THE BLOG
09/27/2013 02:55 pm ET | Updated Nov 27, 2013

When Does Grief End?

Four months after the death of her sister and best friend, as some of the initial shock began to wear off, Amber found herself wondering: "When will I be done grieving? Shouldn't I be over this by now? How long is this going to take?" She was bewildered by the realization that just when she thought she should be feeling "better," she was continuing to grieve with a power and intensity that astounded her.

Amber's friends' expectations that she should be "over it" and "moving on" didn't help one bit. In fact, it made her feel embarrassed that she was expending so emotional energy focusing on her grief. People's comments like "Why are you still so sad? Come on, it's time to move forward" made her think that she must be grieving wrong and for too long.

"My sister's death still feels unreal," Amber admitted to me somewhat hesitantly. "When I think about the day of her death, one moment she was alive, the next moment she was not. Now she was breathing, now she was not." This transition, which took place in a heartbeat, marked the beginning of a long and tumultuous journey for Amber and her family. And they, like many of you, had no idea what to expect.

Grief ebbs and flows.
As we move through grief, we do not follow a predictable trajectory in which we feel better and better each day. The pathway is landscaped with peaks and valleys. Some days will be easier than others. Some days you will feel like you are riding a roller coaster of emotions and it's not easy to see any end in sight. Be patient with yourself and trust that just as you experienced more and less intensity in the relationship when the person was alive, so it will be now that they have died.

Your heart is not on a time schedule.
There is no magical time when Amber's grief will change. And it won't help to rush it. At first she felt like she was living in a bubble with everything seeming surreal. As she began to come out of the numbness that initially surrounded her, she discovered that without nature's anesthesia, the pain of facing the reality of the death actually intensified.

Today, as she approaches the marking of the first year since her sister's death, Amber finds herself re-living in her mind all that happened last year at this time. "I wasn't even consciously aware of the date, but I was in such a funk. Then I remembered this was the date of her last admission to the hospital. I sat down and cried and just wanted to be alone." Amber and I discussed making a plan for the actual date of death and then we made an alternate back-up plan just to give her the flexibility to see how she actually feels when the day arrives.

Maintaining a connection.
Over the course of Amber's lifetime, there will be those significant life passages when she will yearn for her sister to be with her. "I just wish I could tell her what is happening in my world today," Amber confesses, "No one could understand the way she would." So last June when she walked up to receive her diploma, Amber wore her sister's favorite necklace around her neck. "I could really feel her pride in me and my tears were a bittersweet mixture of delight and pain."

What can grievers anticipate as time goes by?
• Remember that grief is a process. It is unrealistic to think that you will be "done" grieving at some definitive point in time.
• It takes time for healing to happen. Although the pain of grief often comes upon us all at once in a crushing blow, the pain lessens gradually.
• You will find relief through expressing your feelings even many months and years after the death.
• You cannot get through this alone, so find ways to seek out support -- the camaraderie and understanding of others will help to normalize your feelings. Of course, if your grief ever becomes so intense that you are feeling suicidal or that you can't go on living, reach out for immediate support from a therapist or psychiatrist.
• It helps to continue to honor and maintain a loving connection to the memory of the person who died.
• There will come a time when you will go for an hour, a day or a week without crying.
• When you are hit by a tidal wave of emotions, the duration will gradually diminish.
• There will be more time between those tidal waves.
• You will eventually be able to talk about your loved one without feeling an overwhelming sadness.
• You will find yourself laughing or enjoying yourself more often.
• You will be able to smile as you think of tender memories.
• You will begin to once again engage in activities that gave you pleasure in the past and develop new interests.
• You will begin to see and feel a possibility of hope for a meaningful life ahead.

Amber has found that letting go of how she "should" feel and finding people who are willing to accept her for how she does feel makes a big difference. Her participation in a grief support group has provided a consistent, safe place to express all her feelings with people who really care. Amber finds that for the most part, her grief is not as raw and constant as it was in the beginning, although there are certainly times when the feelings are quite intense. "I just have to be where I am at any given moment," Amber recognizes. "Knowing that grief is a life-long process to be embraced and not feared has helped a lot."

Fredda Wasserman, MA, MPH, LMFT, CT, is the Clinical Director of Adult Programs and Education at OUR HOUSE Grief Support Center, one of the nation's most respected centers for grief support and education. Fredda presents workshops and seminars on end of life and grief for therapists, clergy, educators, and medical and mental health professionals at locations throughout the country. She is the co-author of Saying Goodbye to Someone You Love: Your Emotional Journey Through End of Life and Grief. Recognized as an expert in death, dying, and bereavement, Fredda has devoted her career to life's final chapter.

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