In Western culture, we tend to categorize everything into neat little checklists, tasks, and timelines. This compartmentalization can help organize our thoughts, but can also include how we perceive difficult emotions. We want to categorize and sort out grief, how we should experience it, and how long it should last. We want to know precisely how long grief lasts and who’s responsible for getting us through it.
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One of the pioneers in the field of grief and bereavement is the noted American-Swiss psychologist Elizabeth Kübler-Ross. In 1969, her research in death, dying, and bereavement yielded grief stages that delineate how individuals suffering terminal illnesses come to terms with dying.
One of the key takeaways from her research is that Kübler-Ross insisted that we shouldn’t take the stages of grief so literally because grief doesn’t always manifest in such a tidy and linear fashion.
Why Isn’t There a Timeline for Grief?
Having a neat timeline for grief is nearly impossible as everyone experiences grief in their own way and timeframe. The way we process grief is unique to each of us as individuals. It is idealistic to expect your emotions to follow a standard progression or timeline, and yet we all seem to think we will be different.
Your experience is and will always be different from anyone else's. Your grief may come in waves, hit you all at once, or may be delayed. Some people feel consumed by their suffering from the moment they learn of their loss, while others will experience nothing for a few days, weeks, or even months.
The grieving process is different for everyone, and no two people can ever compare their experience to another's, expecting them to be identical.
What Can Get in the Way of a Linear Grief Timeline?
Delays in the acceptance of your loss, secondary and other major losses, and unresolved past traumas can all get in the way of your grief following a linear timeline. There are many complexities to the way you grieve. Your past experiences, along with your current physical, mental, and overall well-being, will all have an impact on how long it takes you to get through your grief.
Both external and internal forces contribute to the grief process. The following are some examples of things that can get you off track in your grief journey.
1. A significant death or loss
Not everyone will experience normal grief immediately following a significant loss or the death of a loved one. Some people who experience loss will have complications in their grieving that may feel like an absence or delay. Those suffering the death of a significant other, a child, or in cases of sudden or violent deaths, may feel numbness for a while.
Here, grief may feel delayed and develop into Prolonged Grief Disorder, where extreme distress is still present six months or longer after suffering a loss.
2. A pandemic
With so much loss and devastation around, you may find yourself grieving the death of a loved one who's a victim of the current global health crisis. You may even be experiencing the loss of friends and neighbors who've also fallen victim to illness or disease. Every passing day brings news of more people dying.
News of the crisis in hospital emergency rooms being filled up with patients and having to isolate yourself from others also contribute to not being able to grieve appropriately. Facing your grief when there are so many things that can throw you off-track can be difficult at best. Your grief may feel delayed, drawn-out, or buried beneath layers of other emotions in times like these.
3. Sudden and unexpected deaths
Whenever there’s the sudden or unexpected death of someone you love, shock and disbelief overtake your senses in the first few hours or days following the news. While it may seem that you’re frozen in your grief and cannot feel anything, shock and disbelief are part of the grieving process.
There are different types of grief and ways in which you’ll experience your loss. The first stage of grief in the Kübler-Ross grief model is denial. Shock and disbelief make up this denial stage of grieving.
4. Secondary losses
Experiencing secondary losses that result from the direct loss can send your grief trajectory spinning. Secondary losses occur when you realize that the death of your loved one or other significant loss in your life creates a snowball effect that causes you to suffer other losses associated with the first.
For example, your partner or spouse's death not only produces the heartbreak and devastation associated with losing someone you love, but it can also lead to other losses that affect you in unexpected ways. Loss of companionship, loss of their income, and loss of support within the household are all examples of secondary losses. You may not feel their effect until many months or even years after their death.
5. Other significant losses
Multiple deaths coinciding or one after another in a short period will cause you to suffer a more complicated type of grief. As with most grief, cumulative grief or grief overload doesn't follow a strict timeline or linear grief stages. When you're grieving multiple losses, your grief progress will take longer than what's considered normal.
Generally, you can expect to experience a gradual improvement in the way you feel following a significant loss anywhere from six months to a year. Suffering multiple losses compounds your grief and extends this timeframe sometimes by years. Consider seeking professional grief counseling or therapy if you're having trouble coping with your grief or if you're experiencing chronic depression.
6. Disenfranchised grief
When facing the death of a loved one whom you can't openly mourn, the traditional paths to healing are usually not available to you. Not relying on your friends and family for support may cause you to grieve in silence. This type of mourning is referred to as hidden or disenfranchised grief. It's grief that goes unacknowledged or is minimized by society.
Examples of this type of grief occurred when a person's had an illicit affair or in cases of death by overdose or suicide. The fear of being judged causes many people to suffer in silence. They may even fear getting judged by a therapist, so they avoid seeking outside help.
7. Holidays and other special days
Coping with the death of a loved one or other significant loss in your life can be challenging during the holidays. Even other special days throughout the year can prove difficult to get through without your loved one around. Grief during the holidays can add stress to an already exacting situation sending your grief progress spiraling downward.
When faced with deep sorrow and pain, you won’t be checking your grief calendar to see if you’re supposed to be feeling such intense grief at this particular point, according to the chart. Grief will ebb and flow. Some days you may feel as if you’ve got a handle on it, while the next can take you back to the intensity of the pain you felt during the first few days.
8. Major life milestones
Whenever life happens, it usually refers to minor setbacks and other challenges that you can easily overcome. When tragedy strikes, it can affect you most during life's major milestones without your loved one there. As these days come up on the calendar, they can derail even the most carefully planned out path in your grief journey.
Special occasions and major life milestones such as weddings, graduations, or a baby's birth can all signal regression in your healing. You may never have expected to celebrate these milestones without your loved one around. The pain and sorrow associated with a loss around significant life events can set you back from any linear grief trajectory.
9. Prolonged illness and caregiving
A person who’s been a caregiver to a loved one who’s died will also experience grief differently than others whose path follows a more traditional timeline toward healing. A caregiver who’s suffered through their loved one’s prolonged illness will have had time to process their grief before their loved one’s death.
In some cases, the anticipation of death and all of the work associated with being a caregiver will have sped up the grieving process for them. Some people in this position will not always follow the usual six to twelve months of mourning. They may feel a sense of relief and be ready to move forward with their life shortly after their loved one’s death.
10. Unhealthy or abusive relationships
Feelings of relief at the death of a loved one who caused you to suffer in an unhealthy or abusive relationship are not uncommon. These feelings can get in the way of a linear grief timeline in the sense that their death can seem liberating from a lifetime of angst and frustration.
A person who’s experienced this type of loss may not mourn their loved one’s death at all. They may also not experience any setbacks in moving forward with their life.
11. Age and maturity
A very young person who hasn’t reached a level of maturity and understanding of death is incapable of suffering grief linearly.
Their limited experience and comprehension shield them from this type of suffering. It’s not unusual for them to move forward as if nothing’s happened.
Grief’s Timeline For Healing
Modern research is redefining grief to show that it isn’t linear nor experienced in a box. Even though there’s no right way to grieve, grief is still an experience and process that must be surrendered to in order to heal from a loss.
Allowing grief to unfold naturally and in its own time is the best way of moving through it.