Grief: How Long Does It Last?

When we refer to grief and bereavement, it’s usually about dealing with initial grief, that period of mourning that begins immediately following a major loss.

But grief never really goes away. After the initial phase of grief has passed, we still have times when we are overcome with nostalgia, longing and sadness. This is the second phase of grief, one which remains with us throughout life. I like to call this good grief.

Grief: How Long Does It Last?
Roman Kraft

The First Phase: Initial Grief

Loss followed by grief is one of the most painful, all-encompassing emotional experiences we will endure in life. While there is a hole in our life, which our loved one once filled, we must slowly learn to live without them. Each person’s grief process is different. You may feel symptoms commonly associated with depression, such as unease and dissatisfaction, lethargy, apathy, decreased or increased appetite, sleep disturbances, bouts of crying, agitation, and aches and pains. Some days it may take every effort just to accomplish small tasks. These are all common and normal reactions.

Loss followed by grief is one of the most painful, all-encompassing emotional experiences we will endure in life.

Time frames also vary from person to person. It might take six to eight weeks, or in my experience, six months to a year, sometimes more, to regain a sense of normal rhythm in your life. Often, patients will seek therapy three to four months following the death of a loved one. At this point, they have accepted that the person is gone and need help regaining emotional equilibrium.

After regaining balance though, grief still remains. It never goes away. And it shouldn’t. Let’s look at the second phase of grief, good grief, and why it’s important.

The Second Phase: Good Grief

Good grief is a feeling that envelopes us, many times emerging unexpectedly, while we’re in the midst of everyday life. Not as severe as initial grief, good grief lingers below the surface, and can last a few minutes or a few days. Experiencing good grief reminds us that we have endured a loss so great, it’s hard to fathom. It’s a time of remembrance.

Bill’s Story

Bill, 66, came into therapy two years after his wife passed away. Though his son was getting married, he felt melancholy instead of happy. “My son’s getting married, this should be a good time,” Bill told me. He missed his wife and imagined how excited she would have been to help with the preparations and welcome her new daughter-in-law into the family. He felt her absence, and it stirred nostalgia.

But the pain was good, in a way. And we talked about this.

Good grief is not a stage of grief. It’s the feeling of missing the person we’ve lost: a bittersweet reminder that this person made an imprint on our life, of which no amount of time or healing will ever wash away. And we wouldn’t want it to. This keeps those we love alive, within us, even after they’re gone. When we sit in the longing and nostalgia, it’s as if they’re there with us. We’re reminded that we will never be fully healed, because we have loved so deeply and lost so greatly. In a way, this is consoling.

As Bill and I discussed his emotions, he came to see missing his wife during this celebratory time as soothing. “Feeling the pain of missing her, made it feel like she was there,” he said following the wedding

Marie’s Story

Another patient, Marie, 69, reported being overwhelmed with sadness when she smelled her mother’s perfume one night at a fundraiser. A woman wearing the same scent as her mother’s sat down next to her, and a longing washed over Marie. But the moment also made her smile, as she recalled how comforting she always found the aroma of her mother’s perfume. And as sad as she felt sitting next to this woman, she also felt the warmth of her mother’s love course through her.

So while it feels terrible when that sense of loss washes over us in the midst of daily life, it can also be comforting. It means someone meant enough to us that the hole they left can never be filled. We will always be a little broken, and this, despite how awful it feels, is a good thing.

It’s good grief.

Editor’s note: Bill and Marie’s names were changed to protect their anonymity.

About the writer

Jacqueline Simon Gunn

Jacqueline is a Manhattan-based clinical psychologist and author. She holds master’s degrees in both forensic psychology and existential/ phenomenological psychology, and has a doctorate in clinical psychology. Her specialties include eating disorders, trauma, interpersonal and relationship difficulties, alternative lifestyles and sports psychology.

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