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How Long Should Grief Last?
I saved this question until today on purpose. You see, today would have been my daughter’s 19th birthday. Did you catch the word would? She died 18 1/2 years ago. If someone were to ask me today, “how long should grief last?, I would answer “Forever.” That’s my personal response. As a professional, on a day other than today, I would probably answer “It depends.”
When Katie died, I was nonfunctional for months. My grief was intense. I couldn’t manage the normal activities of daily living. I couldn’t differentiate between shampoo and toothpaste. I cried in the grocery store because I was unable to handle choosing a can of soup. I think most people would agree that this is acceptable for a while. If I was still unable to function today, then it would outside of “normal” grief.
I would tell you that my experience today, and on every January 25th, is grief. I avoid clinical work, I visit the cemetery, and I find other ways to commemorate her existence. I feel the pain of losing her. I think a lot about what life would have been like if she had lived. Tomorrow I will return to a fast-paced, highly functional life. That’s where “it depends” comes in. It depends on how long, and how severely the emotional grief impacts function.
I usually tell people that it takes a minimum of 1 year to move through the acute grief process. It seems necessary to live through every holiday and every anniversary date before a new level of normal can be established. In my experience, people who try to avoid the grieving process actually prolong the agony.
Instead of asking, “How long should grief last?” a better question might be “How long should I be dysfunctional?” Grief lasts forever. Dysfunction should be brief. Most people can manage activities of daily living within a few weeks, although they often report feeling like they are in a fog. Day by day the fog lifts.
What some people don’t know is that grief isn’t linear. There are bumps in the road. Those bumps make you sink back into a more intense state of grief. The good news is that people don’t tend to stay there as long the second, third, and fourth time.
Leading up to today I felt the Grief (with a capital G) returning. It’s familiar and I don’t fear it so much. I know that it will recede. Truthfully, I’m not sure I really want it to go away. I miss her every day. The pain is much less frequent. I can maintain a high level of function. My grief is forever.
There are some things that you can do to help yourself.
1. Accept the loss.
2. Set reasonable expectations.
3. Ask for what you need.
4. Eliminate the word “should” from your vocabulary
5. Talk about the deceased.
6. Express your feelings honestly, to yourself and to others.
7. Expect setbacks
8. Develop rituals or memorials
9. Define acceptable levels of functioning
10. Talk to others who have shared similar experiences.
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