How long does grief last? When will I start to feel normal again?

Each person has a unique reaction to the death of a loved one. The stronger the relationship was with the deceased, the stronger is the grief reaction. "Stronger" does not necessarily mean loving. It could mean intense, dependent, loving, ambivalent, or conflicted.

The length of grief also depends on one's personality, the history of past losses, and the available support system. Grief does not get easier day by day. It is more of a roller coaster of reactions. One day may seem almost normal; the next may be an intense grief day. Often the first few months after a death are busy with the details following a death such as cleaning out a house and doing financial and legal paperwork. This can be a time when the bereaved person copes by keeping busy. When the "to do" list is finished, the emotions of grief often become more intense.

Grief takes a natural course. For some people and some relationships, this will be a matter of months. For others grief may take longer. Even when grief lasts longer, it tends to become "softer" over time and less overwhelming.

What is a normal grief reaction?

Normal grief affects every aspect of one's life. It is normal to have trouble sleeping, to eat more or to have no appetite, and to feel exhausted for several months. Grief is often felt physically as pain, weakness, or restlessness. Often the immune system is compromised by the long period of stress, so people are more susceptible to illness. It is normal to have trouble concentrating and making decisions. It is normal to have a range of emotions, from sadness, loneliness, fear, and anger to relief, confusion, regret, and guilt. Spiritual faith can become stronger, but some people find themselves questioning their faith and being angry at God. Social patterns can change, especially those connected to the deceased.

I am not crying, is that okay? Or, I am crying all the time, is that normal?

If you are a crier, you will probably cry; if you are not a crier, you probably won't cry much. Often when the illness was a long one, people have done anticipatory grief, grieving before the actual death. In these cases, sometimes people do not grieve as intensely after the death because they have done much of the grieving during the illness.

Should my child attend the funeral?

The answer to this question depends on several factors, including the age of the child and the relationship the child had with the deceased. Usually the best course of action is to explain to the child what happens at the rituals after the death and ask if he or she would like to attend. Children often like to be part of the rituals, helping to make the photo collages, putting a letter or something special to them in the casket, etc. If there is a wake, it is useful to have a place the child can go to take a break and to have a supportive friend or relative be with them.

I can't sleep. When will I be able to sleep again?

Sleep patterns following a death are often disrupted. This is sometimes due to a pattern of caregiving which involved getting up during the night, and of light sleeping because of listening for the ill person calling for assistance. In the case of the death of a spouse, the bereaved often stays up late because it is so hard to go to bed alone, or goes to bed early because evenings are so lonely. Some people also find themselves waking in the middle of the night thinking of things they wished had happened differently and going over and over the events leading up to the death. It is best to set a regular sleep schedule and have calming routines before bedtime. Avoiding caffeine after lunchtime and avoiding excessive alcohol intake is also helpful.

Nobody understands me, and people say things that are hurtful.

Our society does not have a good understanding of normal grief. Friends and family may make comments which they feel are supportive, but which hurt deeply - even a simple comment such as "you look great, you are so strong" can make you feel helpless and unable to express the feelings of grief. Workplaces generally allow three to five days of bereavement leave, hardly enough to begin to take care of practical details following a death, much less emotional reactions. You may find friends and family avoid contacting you, or avoid talking about the deceased because of their own discomfort in knowing how to be supportive.

You are put in the unfortunate circumstance of having to tell people who care about you how they can best support you through your grief. It helps to have a list of concrete things people can do to help. Directly expressing your needs helps your friends and family members to understand grief. Some examples include:

I don't like to eat alone.
Evenings are lonely; can you give me a call then?
Weekends are endless and it would help to have something on my calendar to do.
I'm having trouble figuring out how to pay my bills online, can you help?
I need to find a reliable repairman, or lawn service, or plowing service, can you help?
You may find the best support comes from others who have experienced a major loss. Seek out friends, workmates, and family members who have gone through grief; they are more likely to understand and support you.

I can't concentrate, and I'm having trouble making decisions.

It is normal to have trouble making decisions following a death. Your mind is working all the time on processing the loss, and this can be overwhelming. If possible, it is best to avoid making major decisions such as moving for a year after the loss because feelings and thoughts change over time.

My appetite has changed and I don't feel like cooking.

Some people find after a death that they are constantly hungry and eat often. Others say they have no appetite and no desire to cook. Particularly if you were accustomed to eating with the person who died, mealtime can be sad and lonely. Try to make a list of foods that are easy to prepare and easy to digest. Try to eat a healthy diet on a regular schedule; your body needs the nourishment. It may help to invite family or friends over and cook for them. Try to accept invitations to eat at other's homes or to go out. Grocery stores have many items that are easily prepared in the microwave when you do not have the energy or motivation to cook.

I feel like I'm going crazy. Is this normal?

This is one of the most normal feelings of grief. Your world has changed in so many ways because of the death, and each day you find more ways that it has changed. Every time you feel like you have a handle on your grief and are coping well, you end up having an intense grief day that overwhelms you yet again. It can help to talk with others who have been through a similar loss or to read about grief to validate your own experience.

Do men and women grieve differently?

There are some general patterns in male and female grief, although the stereotypes do not apply to everyone. Women usually want to talk more about their feelings and about what happened during the illness and death. It helps them to tell the story over and over. Men often do not feel this need; they may tend to grieve more internally and more physically. Women tend to seek more support while men often feel they need to go through their grief on their own. Every person has both feminine and masculine characteristics, so these stereotypes will not fit everyone. It is best to realize that some people are more solitary and quiet in their grief and others are more emotional and expressive.

Is it normal to feel the presence of the person who died and to talk to him/her?

Many people describe feeling the presence of the person who died, hearing his or her voice, or feeling comforted by dreams of the deceased. Others have described a feeling or warmth or even a physical feeling of being touched or hugged.
It is normal to talk to the person who died. Many people talk over their day or their problems; if the relationship was a long one and the pattern was to talk things over, then continuing this pattern can be helpful. Often the bereaved works out problems by thinking about how their loved one would handle things.

I thought I was adjusting, but now as the anniversary of the death is approaching, I feel like the death just occurred.

As the anniversary of the death approaches, most people find that their grief is intensified. Memories of the weeks before the death and the day of the death tend to replay vividly. Time warps with grief; the death can feel like yesterday and like years ago all at the same time. This is normal.

I dread the holiday season. Do others feel this way?

Most people find the important days such as birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays intensify grief. Many of those going through grief say they would rather avoid the holiday season altogether. Some people choose to honor holiday traditions; others find that changing traditions make the holidays easier. Some choose to go away, others to stay home. Most find gift giving hard; simplifying this by using catalogs, gift cards, and ordering gifts online can ease this difficult process. It does help to have a plan for the important days; knowing who you will be with and what you will do for those days can alleviate some of the apprehension as the days approach.

I don't seem to care about anyone or anything like I used to. Is this normal?

Having a loved one die sometimes takes much of the joy out of life for a time. If you shared many activities with the one who died, these activities seem to have less meaning. It hurts to grieve, and sometimes people find they want to withdraw from close relationships to avoid further hurt. Others find themselves working overtime because their work role is one that has not changed and is a temporary respite from grief. Exhaustion in the months following a death also interferes with caring about people and activities. It is vitally important to provide the care for yourself that you have provided to others - good sleep, a healthy diet, fresh air and exercise, appropriate health care, and regular social contact and relaxation. With time and self-care comes a restoration of physical, emotional, and mental reserves and a willingness to engage in life.

Is it common for people to "redo" past grief with a new loss?

Current losses often bring to mind past losses. The death of one parent often causes children to remember and grieve for the first parent who died. A death as an adult can bring back the experience the bereaved went through with a death in childhood and the grief is reworked on an adult level.

Can I control my grief?

Grief typically comes in waves and feels like a ride on a roller coaster. As such, it is not a process easily within our control. However, taking good care of oneself and allowing outlets for grief - talking, writing, artistic or musical expression, memory books and other ways to actively allow the grief process to occur - can help you work through your grief. Avoiding the grief or suppressing it does not work and sometimes even results in physical pain or illness. Figuring out what has helped you cope with losses and crises in the past can help you figure out what can help you through the current loss. Allowing others to provide support is a very important component of healing.

How do I know when I need bereavement counseling? What does a bereavement counselor do?

If you find that the normal symptoms of grief such as sleep disturbance, change in appetite, intense emotions, feelings of regret or guilt, or excessive ruminating about what happened are interfering with your daily functioning, then it may be helpful to talk to a bereavement counselor.

Bereavement counselors provide education about normal grief and share suggestions about what might help you through the grief process. They can help you figure out ways to help other family members, including children, through grief. They can give you specific techniques to help you make it through the lonely days and nights. They can help you plan for difficult days such as birthdays and holidays, and talk about ways you can honor the memory of your loved one. Bereavement counselors can help you cope with anxiety and negative thinking. They respect your grief and listen to it, hearing about the person who died and the experiences you had with that person. They can help you figure out how to go on with your life and connect you to useful resources in the community. They can help you let go of the pain of the loss without letting go of the person. When you feel alone in your grief, bereavement counseling can help.

I am feeling my grief intensely, but other family members seem to be going on with their lives more easily. Why is this?

The intensity of grief tends to reflect the intensity of the relationship. Each family member had a different relationship with the person who died, so each family member will have a unique course of grief. It is not useful to compare your grief to others. This is also why advice given by others as to "how to grieve" often is not helpful.

There also are generational differences in grieving patterns. Often those who lived through the Great Depression, World War II, and rationing have a very practical way of approaching crises; they may have more of a philosophy of "I pull up my bootstraps and get on with life; I can't change what happened". They may be less likely to express emotion and talk about the death.

I feel stuck and unable to move on with my life. Grief has taken over my thoughts, feelings, and identity. What should I do?

Feeling "stuck" or "stalled" in one's grief is a strong reason to seek bereavement support through individual or group counseling. There are often ways a professional can guide you through the grief process and help identify what obstacles are keeping you from adjusting to your loss.