How Long Does Grief Last?

mournTwo years later and I am still grieving for my mother. I still grieve for the unborn baby I lost the week after her funeral, and for the babies unborn before that. I grieve for the lives that might have been and the lives that are no longer. It seems at times there are so many griefs in this life to bear. How long should we grieve for what we have lost? Should we grieve more over some losses, and less over others?

When I think of Yvonne, Karen and Eileen, all of whom have experienced a significant loss lately, I want to be able to point to a time in the future when they will feel the grief less. I know that time will come for them, but I don’t know when that time will be. I do know that the raw pain of grief will soften to be replaced by a bittersweet feeling as new milestones are faced without our loved ones by our side. The pain will never disappear entirely, but will become like rough textures in the fabric of our lives.

Along the way you will be surprised by what you learn about grief. Grief when it hits us is nothing like we expected it to be.  In A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis wrote of how no one ever told him that grief felt so like fear.  I remember thinking no-one told me how utterly exhausting grief is or how much of a physical pain it feels to live in a world recently emptied of a loved one; of how naked, exposed and vulnerable you feel.

The best description I have read of the reality of grief is in the superb book The Year of Magical Thinking, writer Joan Didion’s record of the year following the death of her husband of four decades she describes how grief  is a place none of us know until we reach it.

We anticipate (we know) that someone close to us could die, but we do not look beyond the few days or weeks that immediately follow such an imagined death. We misconstrue the nature of even those few days or weeks. In the version of grief we imagine, the model will be “healing.” A certain forward movement will prevail. The worst days will be the earliest days. We imagine that the moment to most severely test us will be the funeral, after which this hypothetical healing will take place. When we anticipate the funeral we wonder about failing to “get through it,” rise to the occasion, exhibit the “strength” that invariably gets mentioned as the correct response to death. We anticipate needing to steel ourselves the for the moment: will I be able to greet people, will I be able to leave the scene, will I be able even to get dressed that day? We have no way of knowing that this will not be the issue. We have no way of knowing that the funeral itself will be anodyne, a kind of narcotic regression in which we are wrapped in the care of others and the gravity and meaning of the occasion. Nor can we know ahead of the fact (and here lies the heart of the difference between grief as we imagine it and grief as it is) the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself.

There will be times we will think we have our grief under control and then we will find ourselves ambushed by hearing snatches of a song, or catching a scent from a passer-by that evokes our loved one. I recently sat beside an older lady on the tram who smelled so much like my mother, it took all my strength not to bury myself in her coat and inhale deeply of that beloved lost scent.  The writer Colette captures this so well when she wrote:

It’s so curious: one can resist tears and ‘behave’ very well in the hardest hours of grief.  But then someone makes you a friendly sign behind a window, or one notices that a flower that was in bud only yesterday has suddenly blossomed, or a letter slips from a drawer… and everything collapses.

How long does grief lasts? It lasts longer than you can imagine.  It lasts until the day comes when we’ve noticed we’ve gone a whole hour, a whole day without the heavy weight of grief around us; we notice that our lives have moved imperceptibly forward and while this sometimes makes us sad and we still yearn to have our loved ones with us, we learn to carry them with us always in our hearts as  treasured memories. Along the way there will be numerous set-backs, but with time these too will diminish. Grief is as individual as the person experiencing it. It is a process which neither you nor any well-meaning friends or family should rush you through; a process that requires compassion for yourself and for the process. Trust that in time you will heal from the pain of grief, but like a broken vase that has been painstakingly mended, if you look closely, you will see a tiny fracture, a thread vein of grief always present.