Complicated Grieving: When Grief Persists

I have had several conversations this week that reminded me of something I encounter frequently as a psychologist.  Our culture has an expiration date on grief.  I don’t think that we talk much about this, but it’s a sentiment that my clients express over and over.

The Expiration Date

Maybe you have experienced this.  Immediately after a loss, you get tons of support.  But within some amount of time, the support fades away.  People may not check on you as much. You start to feel as though you’ve “used up” the ability to talk about your pain.  You may experience a pressure (from yourself or others) to stop being sad, or angry, or lonely.  This arbitrary expiration date varies by type of loss.  For the end of a dating relationship, the expiration date may be a few months.  For a death in the family, you might get as much as a year.

This expiration date is an expectation by others that your grief has a predictable course, that you should “be better” according to their understanding of grief.  I frequently hear people describe their experience of these expectations.  The idea that something as personal as grief could have a universal course or timeline is something that makes me incredibly frustrated.  I also struggle with the idea that grief is something that we “get over,” like a course of the flu.  I think that is incredibly unrealistic.

Re-Examining the Duration of Grief

Let me be clear with my position about this.  I believe that grief is intensely personal.  Each person grieves in a unique, distinct way–for as long as s/he needs to.  I don’t believe that there is a right or wrong way to grieve.  I don’t believe that there is a magical point at which you “get over” grief.  I think that our grief can change over time, that it can become less intense, less debilitating.  But even when you have been through many of the milestones of grief, and life has begun to resume its course, there can be moments when the grief rears up and knocks you over.

I believe that when you feel that others have put an expiration date on your grief, that can actually increase the pain of grieving.  The artificial expiration date crates a feeling of isolation.  When you don’t feel as though your experience is valid, that creates a sense of being alone in your pain.  At a time when you need connection and support, being told that your grief has lasted too long, can cause you to withdraw.

You Are Allowed Your Own Experience

No matter what loss you have experienced, you are allowed to grieve in your own way, in your own time.  If you experienced a painful relationship loss, you can grieve for as long as you need to.  If you lost a job that defined your life, you can grieve until you are done grieving.  If your pet that has accompanied you through other losses dies, you can live your grief however you need to.  If you have lost a mother, father, spouse, child, sibling, or best friend, you may experience your grief until you decide that you are past it.

Your grief does not have to conform to anyone else’s definition or expectation.  Your grief may last longer, or include more crying, or less crying, or more anger than someone else may be comfortable with.  That is perfectly okay.  You are the expert on your own heart and you are the only person with permission to decide how that should work.

Mandatory Shrink Caveat

If there are two things that you take away from this post, they are these:  1) You are allowed to have your own grief experience, defined by you, for as long as you need; and 2) You deserve to grieve in the most healthy way possible.  So, if you feel as though you have reached a point in your grief where it is hard for you to participate in daily activities, you may need to reach out for additional help.   If you feel isolated, hopeless, or disconnected–please talk with a therapist, pastor, support group, or a close friend (even if you feel like they may be tired of hearing your pain).  You are allowed to grieve in whatever way and for however long you need.  And if your grief is compromising your health, please reach out for help and support during that grief process.


Photo Credit: Photo “Sadness” by Jacobo Garcia via Flickr

6 thoughts on “Complicated Grieving: When Grief Persists

  1. Thanks for a helpful, timely post. As a Family Physician, I see grieving people daily and offer support and validation. Many wonder why it seems “stuck” and seek our help. Allowing them to realize the personal nature of their grief and mourning is part of our obligation. How and when the grief reconciles with their broader self is a unique aspect of the human condition.
    Thanks. APJ

    1. I appreciate you taking your time to stop by and share this reflection. I am always so excited when I can work with physicians to provide whole person care to the patients who come to us!


  2. Ann, Another great post. I talk to clients a lot about this idea that grief is very individual. People are sometimes trained to think that we go through set stages within a certain timeline and then feel bad when they don’t. So what you’re saying is very validating for people. And the reactions from other people toward a person’s grief can be very invalidating. Thanks!

    1. Dawn,

      Yes–I think that you hit on one of the major struggles that many people face in their grief: invalidating response from others. I am a huge fan of encouraging people to remember that they have the right to experience their own feelings without needing approval from others.


  3. Hi Ann – thanks for this post about grief. I work with a lot of people who grieve. I specialize in perinatal issues, so I see people who lost children in the NICU and also people who lose unborn children in miscarriage. it’s very rewarding for me to work with someone who feels they need the help, and then they slowly accept the help, and along with time, they’re able to cope with their grieving and put this life experience and perspective, put it in the context of their lives. It is a very sensitive issue, and grief is not on a time schedule. Too bad our modern life wants to put everything on a time schedule.

Leave a Reply