Posted on December 22, 2020
The grieving process can feel never-ending. Learn how long grief lasts and what the process could look like.
Grief is a person’s normal, healthy response to a loss. It’s a state of emotions that are felt when a person experiences a significant loss. Though we often think about grief in the context of bereavement –– a loved one’s death such as a child’s death –– it’s actually something that can be felt for a myriad of reasons including:
Death of loved ones, including pets
Divorce or changes in a relationship, including friendships
Changes in your health or the health of a loved one
Losing a job or changes in financial security
Changes in your way of life, such as during retirement or when moving to a new place
Physical loss of a home or personal belongings
Future plans made, or the ways life will change after a major event
While there is a universality to the state of grief, the full expression will vary based on the individual. Everyone experiences grief very differently based on the type and severity of loss, and their personality. Sometimes it helps to attend grief counseling through a therapy matching service to help with prolonged grief, intense grief, or even unresolved emotional pain.
Because a grief journey so different for everyone, there is no “right” way to grieve. It’s important for a grieving person to take the necessary time to experience loss in their own way, while also taking care of themselves. Feelings of deep sadness and sorrow are common in grief. Often, people find themselves engaging in behaviors that are different or unusual, or thinking in ways that are unfamiliar and disturbing. Finding their beliefs challenged in grief, many people experience a kind of “spiritual crisis” following loss.
Grief can include many emotional and physical symptoms, including:
Feelings: Anger, anxiety, blame, confusion, denial, depression, fear, guilt, irritability, loneliness, numbness, relief, sadness, shock, or yearning
Thoughts: Confusion, difficulty concentrating, disbelief, hallucinations, or preoccupation with what was lost
Physical sensations: Dizziness, fast heartbeat, fatigue, headaches, hyperventilating, nausea or upset stomach, shortness of breath, tightness or heaviness in the throat or chest, or weight loss or gain
Behaviors: Crying spells, excessive activity, irritability or aggression, loss of energy, loss of interest in enjoyable activities, restlessness, or trouble sleeping.
It’s completely normal to become angry – at a situation, a particular person, or just angry in general. Guilt is another common response, which may be easier to accept and overcome by looking at the experience in terms of “regret.” People in grief may have strange or disturbing dreams, be absent-minded, withdraw socially, or lack the desire to participate in activities that used to be enjoyable. While these feelings and behaviors are normal during grief, it’s important to remember that they will pass. In general, grief makes room for a lot of thoughts, behaviors, feelings and beliefs that might be considered abnormal or unusual at other times. Following significant loss, however, most of these components of grief are, in fact, quite normal.
There are many ways to manage your grief from the moment of loss onward. It’s normal to have ups and downs that come and go throughout the day, or vary from day to day. Be prepared to adjust management approaches to meet the needs of the day.
Allow crying, numbness, or even anger. It’s perfectly normal to feel “negative” emotions. The pain is real, and sometimes the only way to get past it is to work through it.
Get enough sleep, eat a well-balanced diet, and exercise as regularly as possible.
Talk about feelings with others, or find a creative way to express emotions and thoughts. This could include art, music, or writing in a journal.
Get back into a normal routine as soon as possible. Try to keep up with daily tasks to avoid becoming overwhelmed.
Alcohol is a depressant that can affect mood, so it has the potential to worsen negative emotions..
It takes time to adjust to a loss and get back to a normal state of mind. Making an impulsive decision while grieving could add more stress at an already difficult time. Try to wait a year before making a big change, like moving or changing jobs.
Take breaks from grieving by participating in normal activities. It’s okay to not feel sad all the time, and it’s important to find joy where possible.
Struggling doesn’t need to be part of grieving. Seek out friends, family, clergy, a counselor or therapist, or support groups. If your symptoms aren’t getting better consider seeing a grief counselor.
Unfortunately there is no standard roadmap for the grief process. After twelve months, it may still feel as if everything happened yesterday, or it may feel like it all happened a lifetime ago. Some people start to feel better in 6 to 8 weeks, but the whole process can last anywhere from 6 months to 4 years.
People often have expectations about how quickly a person should move on, but that doesn’t account for the fact that grief changes over time, as the griever understands how different their life is with the loss.
In the early stages of grief it’s easy to get caught up in a whirlwind of things that need to be done or sorted, which can create feelings of shock and numbness. After several months, the initial support from friends and family may start to fade, which can mean so does the numbness as the person starts to come back to reality. Some of the physical symptoms of grief, such as having trouble sleeping and loss of appetite, also lessen over time.
The process is not black and white. A person won’t be grieving one day and then suddenly not the next. It’s a gradual process, so even if a person isn’t through with their own grieving process, they will start to feel better in small ways over time. It will get a little easier to get up in the morning, and slowly it will feel possible to reorganize life around the loss or without a loved one.
It’s possible to feel happy and optimistic while still in grief. During this time, it’s normal to go through a series of ups and downs. As time passes, the balance between good days and bad days shifts and gradually there will be more good days and fewer bad days. But these changes are gradual, and each person is different, so the balance may not be the same as someone else after the same length of time. And, if the person is in bereavement, specifically, it’s normal to feel guilty or disloyal to the person who has passed during this time. It’s also common to relive some feelings of grief on birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, or other special occasions past the official grieving period.
Grief is sometimes described as a process of 5 stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. All of these reactions to loss are normal. However, not everyone who is grieving experiences all of these reactions, and not everyone experiences them in the same order. It is common to cycle back through some of these reactions, stages, and symptoms more than once.
Avoid setting expectations to be doing things in the same way or at the same time as other people seem to be, and avoid feeling pressured to feel better or move on because other people think that’s the right thing to do. After a while, family, friends and colleagues at work may encourage the person to move on from the loss. The griever might even feel like it is time to have gotten past it. But, it’s important to remember that the goal is not to move on, and grief is not something that can or should be “fixed.” The goal is to find a way to live with and cope with feelings long term. Be compassionate with and take the space and time needed to grieve. A loss can change a person’s life forever, and that takes quite an adjustment.
While it’s normal to feel sad after a loss, the heightened feelings associated with grief should be temporary. If these emotions are severe or last longer than normal, a grieving person may have trouble dealing with emotions beyond self-management. If left alone for too long, grief can turn into depression, which can become serious. The symptoms of grief and depression are similar so it’s important to be aware of how the grief is progressing. Look for signs like:
Not feeling better as time passes
Ongoing difficulty with eating or sleeping
Disruption daily life
Reliance on drugs or alcohol to cope
Thoughts or actions of self harm
If any of these symptoms extend beyond a reasonable grieving period, it’s important to seek help from a therapist. A general practitioner can also help treat signs of depression by prescribing medication to help the person until they’ve been in treatment with a mental health counselor for enough time to start seeing improvement.
Grief counseling is a type of therapy designed to help people who have experienced a loss, find meaning, and move through the stages of grief to begin the healing process. Grief counselors study the stages of grief and are educated on techniques for helping people move through each phase in healthy, productive ways as they mourn the death of a loved one.
Grief therapy won't solve every problem related to traumatic loss, but sessions with behavioral health grief counselors can help work through the stages of complicated grief. Although the time in grief counseling may have far-reaching effects, there are limitations. Much of the work is left to the person in grief when they’re ready.
Grief counseling can occur in many different ways. This could include a support group, individual therapy, or medicine. Whether group therapy, individual, or both, are chosen here are some of the things one can expect to cover in grief therapy:
In grief counseling, people learn to express what they are feeling. This step can be difficult for those who have trouble expressing emotions when they are not grieving, but learning to talk about grief is an important part of the process. In therapy sessions, patients may be asked to write letters that express thoughts and feelings left unsaid. Other ways to get in touch with feelings include looking at photos or visiting a gravesite.
This part of the counseling process is there to help people move forward with their lives by opening themselves up to new relationships and experiences, while still incorporating the past with the changes that come in the future.
During grief therapy, the patient must also work through their identity that exists without their loss. Patients may find new purpose in focusing their energy on other existing relationships, like strengthening friendships after losing a spouse. Others may find doing volunteer work to help fill a need to care for others.
No matter how you approach your treatment, seeking support from a therapist will help move past grief in a healthy and productive way. If grief counseling is the right path for you, Advekit can help match you with a grief therapist today.
Alison LaSov, LMFT
Alison LaSov is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist with experience treating clients struggling with anxiety and depression. She predominantly focuses on mental health intervention for children and adolescents, particularly those who are in crisis. She has worked within the Los Angeles education system treating students with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs), as well as supervised a non-profit Teen Crisis Hotline out of Cedars-Sinai Hospital. Alison earned her B.A. from UCLA and M.A. from Pepperdine University. She is a native to Los Angeles and co-founder at Advekit.