Last Updated on February 13, 2021
If you or someone close to you have experienced the loss of a loved one, at some point you’ll probably wonder, How long does grief last?
You want to know how long this may last. Professionals have studied this for years and there is tons of data available. So we have a reasonable idea of what you can expect. (That’s why you can’t ignore this timeline.)
But the fact is, there is not a set amount of time for grief. People grieve in different ways, from a brief and intense to long and deep. (That’s why you can ignore this grief timeline.)
People grieve differently. Grief can be on display for everyone to see, or people will hold it tightly inside. However you choose to grieve, it is ok. While there are unhealthy extremes, there is no right or wrong to grief. Grieving will help you heal from your loss, and it is essential to let yourself work through it.
How Long Does Grief Last?
The simple, reductionist answer is that grief lasts between 6 months and 4 years. One study found that intense grief-related feelings peaked at about 4-6 months, then gradually declined over the next two years of observation.
Various cultures have formal mourning periods of one year up to three years. One year is a generally accepted mourning period in the US, but your heart will still feel the ache of losing a loved one long after a year.
When Will I Start to Feel Better?
You could start to feel somewhat better in 6 to 8 weeks. The honest answer is it can take years. Feeling better little by little can begin after a few weeks but will extend long into the future as you work through your loss.
As the study mentioned above indicates, many people experience the “peak” of grief at about 4-6 months. It is not unusual to feel better in some ways at 6-8 weeks as you come to terms with the new reality, but also still feel very intense emotions over the next several months as you continue to process.
Grief will come and go, like waves. Some days it feels like a storm-tossed sea; other days will be calm, and you will have smooth sailing.
Grief can start long before the death of your loved one. Your loved one has received a terminal diagnosis; the misery starts when you heard the news. This is known as anticipatory grief. If the disease lasts for a year or two, you can tack that time onto your grief timeline.
If you have just received news of a loved one’s sudden death, then your grieving has just begun. It doesn’t mean your grief will be shorter than the person who has known death would visit. The situation thrust grief on you differently.
In saying all of that, grief determines its own timeline. It depends on you, the state of your physical health, your emotional capacity, and stability. It also can depend on the situation surrounding the death.
Learn more: Types of Grief: The 16 Ways People Grieve
Models of the Grieving Process
The love you feel doesn’t end with the death of your loved one. The boundaries of life and death don’t affect your feelings of love. It isn’t a switch that can be turned off, just like that.
Numerous grief models follow a timeline. All models of the grieving process conclude with “acceptance” of the death.
Anyone who has suffered grief knows it doesn’t end just because you have accepted the outcome. We all wish it could be that easy. But, grief is work. Working through it is a must.
Grief is like a maze, full of twists and turns, and hard to find the end. You will run into dead ends, turn a corner, make some headway, and then hit another dead end.
Keep pushing forward; you will eventually make your way out of the maze. Life will be enjoyable again. All of this is normal, and you are not alone. Grief takes time to solve. And you will almost certainly feel at least a twinge of it for the rest of your life.
Two more quick caveats and we’ll start the timeline.
Why You Shouldn’t Ignore This Grief Timeline
Being familiar with a grief model and its timeline can be a comfort to you. Knowing that everyone has gone through grief and has suffered what you are going through helps make it feel more normal.
Normal may not be a fair word. “New” normal is more like it. And reading the models will help you to understand some of the emotions you may be feeling.
Why You Totally Should Ignore This Grief Timeline
For some people, the best thing to do is to ignore the models. The grief stages don’t usually follow any rules.
The information we have comes from aggregating the experiences of many people. It’s insightful and helpful knowledge. But the reality is that you aren’t a group – you’re you. Your experience will be unique.
You might be feeling acceptance when the model tells you to be in denial. The timeline may confuse you more than comfort you.
There are always going to be triggers that will bring back memories. In time, these feelings of grief should soften. Instead of feeling sadness, these memories will bring comfort and happiness.
A Grief Timeline
Again, this is a grief timeline. There is no set time frame for when you will feel better, or go through each stage, or come to acceptance. Each person, each death, each relationship is different.
1. Before the Death: Anticipatory Grief
Anticipatory grief can extend your grieving process. This type of grief is what you may feel before your loved one dies.
Perhaps you received the horrible news that your loved one is terminal. Now the grieving begins. You will grieve over time lost, or perhaps a future that will never be.
All of the plans you had will never come to fruition. This grieving stage can be just as fierce as the grief after your loved one has passed. Anticipatory grief can add a whole new layer to the grieving process.
2. Immediately After Death
Immediately after death, shock will usually set in. This shock can last for hours or days. Shock will affect everyone differently, from tears to hysterical laughing to complete denial.
Please understand that all of these reactions are normal. If a spouse doesn’t react to their loved one’s death the way you think they should, do not judge. Their response does not indicate the love they feel.
3. Grief During the Funeral
The funeral service helps people to say “good-bye” for the last time. It can be a vital part of the healing process.
In my career as a funeral director, I have seen reactions from one extreme to the next. I have seen spouses sit stoically without a tear shed. I have also seen spouses try to throw themselves into the grave with their loved one.
The point is, everyone is different. Despite those differences, these are real and legitimate ways to handle their grief.
4. Grief After the Funeral
I have been told that grief hits very hard after the funeral is over. Friends and family go home and return to their everyday lives. Your life is still far from normal, and your grief is still raw.
Yes, you’ll be kept busy with tying up loose ends. Closing bank accounts, collecting life insurance and pensions, and just trying to get through another day.
This time may be the time for self-reflection too. Start journaling. Try keeping track of the things you need to get done and slowly start accomplishing that list.
You will be feeling proficient once you start getting small tasks checked off of your list. You will begin to learn a new normal for yourself. Beginning to adjust to a new lifestyle will help with your grief.
5. Months Down the Road
The weeks and months will continue to go by, and typically, your grief will start to lessen as you live from day to day. Keep in mind; this is different for everybody. No two people will suffer through grief the same. You may compare yourself with similar versions of what other people have suffered.
You may still be working through your grief and asking the same questions; Why? How? Hopefully, these questions won’t weigh quite so heavily on your heart. With time, the sharp edges of your grief will soften.
6. Years Later
I conclude that people who have lost someone close to them never fully “finish” their grief. I have had families tell me that it is like a shadow that follows them. Not always visible or always felt, but still there.
The memories that used to haunt you may now bring you comfort. The things that used to make you cry may make you smile and fill your heart with remembered joy.
Despite the popular saying, time doesn’t “heal” the wound. But it does soften the blow. As the years go by, the sharpness of the pain will soften. The sorrow and anger and regret will give way to treasured memories and a deep but gentle longing mixed with heartache and love.
Next, let’s look a little more closely about how long grief lasts when coping with the loss of specific relationships.
How Long Does Grief Last After….
Death of a Spouse
Experts have different thoughts on grief and timelines. But most agree that mourning for a spouse can last for three years and longer.
Be compassionate with yourself. Please don’t rush to move on even though people may tell you it’s time. Follow your own itinerary.
It is vital to heal and move on. But don’t be hard on yourself.
Losing a Child
Ask anyone who has lost a child, and they will tell you that the heartache never goes away. This loss may be the worse loss a human can go through. Losing a child is considered the single worst stressor a person can experience. The grieving process parents struggle with is longer than any other grief.
Doctors say this type of grief can cause “broken heart syndrome.” Your brain releases stress hormones that will temporarily shock your heart. You may have classic symptoms of a heart attack. If you feel these warning signs, get to an ER immediately.
The first year after the death of a child, a parent is at greater risk for suicide. If you have felt the urge to harm yourself, please call this phone number 24 hours a day: National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 800-273-8255. Help is just a phone call away.
People will suffer bereavement after a miscarriage. As a woman, we feel an immediate bonding with the life we are carrying. Pregnancy hormones make us run a gambit of emotions at the best of times. Depending on the pregnancy’s duration, some women have pregnancy hormones in their system for up to two months after a miscarriage.
It is essential to take care of your physical and emotional health at this time. Your body will eventually heal from the trauma; it may take your heart much longer. Some doctors will tell you the best solution is to become pregnant again. Follow the advice that is best for you.
Death of a Parent
The loss of a parent affects us in a multitude of ways, regardless of age. Grieving a parent is different than any of the other types of grief you may feel. Parents always have a formative effect on their children, and the loss will be acutely felt.
This grief may last according to circumstances surrounding your relationship with your parent. Most people say their grief lasts from six months to a year to become adapted to the change. Perhaps a few years to get back to the way things were before the death.
A pet can quickly become part of the family. They love us, unconditionally. The acute grief you feel at this loss is normal and natural.
You may feel the same grief for a pet that you do for a person. You can expect to go through guilt, anger, denial, and even depression. People who don’t understand the bond between you and your pet may not understand your grief’s depth. It is your right to feel your grief and to work through it.
Some people feel they need to “replace” their deceased pet right away. Pet grief experts warn against this impulse. They advise working through your grief before trying to build a new relationship with another pet.
New Life Routines and Patterns
You are beginning a new life. Your life has changed in ways that can’t be undone. Change can be scary, but it can be a terrific renewal too. Life is always changing, and growth can be healthy.
Before making any significant decisions, (changing jobs, selling your house, or moving to a new state), allow yourself some healing time.
Don’t rush yourself. Try to get back to a “normal” state of mind. Eventually, you will feel like making some changes.
Some new routines might include:
- A new exercise routine. Join a gym or start taking walks with a neighborhood friend. Exercise burns off calories as well as helping to keep our emotions in control. Exercise is not just healthy for your body, but your mind and soul.
- Regular self-care. Remember to take care of yourself. Take time to make yourself feel better; a spa day, mani/pedi, maybe a little shopping spree will lift your spirits.
- Make new friends. Join new groups. Maybe join a grief group, a book club, or start going out with friends. Your relationship will never be replaced, but everyone needs a range of healthy human contact.
- Start a new hobby. Take up that old hobby you used to do, or begin a new one. Art, photography, sewing, gardening, fishing, birding. Learn a new language, or take courses online or at the local community college. Stretch yourself in new ways and this will promote a healthy mind.
Life will be different, but it can be good again. It is good to laugh. You have suffered a significant loss, but it is ok not to be sad all of the time. Some changes are “now” and changes that are “forever.”
Start looking for those small embers of light—the glowing at the end of the tunnel. Life will smooth out, and you will see a future for yourself.