How Long Do the Stages of Grief Last?

Jake Newby

| 4 min read

When we picture someone grieving, we may envision a single-instance situation in which someone cries to themselves at a funeral or in their home following the loss of a loved one. But the grieving process is just that – a process. It involves a range of emotions, expressions, and actions that a person experiences as they try to cope with a devastating loss.
Feelings of grief – which are generally broken down into stages – gradually ease over time as a person accepts a loss and moves forward. But grief doesn’t look or feel the same for everyone, which is why the timetable to recover is different for every person.

What are the stages of grief?

The five stages of grief derived from a 1969 book written by Swiss American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. They are:
  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Depression
  • Acceptance
In recent years, the seven-stage grief model has been touted by some experts to better explain the nuanced, complicated experiences that come with grief. Those are:
  • Shock and denial
  • Pain and guilt
  • Anger and bargaining
  • Depression
  • The upward turn 
  • Reconstruction and working through
  • Acceptance and hope 
Whichever model you consider more relatable, these stages should be viewed as tools to help frame and identify feelings. They were developed to make us better equipped to cope with life and loss. 

How long does the grieving process last?

The length and intensity of emotions grieving individuals experience varies. Not everyone experiences the stages of grief in linear fashion, and some people don’t experience each of them at all. Someone may feel better for weeks or months before emotions associated with grief resurface.
Some research states that intense symptoms of grief peak in the six months after a death or loss. But it’s not uncommon for grief to span several years. When discussing a question that doesn’t have a simple, black-and-white answer, it’s important to break down the differences between normal grief and complicated grief. 

What is complicated grief?

When those intense, debilitating feelings of grief persist for multiple years, that is typically when normal grief transitions into complicated grief, also known as prolonged grief disorder (PGD).
PGD is considered common in people who have lost a child or romantic partner and is more likely to occur after a violent or abrupt death. According to a study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry, those with PGD typically suffer from these symptoms:
  • Disbelief and bitterness relating to the death
  • Confusion about one’s identity
  • An inability to trust others 
  • A numbness, absence of emotion, or feeling that life is empty and meaningless
  • Difficulty accepting the loss and moving on with life (socializing with friends, pursuing interests, planning for the future)
PGD is often confused with depression. But PGD involves persistent longing for someone who has passed away, while symptoms of depression involve more general feelings of detachment, sadness and loss of interest.

Recovering from grief

For some people, prolonged grief disorder therapy (PGDT) might be recommended by a primary care provider. This short-term treatment is based on research in psychological and social functioning after loss. Studies show treatment for depression is less helpful than PGDT for those with the condition. PGDT is catered to a person’s specific needs and can include discussions and therapy in the following areas:
  • Attachment relationships
  • Self-determination processes
  • Emotion regulation processes
  • Cognitive processes
  • Relational and social self
  • And several other psychosocial processes
Grief can feel overwhelming, especially when it is unexpected. Taking time out for self-care, and to address our body’s basic needs as we grieve, can only help. Be sure to drink enough water, take part in gentle, daily exercise and prioritize resting and recharging. It’s important to remember that we grieve because we experience love and connection. There’s no need to apologize for grief or for displaying an outward change in emotions in response to losing a loved one.
In some cases, complicated grief or PGD may leads to thoughts of suicide. If you or someone you know is considering harming themselves, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by dialing or texting 988. The 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Related content:
Photo credit: Getty Images
MI Blues Perspectives is sponsored by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, a nonprofit, independent licensee of the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association