The Non-Linear Timeline of Grief
Grief is unique for each person, so when trying to determine how long grieving lasts, keep in mind that there’s no one-size-fits-all grief timeline.
“Grieving is a unique experience and no one’s experience is the same. Similar emotions are felt at different points in the grieving cycle, but not in a pattern that can be predicted. This is normal and it’s perfectly acceptable. It’s important to allow emotions and thoughts to take place and work through them. There’s no set timeline of when grieving ends. In some sense, grief is never gone, but the severity of the grief diminishes over time.”
Grief can come in waves or cycles, with moments of intense sadness followed by periods of relative calm. This non-linear timeline means that the grieving process may take longer than expected, and setbacks can be common.
Some people feel better after a few weeks or months following their loss, but others might feel stuck in a cycle of pain and sorrow for years afterward.
Factors that can impact your grief
Many factors influence how we experience and process grief. This knowledge can help us better cope with our emotions.
- Duration: One of the most common questions people have after a loss is, “how long does grief last?” While there’s no definitive answer, generally speaking, it can take at least 6 months to begin to feel like you’re making progress in your healing journey.
- Type of loss: The intensity of your loss can impact how long you grieve and the type of grief you experience. When someone close to you passes away, or a relationship ends suddenly, it might take longer to heal than after a loss like losing a job or moving houses. Losing a parent, losing a spouse, or losing a child may result in a much longer grief timeline.
- Support system: Having an adequate support system around you as you grieve can be incredibly helpful in managing your emotions and helping you move through the stages of grief more quickly. This could include family members, friends, or even professional counselors specializing in bereavement counseling.
- Coping mechanisms: Different coping mechanisms work for different people when dealing with grief. For example, some people find comfort in talking about their feelings. Others may prefer activities like exercise or creative pursuits such as writing or painting. Experiment with different tools until you find something that works best for you.
- Your circumstances: Life circumstances will affect how quickly (or slowly) your grieving process progresses. If other areas of your life are going well, navigating grief might be more manageable. However, when life is more complex, it can compound the stress of your grief.
- Physical health: Lastly, physical health should always be considered when processing intense emotional states associated with grief. When you’re run down physically, your mental state can be even more taxing.
Stages of grief
Psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross first identified the stages of grief in the late 1960s. She pinpointed five distinct stages of grief.
Denial is often the first stage of grief, where an individual refuses to accept the reality of a loss. They may deny any feelings associated with their loss or attempt to avoid thinking about it altogether. This stage can help you cope with the shock of what’s happened and provide you with time to adjust before moving on to other emotions.
Anger is a common emotion during grief. It can manifest in various forms, like blaming yourself or others for what has happened or feeling frustrated about being unable to change the situation. Finding healthy outlets is essential if your anger becomes something you’re struggling to manage.
Bargaining occurs when you try (often subconsciously) to negotiate a way out of pain. For example, you might make deals with yourself (If I do X then Y won’t happen) or with your higher power (Please let me have one more day). While this behavior might temporarily relieve emotional distress, it’s usually short-lived. Bargaining ultimately can’t address the underlying issues that must be faced for healing to happen.
Depression might follow bargaining, but it doesn’t always have to. As you accept reality, you might still feel overwhelmed by your sadness. This can lead to deep despair and feelings of hopelessness and helplessness.
Acceptance doesn’t mean forgetting what was lost, but instead it involves coming to terms with the absence and understanding how life will continue. The acceptance stage might mean you’re having less intense emotions than you experience during earlier phases. It allows you the space to heal emotionally and move forward again without feeling weighed down constantly by sadness and regret.
While these stages are commonly accepted as part of the grieving process, they may not necessarily occur in this order — or at all for some people. And for those that experienced an unexpected loss, they may have unresolved grief. Either way, grief is part of the healing process of moving on after losing a loved one.