Loss is experienced by different people in different ways. How long grief lasts will depend on many factors, including the circumstances of the situation that is causing grief. Grief can be experienced as a result of major life events such as a divorce, losing a pet, or the death of a loved one.
There is no set duration of time that grief will last, nor is there a specific timeline that the grieving process follows. As long as the person is making progress on resolving their grief and improving their well-being, they are on the right track. However, a person who has difficulty with the grieving process or is seeking the use of substances to help them cope with their grief should seek professional help.
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Everyone Processes Grief Differently
People deal with grief in different ways, which can also affect how long the process takes. For a long time, this process was described in stages of grief. This grief process model suggests that a person goes through sequential stages of bereavement as they are recovering from the loss of something or someone special to them.
Another grief process model, the dual process model of grief, describes a more dynamic grieving process, where the individual goes through phases of either confronting or avoiding their grief. It suggests that their feelings will oscillate back and forth instead of progressing through stages.
The length of time it takes a person to progress through these stages or oscillate between stages of the grieving process will vary by individual. There are several factors that can determine how long it takes a person to grieve.
Factors Affecting the Duration of Grieving
The factors that affect how long the grieving process will last include:
- Type of loss: The type of loss plays a big role in how long a person’s grief will last. The length of grief after a divorce or the loss of a pet may vary greatly from the length of time it takes a person to get over the death of a spouse or child.
- Your relationship to the deceased: If the grief is following the death of a loved one, the relationship you had with the deceased will play a role in how long grief lasts. For instance, the time it takes to grieve after the death of a spouse, child or parent may be longer than that of a friend or a more distant relative. It all depends on the type of relationship you had, how close you felt to that person and the impact their absence has on your life.
- The circumstances of their death: If a person is grieving the death of a loved one, the circumstances of their death can also play a role in the grieving process. When a person is expecting the death and has time to prepare for it, they may not take as long to grieve the person as someone who dies suddenly in an unexpected way. Having closure with the person can make a big difference in the grieving process.
- Cultural beliefs: A person’s cultural beliefs can also play a role in the duration of grief. Grief is experienced in different ways among different cultures. Some cultures have mourning rituals that may help them cope with loss.
- Your own life experiences: Differences in individuals’ life experiences or outlook on life can affect their grieving process. Things like difficulty accepting loss, previous losses, personal beliefs and views on life or pre-existing conditions (such as mental health disorders) can all play a role in how long someone grieves.
These factors are also risk factors for complicated grief, which is clinically diagnosed when a person’s life is significantly affected by their grief.
When to Seek Professional Help
The time that it takes to grieve will be different for everyone, but when should someone seek professional help? The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) describes the criteria for diagnosing complicated grief as when a person’s life is significantly affected by prolonged grief for six months or more.
- Some of the symptoms of grief may include:
- Relationships, work or quality of life being disrupted
- Isolating oneself or not having a support system
- Losing interest in activities once enjoyed
- Thoughts of suicide
- Drinking or using illegal substances to cope with grief
- Feeling depressed, anxious, hopeless or fearful, or having panic attacks
- Physical signs of grief such as chest pain, irregular heartbeats, or persistent headaches
A person who is struggling with grief can seek complicated grief treatment from medical professionals who will help them develop a grief treatment plan and get them on track to resolving their grief and returning to a normal life. Treatment for grief usually involves counseling, cognitive behavioral therapy or group therapy.
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Stroebe, Margaret; Schut, Henk. “The Dual Process Model of Coping with Grief and Bereavement: Rationale and Description.” Death Studies, November 10, 2010. Accessed September 20, 2019.
Nakajima, Satomi. “Complicated grief: recent developments in diagnostic criteria and treatment.” Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London Series B Biological Sciences, September 5, 2018. Accessed September 20, 2019.