How long should grief last?

For the first two years after my brother died, I kept so busy, I barely had time to think, let alone process emotions. I was mum to a little girl and running a fashion boutique when I doubled my massive workload by opening another store for kids. Crazy I know, but at least I was too busy to feel my pain.

Then one day, I was cleaning out a linen cupboard when I came across my brother’s black coat. I pressed it to my face, hoping I could inhale the scent of him, but there was nothing to smell. I put it on and suddenly I was overwhelmed with grief.

I could not stop crying. The pain was excruciating. Huddled in my brother’s coat, all that I had repressed over the last two years burst through. I felt so terribly bereft, but my sadness was punctuated with bursts of anger. The cycle repeated - anger, sadness, anger, sadness.

I realised I needed grief counselling; I had to confront what had happened and process these emotions.

My brother

I found a clinical psychologist who I felt reasonably comfortable with and listened to what she had to say. She told me I was stuck in grief and that grief is something that you can move on from six months after losing someone.

Six months?

My brother was 35 when he died of cancer. He was a beautiful brother and a wonderful man. How could I, after just six months, ‘move on’ when I had spent my whole life loving him?

It was impossible to process a loss this immense in just six months, and I told the psychologist so.

It’s now nearly 13 years since my brother has gone and here is what I have learned about grief in that time.

  • Grief does not follow a logical path. It differs for everyone. There is no one way you ‘should’ experience grief. It cannot be organised or controlled. It may hit you all at once in the supermarket while picking up milk, or it might come in unrelenting waves that leave you breathless and barely able to function.

  • Eventually, time will dull the pain so that it is bearable enough for you to enjoy memories of the time you spent together, but there is no magic formula for getting to that point and no magic number of days, months or years before you reach that point. You get there when you get there. Just remember, you WILL get there.

  • There are things you can try to assist you in accepting, processing and living with your grief. Writing helps. Either writing to your loved one or writing about them. You don’t have to be a poet or an author; you don’t even have to know how to spell. Just the act of getting words on paper can help. It’s up to you what you do with those words – keep them, burn them, share them or bury them.

  • If you can’t write, try art. Again, you don’t have to be an expert here, just take to a canvas or paper with paint, crayon or coloured pencils and let the emotions out. Express yourself and your grief in whatever form it is in at that point in time. Sadness, denial, anger – these are only some of the emotions you might feel.

  • When you’re ready, take time to really mourn your loved one and accept that they aren’t coming back. The pain will be immense, but no matter how long you take to get there, this stage is unavoidable. I can promise you that once you move through this ‘dark night of the soul’, your journey becomes easier and your burden lighter

  • Numbing the pain with drugs, alcohol, medication or anger might keep your pain at bay for a while, but in the meantime, you are wasting precious days that your loved one did not have the opportunity to live.