Grief is a complex process and emotion that affects us all in different ways. Understanding what to expect from a grief timeline can help you move through the process, but how long does grief last? It’s an important question to ask, and perhaps the most critical thing to understand about grief is that it has no single timeline.
The grieving process depends on factors like age, circumstances, and the nature of the loss — even culture can play a role. Keep reading as we explore the various aspects of grief, so you know exactly what to expect when mourning the loss of a loved one or dealing with other challenging events in life.
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.
How long does grieving last on average? The length of time someone grieves will depend on you, your circumstances, and the type of significant loss you’ve experienced. On average, normal grief can last anywhere from 6 months to 2 years or more. Research shows that many people find their grief starts to improve within about 6 months after a loss.
Grieving never truly stops because our lives are forever changed when we lose someone we love. Over time, however, we can learn how to cope with our new reality. This allows us to start healing emotionally and can eventually lead us to acceptance. Of course, there will always be moments when you miss the person you lost.
“Grief is a complicated emotion and hard to truly define. However, it’s something that’s felt by just about every person. In that sense, grief doesn’t ever stop or go away. The pain of grief does lessen over time. The impact of the loss will always be there so the pain will always be there. It’s acknowledging that it exists and continuing to move forward with it.”
Although there isn’t an exact timeline that answers the question: how long should it take to grieve, there are some things you can do to make it easier to cope:
Allow yourself space and time – Give yourself permission, not only physically but mentally, to take breaks away from work/family commitments if needed. Give yourself plenty of space and quiet moments alone if you need them.
Take care of yourself – Make sure you take care of your physical needs. Eat healthy meals regularly and try to exercise daily — even a short walk can do wonders for your well-being. Do things that bring you joy. Read books, listen to music, be creative, and do anything you love. Doing small daily acts of self-care will help you slowly build resilience over time.
Seek help from professionals – Talking about your feelings with a therapist or counselor can be incredibly beneficial as you learn how to deal with grief. They can teach you effective grief therapy techniques that help you cope with the pain.
“There’s no quick tip or trick to hasten the grieving process, but there are ways to help a person cope with it and work through it in a healthy manner. Be sure to rely on the established support system, allow for the necessary emotions (even the ‘bad’ ones) to take purchase, and if it becomes too much, seek help, online or in person. Grief therapists specifically work with individuals struggling and can often lend insights and more coping skills to help.”
Grief can be an overwhelming and difficult emotion to process. If you’re struggling, don’t hesitate to get help through online grief counseling. Online therapy is a safe space that offers support and resources in navigating the grieving process. With professional guidance from Talkspace therapists, you can find relief from your sorrow and begin healing on your terms. Please don’t suffer alone — we’re here to help you navigate the grief process, no matter how long that takes.
Grief, bereavement, and coping with loss . PDQ Supportive and Palliative Care Editorial Board. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK66052/. Published October 18, 2022. Accessed December 21, 2022.