How Long Should Someone Grieve?
Grief is a lifetime reality when you’ve lost someone you love.
It’s common for someone to ask, “How long should someone grieve?,” or, “When does grief start getting better?”
I often describe grief as a box that now sits in the spaces where you live. You can decide to live with it and around it, and even on top of it at times, or you can live under it. You can learn how to make it a part of the useful furnishings of your life, or you can let it overwhelm you, becoming a stumbling block whenever you try to move.
My education on grief has come from the hardest university of all. Sure, my years and training as a pastor equipped me to have a lot of experience with grieving people, but it was the loss of my wife after 25 years of marriage that truly schooled me. I learned that you can be the most empathetic person alive, but until you’ve experienced such a profound loss, you can’t begin to imagine its width and depth.
This isn’t to suggest that a counselor who has never experienced a devastating personal loss is unqualified to guide you in a time of grief. In fact, we’ve all experienced grief in some form. Don’t dismiss the advice of someone who hasn’t experienced your exact form of grief. I’ve found that others who’ve gone through the loss of a spouse at a younger age have had varying experiences. We are all a product of our upbringing, culture, and other important social factors. The best approach is to learn what we can, seek healthy advisors, and resolve to move forward and grow.
Though my book, “I Will Walk With You,” is not focused on the grieving experience, it does have a lot of valuable encouragement when it comes to facing off with the grief factor. While exploring what it means to come along beside suffering people, from the perspective of faith, the bigger picture is that we can decide what to do with the tough situations of life. We can allow them to destroy us, or we can choose to learn from them and grow stronger.
So, the simple answer is that while grief is a lifetime reality, we can learn to live with it in a healthy, productive way. Even though I am now happily remarried and experiencing the full joys of life, I still have moments when grief will demand my attention. I’ve heard the same testimony from others who’ve shared their grief stories with me. The best summary of the grief experience I’ve heard says that the first year with will be the greatest struggle while you’re trying to figure out how to survive in your new reality. The second year you’ll begin to see that you’ve made it through special occasions once, and you can do it again. By the third year, you’ll gave a greater perspective on your journey and a new confidence to live life well.
There will be people in your life who will be ready for you to be better long before you are. They will counsel you with well-meaning, but inadequate phrases like, “Don’t you think it’s time you moved on?” Rather than seeing this kind of advice as thoughtless (though, at times it is), understand it as people’s naive way of dealing with their concern for your well-being.
But, let’s be clear: living under grief, rather than over and around it, should not be a lifetime experience. It is wise to seek knowledgable counsel early in the grieving process so that your grief doesn’t control you.
You need to be in charge of your grief; your grief should never rule your life.
One of the strongest things you can do is admit you’re weak, and seek help to get better. If your second year of grief is the same, or worst than the first, you deserve qualified help. It’s perfectly normal to grieve. But, it’s not healthy to let it rule your life.
Here are a few ideas to help you process your grief, and to take control of your life once again:
1. Find a community.
While your grief is unique to you, there are still many people who’ve experienced the same factor that brought you to grieve in the first place. In the days after losing my first wife, the absolute best thing I did was to begin to get in contact with others who’d lost a spouse at a young age. Their advice and counsel was invaluable.
2. Focus on blessings.
For some of you, this advice might bring the timeless hymn, “Count Your Blessings,” to mind. Even in the face of devastating loss, there are many things still going right for you in your life. You still have friends, family, and fulfilling opportunities to live. Make it a regular habit to list and reflect on the blessings all around you. If you find no blessings, that is a red flag that you need to seek out the help of a pastor or counselor.
3. Change your “why” questions.
It’s natural to ask why something happened. God can handle our questions about his nature and how He moves through life. And, there are some grief factors that truly do stink and are totally unfair. However, I’ve noticed we never tend to question God as to why good things happen. Rather than focus on the loss, focus on what you gained by knowing and loving the one you lost. This one is hard, but it’s worth doing.
4. Learn to learn.
In the aftermath of the death of my wife, I resolved that if I had to go through something so rotten as that, I was going to learn something from it. Not only that, but I resolved to take what I learned to make someone else’s life better. Grief is an unwanted university, but if you’re being forced to attend, you might as well learn something of value from it.
May God bless you and enrich you as you grow in your understanding of grief. May you be full of hope, and confident in the wonderful person God has made you to be.
Greg Fish is the author of the book, “I Will Walk With You: Following Jesus to the Side of Those Who Suffer.” He is an author, blogger, speaker, and pastor.