How long does grief last?

That question comes up often in my work, along with:
“How long will I grieve?” and “When will I feel better?”

Let me tell you a little story…

One of my uncles worked in construction, on projects like freeways and other giant projects. Back when I was a youngster, he got a job with a team to construct buildings for scientists.

When he would return from the various places he worked, he would bring little gifts to his kids and his nieces and nephews. I recall a cap with fantastic embroidery - Persian, maybe? I distinctly remember a long red nightshirt we each got, with a little penguin printed in white on the left side of the chest.

Fast forward to this week. I’m scrolling up the Twitter feed I’ve made to keep tabs on weather and road closures and such. The image you see above catches my eye, so I stop to read the tweet:

Screen capture image of tweet by @EricSteig, dated 4/20, 2018: "First graph of the complete South Pole ice core oxygen isotopes. I cannot even begin to explain how many person-years of work went into obtaining these data.…"

Those buildings my uncle's team constructed for scientists? That was at the South Pole. The red nightshirt? It was from that trip.

And this tweep seems to be thanking him for what he did! For his part in scientific research. (Okay, I suspect the tweep was thanking all the scientists whose work underlaid his own, but still….)

Tears spring to my eyes. Not sad tears, but tears of feeling. Someone is acknowledging this gruff, tender uncle of mine. Saying that people are benefitting from his life’s work. From his commitment to doing a good job in challenging situations.

My uncle will never know this; he died some time back (I don’t know exactly when, but we stopped hearing from him a couple of decades ago). But now I know how his time and energy contributed to scientific research. And it matters to me that he’s now been appreciated for his risky work – work that took him away from family for months at a time.

So, was that grief, that flash of tears?
If grief includes emotional responses to memories of those no longer in our lives, yes it was – even these decades later.

And to return to the questions at hand: How long does grief last? How long will I grief? When will I feel better?

It’s different for each person, of course. The hardest part may last months to years. Long after that, reminders may bring up memories and response. Those responses tend to diminish over time in their strength.

The whole process, though, never ends. And it's nothing to be feared or avoided. The people and pets and places we love continue to live in our memory, and anything – sweet or painful – can trigger a response at any time. As time goes on, you will likely shift from responding with tears or pain to smiles and appreciation.

And that is the hope of grieving.


P.S. For pet people, here’s a touching post by a vet tech in Pennsylvania:

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