Dealing with grief after losing a loved one takes time – but why does the grieving process take longer for some? These reasons for prolonged grief will help you understand grief better, which will help you heal after loss.
It’s a myth that time heals all wounds. Perhaps your little physical wounds — a paper cut on your finger, a bloody scrape on your knee — heal with time….but time doesn’t heal other wounds on or in your body. Who is healed from appendicitis or cancer, just by letting time pass? What about schizophrenia or depression? Those are physical, mental, and emotional wounds that time does not heal. Grief is a similar type of wound — and dealing with the grief of losing a loved one will not just be healed by time. I found several factors that affect how long the grieving process takes in Elizabeth Harper Neeld’s wonderful, helpful book Seven Choices: Finding Daylight after Loss Shatters Your World.
Dealing with grief takes a different amount of time for everyone because of various personality, relationship, health, and even lifestyle factors. The thing that’s the same for everyone is that we need to allow ourselves to move through the grieving process our own way. This includes actively dealing with grief after losing a loved one as well as gently allowing yourself to heal naturally.
Active grieving makes grief go away faster. It may be a more painful way of dealing with grief because it forces you to experience the emotions of losing a loved one, but it’s healthier in the long run.
Different ways to actively grieve include journaling, joining a grief support group, reading books about the grieving process, and doing things that change your focus. Your faith and spirituality can also be a crucial part of getting through the day as a grieving widow.
Passive grieving, on the other hand, will prolong your grief. A passive grieving process involves waiting for time to heal your heart and not choosing to work through the painful emotions of losing a loved one. These avoidance tactics may make you feel better now because you’re not dealing with pain, but they will make the grieving process take longer. And, they’ll make your future losses even more difficult to survive.
7 Factors That Affect the Grieving Process
These ideas are adapted from Seven Choices: Finding Daylight after Loss Shatters Your World. It’s an excellent book on dealing with grief after losing a loved one — I’ll link to it at the end of this article.
1. Your personality and style of dealing with difficult events
Are you willing to make the hard choice of actively grieving the loss of your loved one? Then your grieving process won’t take as long.
However, if you tend to avoid making decisions on your own – and if you are dependent on other people – then you will find that dealing with grief takes longer than you expect. If you tend to avoid painful situations and realizations, withdraw from working through difficult problems, or avoid feeling the pain of your loss, then the grieving process takes longer.
How well do you know yourself? The sooner you’re willing to recognize your habits and patterns, the faster you’ll move through the grieving process.
2. How involved your lost loved one was in your life
If the person you lost was central to your life – or to your sense of self – then dealing with grief will take longer than you might expect. For example, if your whole identity was centered on being a wife for the past 47 years, then your husband’s death will hit you hard. On the other hand, if you loved your life partner but had a full, vibrant sense of self and life outside of your relationship, then you’ll continue to find meaning and fulfillment in external factors.
“This means that it is not possible to make blanket judgments about what one individual’s death will mean to another,” writes Neeld. “It is possible, for instance, for the death of a brother whom one seldom saw and did not know well to have less impact than the death of a next-door neighbor who was central in those things that gave life meaning. And a husband who is violent and despicable may have to be mourned as extensively as if he had been loving and generous, simply because he was central to the organization and structure of the life of the family.”
3. The nature of your loss
“Sudden deaths or losses, the death of a child or young person, violent or traumatic deaths, and suicides present special problems in grieving,” writes Neeld in Seven Choices. “There is often more shock, a greater sense of injustice, more guilt and blame, and a greater sense of helplessness in such situations. This greatly complicates mourning.”
She adds that although knowing in advance that you’ll lose a loved one does give you a chance to prepare for the grieving process, this advance preparation may not, in the long run, help you deal with grief quicker. You anticipated and planned for the loss, but you’re also dealing with the emotional drain of a long illness, conflicting feelings of both relief and sadness that occur after the death, and emotional bonding and attachment that developed while you were losing your loved one.
If you’re emotionally drained, read Why You Have No Energy When You’re Grieving – and How to Re-Energize.
4. Support from your family and friends
If your companions and family members understand the grieving process, it may not take as long to deal with the grief of losing a loved one. The more loved and supported you feel, the less time grief takes.
Also, if your friends and family are comfortable with mourning and able to talk about your lost loved one – and if they take actions to help you grieve because they know what’s like – then your own grieving process may be easier to bear. On the other hand, if your friends and family are uncomfortable with the grieving process and push you to “get over” the loss of a loved one, then you’ll feel unhappier and lonelier. And, some people actually encourage mourners to remain helpless and dependent, which of course doesn’t help anyone deal with grief.
5. The degree to which you grieved your past losses
“Imagine that when a woman was a child of seven or eight, her mother died,” writes Neeld in Seven Choices: Finding Daylight after Loss Shatters Your World. “And imagine that, as a child, the woman had no guidance on how to grieve and, subsequently, buried the loss as best she could, developing a way of life that always managed to skirt that delicate, painful, and complex issue. Then the woman’s husband died. His death, reaching deep into her psyche, activates the earlier, unresolved grief of the loss of her mother and possibly many more losses. In such a circumstance, the length of the grieving process may reflect the fact that multiple losses must be mourned.”
In other words, your grieving process will take longer if you haven’t actively grieved your past losses. And it’s not just losing a loved one that causes grief…it’s losing a cherished possession or even losing your sense of security and safety in the world because of a violent attack.
6. Your unacknowledged ambivalent (mixed) feelings about your loved one
Ambivalent feelings are mixed or contradictory feelings you have about your loved one — and it’s worse if they’re unexpressed.
For example, if you feel resentment and anger towards a loved one — or if you have guilty feelings about his or her death — then your grieving process will not only take longer, it’ll also be more difficult. If your disagreements and arguments were never resolved, it will take longer to get over the pain of losing a loved one.
“Perhaps there is relief that the person is gone,” writes Neeld, “even while there is sorrow. If the grieving person does not forgive herself or himself for this seeming contradiction, it will take longer to get over the loss. In order to deny negative aspects of life with the lost person, individuals may idealize the past and thereby make their mourning more difficult.”
7. Your social, economic, and personal circumstances
And finally, if you’re dealing with financial difficulties, health problems, or other personal issues, then dealing with grief will take longer and be more painful. Neeld adds that if you’re also constrained by stereotypical societal conditioning such as “men don’t cry” or “women are helpless when it comes to making decisions”, then the grieving process is more complicated.
“If you are willing and able to display grief to others, reach out to one or more people around you, and talk openly about your loss, then your grieving process won’t take as long,” says Neeld. “On the other hand, if you keep your grief to yourself, work hard to avoid losing control in front of others, and refrain from asking for help, then it’ll take longer to deal with grief over losing your loved one.”
If you feel like you have nobody to talk to, read Hope for a New Beginning When You Don’t Want to Be Alone.
Help Dealing With Grief
Seven Choices: Finding Daylight after Loss Shatters Your World by Elizabeth Harper Neeld is one of the best books I’ve read on the grieving process after losing a loved one. It’s long, which can be difficult for some mourners, but it is filled with insights and helpful tips.
I recommend reading a page — or even a paragraph — at a time. If you’re dealing with grief, you may not have the energy or emotional capacity to absorb more than that.
How do you feel after reading these reasons why the grieving process takes longer for some people? I welcome your comments below. Feel free to share how you’re coping with losing a loved one, and how you’re dealing with grief.
Your thoughts are welcome below! I don't give advice, but you can get free relationship help from marriage coach Mort Fertel.