works have blessed me with my grief and my should I say less Passages in life. Now can u guess how I found u??? My girlfriend who is only 26 years old as of today(her birthday is Apr.7,1987), checked herself into the same place your Father was at called Passages. Her Mom spent a fortune on this place and the insurance company said they would pay but now since they know she has money has refused to pay what the would of if she didnt have that much cash in the bank. So i researched this place and stumbled on u Annie n I Love U n your work I am looking forward to continue my little post to you n maybe right a novel about my mothers life and by the way again my Mom set me up with my now i guess ex-girlfriend who is 17 years younger than me… thanx Annie to be continued i hope Rik Greenberg sorry to be so long and sorry to be so short..isn’t that the way it goes in life Love, RIk

  • kir

    I lost my brother almost 4 years ago, and found myself with one of those incredibly tearful nights tonight. Frustrated, I took to Google as many of us do to search for how long the pain lasts. Three years is quite accurate in my experience. So glad to find a person who does not talk about grief in a clinical manner- describing step-by-step stages. It was about three years after my brother’s loss that I finally felt this huge weight lifted. Maybe the lifted weight allows acceptance? Before that, the grief was incredibly painful. While I still honor my brother and he will always be a part of me, my grief is not as painful, or active, anymore. Of course, anniversaries are hard and his anniversary is coming up. Grief is a tough journey. We learn a lot about ourselves in the process. We question many things as we deal with our thoughts and feelings, and our lives are forever altered. While I would never wish for grief, I can say that I feel more human to have experienced it. What was once taken for granted is no longer, the innocence becomes lessened; yet we understand that a happy life is about relationships, playfulness, and experiences. Most of us find ourselves having to go down the grief journey at some point in our lives and it is inevitably hard, yet such a human experience.

    • I’m so sorry for your loss. I know what you mean about feeling more human for having experienced it, though. I truly wish you the best on your continued journey.

  • Zh

    Dear Annie, I lost my wife of 35 years over three years ago and moved on very quickly and remarried. I skipped the grieving process and when it hit me I have said and done very mean things to my wife. I realize I should have waited and would love some advice on what to do know, I feel so lost. Would love to hear from you, Zane

    • I’m so sorry. I think you’re the only one who can decide what to do now, but I think if I were you I’d want some help talking through it. A good therapist might be able to help you cope. I wish you the best, Zane. <3

  • Helen

    3 years. It has been 18 months since my beloved daddy died. He was old sure, and ready for death but I was never ready to say goodbye. Now I don’t know why I find happiness such a struggle. And the anxiety – God the anxiety. I was anxious before I lost my dad, now I struggle daily with anxiety and such depression. When will I ever enjoy a meal again? Why is everything so dry and tasteless? Will I ever feel that feeling of lightness and joy again? It is such a struggle to live. I live for my daughter and husband. Hoping and hoping and hoping one day I smile again. Is it dad? Is it just me? Am I just determined to live melancholic and anxious the rest of my life? Why is grief no longer acceptable in the modern world?

    • Hi Helen. I’m so sorry for your loss. I’m not a therapist or grief counselor, but I want you to know that everything you’re feeling is normal, reasonable. Anxiety and depression are reasonable responses to such a huge loss. That said, you shouldn’t have to deal with them alone. I hope you’ll reach out. I hope you’ll find a therapist, grief counselor, support group, friend, family member, mentor — someone (or several someones) who can help you get through this really hard part. Because you will get through it. I know it seems impossible now that someday you’ll feel lightness and joy again, but I can tell you from the other side of it that you can. You will. Keep fighting, keep mourning and letting yourself heal, and someday things will feel okay again. Until then, hang in there, reach out, and be kind to yourself. You’ve been through a lot. Much love.

  • brooklyn citizen

    So next week will be the third year mark and at the start of this month I really felt “okay” and today not so much…..missing my mother and still depressed over the loss, though I managed to accomplish a lot the last couple of years I am feeling a little bit without direction again as I did the first year though the pain is not as acute and the fog has lifted. So it surprises me that the grief has sprung up again…she died the Sunday before Thanksgiving and my initial response was a feeling of being crushed and heartbroken at the funeral I felt gratitude that she was out of pain and no longer suffering. I was her legal guardian for 10 years and the caregiving dominated my life …so I am building my life again and recentlyI understood that because for so long I was living “For” someone else (my Mom) , I forgot to live just for me….so now I am figuring that part out. But today I just missed her a lot….and I just want to see her.

    • I feel your pain. We all have sad days, even when things are getting better overall. That’s normal–just part of the journey. Sometimes they’re on anniversaries or holidays or birthdays, and sometimes they’re just random. I’m so sorry about your mom. <3