How Long Does Grief Last? Managing Expectations Around the First Couple Years Post Loss

When someone you love dies, the most obvious and devastating thing in your mind is permanence. I will never see him or her again. My children will never know their grandmother, or their father or aunt.

Given the permanence of death, it makes sense to question whether the intense grief that makes it hard to go about your everyday life will continue forever as well.

All grief counselors—and most people who have experienced grief themselves—will warn you that everyone’s timeline for grieving is different. That does not mean there aren’t similarities, though. Here’s a very rough timeline that describes how most people experience the evolution of grief in the months and years following a major loss.

After Six Months

Many people find that the most intense grief begins to fade after about six months. This doesn’t mean the grief is over, just that it’s no longer impossible to focus at work or to think about anything other than the huge hole in your life. You will still be deep in grief, but most people start to see small improvements in their mood and outlook about six months post-loss.

After a Year

The one-year anniversary of your loved one’s death is almost always hard. Some people find the beginning of the second year without their loved one even more difficult. The fact that he or she is never coming back really starts to sink in.

On the other hand, at this point your grief will likely not be as intense. You will have survived all of the year’s milestones—birthdays, holidays, insurance renewals and school traditions. The person who died will undoubtedly still be in your mind, but by one year after a death you’re starting to figure out how to live without him or her.

The Second Year

At this point, you’re getting through the second set of birthdays and holiday traditions without your spouse, parent or sibling. There will be moments where life seems like it’s back to normal, or at least that you’ve created a new normal.

Think of grief as the ripples in a still lake after a stone is thrown in. Your loved one’s death is the stone. The ripples represent your grief. At first, the moments of grief are close together, with little space for anything else. As you get further away from the point of impact, there are still ripples, but they get further apart and less choppy.

You will still experience intense grief, even two or more years after your loved one’s death. The grief you feel might be debilitating, but it will probably subside after a day or week. There will likely be more time in between the episodes of intense grief, giving you more of an opportunity to move your life forward.

Year Three and Beyond

After you hit the second anniversary of your loved one’s death, you’ll have more moments when you feel like life is “normal” again. The loss you’ve experienced will have become a part of who you are, rather than something that causes constant pain.

At this point, your life will probably be different, too. You might have moved, had a child or gone through any number of significant life events. It will be bittersweet to experience these milestones without your loved one there, but it will help you feel like your life is moving forward.

There will still be those waves of intense grief. They might get further apart as time goes on, but for most people they never entirely disappear. Instead, you’ll learn how to hold sadness and happiness in your heart at the same time.

Your life can be just as happy as it was before your loved one’s death—or even happier. We often think of sadness and happiness as opposites that can’t exist at the same time, but people who have rebuilt their lives after a major loss will often tell you that the two emotions often coexist.

If you need help navigating the grief process and want to explore ways to survive the “grief ripples,” either immediately after a loss or in the years following, both professional counseling and support groups can help. Together, we’ll move towards building a happy life that honors the loved one you lost.

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