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How Grief Can Change Over Time

Grief never really goes away, as anyone who has lost a loved one could tell you. However, grief does change over time. To paint a picture of how grief changes as life moves one, we’ve created this guide. While grief is different for everyone, it often takes a similar path through a person’s life.

In the guide that follows, you’ll learn about different types and causes of grief. Then we will walk you through the stages of grief and work through some of the difficulties that arise after a loss. At the end of this guide, we’ll provide some tips to help you cope with grief when it swells to the surface.

Are There Different Types Of Grief?

There are many kinds of grief. In fact, the twelve types of grief listed below are only some of the many kinds of grief people experience. To learn more about different types of grief, you can read this great guide by Talkspace.

ANTICIPATORY GRIEF

Anticipatory grief is grief that happens when you’re mourning the expected loss of someone you love. This type of grief occurs when your loved one is growing old or facing a terminal illness. To cope with the impending loss, you might begin to imagine what life will look like after they pass.

Although some people use this time to have important conversations with their dying loved ones, anticipatory loss can draw out the grieving process. People grieving in this way will grieve both before and after the loss, essentially experiencing the loss twice.

NORMAL GRIEF

Normal grief is used to describe the emotions that occur throughout the grieving process. This grief occurs when any sort of loss happens. The person grieving will experience physical, emotional, and social effects of their loss. 

DELAYED GRIEF

Delayed grief may happen when you have intense feelings of grief over a loss that happened a long time ago. People experiencing delayed grief may have an emotional reaction to the loss years after it happened, such as a young adult grieving the loss of a parent who died during their childhood.

This typically happens when a person isn’t ready to deal with the emotions and thoughts that come with loss. The grief will resurface when the person is in a place where they can process their grief.

COMPLICATED GRIEF

Complicated grief is more prolonged and intense than normal grief. Grief is complicated when it inhibits your ability to function fully. People with complicated grief may experience higher levels of depression and anxiety compared to other mourners. This type of grief is marked by extended periods of grieving with little or no improvement.

Complicated grief almost always requires the help of a mental health professional like a doctor, therapist, or both. Since it is both chronic and acute, it’s important to find a health professional equipped to help treat both the physical and emotional symptoms of this type of grief.

CHRONIC GRIEF

Chronic grief is similar to complicated grief. It occurs when an intense reaction to grief doesn’t lessen over time. A person facing chronic grief may experience intense emotions for a long period of time, often experiencing intensifying emotions over time.

CUMULATIVE GRIEF

Cumulative grief happens when a person experiences several losses in a short period of time. This type of grief is often called “grief overload” because the grieving individual is often overwhelmed by the cumulative effects of grief.

EXAGGERATED GRIEF

Exaggerated grief involves more intense reactions and emotions than other types of grief. This type of grief is noticeable and disruptive, often causing problems in everyday function. A person with exaggerated grief may have self-destructive behavior, suicidal ideation, nightmares, or substance abuse issues.

They may also develop abnormal fears and paranoia. This type of grief is illustrated in the series Monk, where Adrian Monk develops a laundry list of phobias after the loss of his wife. Others with exaggerated grief may even develop psychiatric disorders.

DISENFRANCHISED (AMBIGUOUS) GRIEF

Disenfranchised grief occurs when you’re experiencing grief that isn’t validated by others. For example, any loss associated with a stigmatized death (such as suicide or overdose) may leave a person with disenfranchised grief.

If you’re coping with disenfranchised grief, it’s important to remember that your loss is valid. We have a guide to help those who have lost loved ones to suicide and another guide for those who have lost loved ones to addiction. These types of losses are particularly difficult to mourn because of the stigma attached to them.

TRAUMATIC GRIEF

Traumatic grief is the grief that accompanies loss from a horrifying event or violent act. People dealing with traumatic grief are coping with both the loss of their loved one and the loss of their sense of safety.

In her book God Bless This Mess, reality star Hannah Brown talks about the traumatic grief she experienced when her aunt and cousins were violently murdered by a neighbor. For people experiencing traumatic grief, hearing about how others coped with that loss can be particularly helpful.

INHIBITED GRIEF

Inhibited grief happens when a person isn’t showing any obvious signs of grief. For a variety of reasons, a person might not feel able to work through their grief. When grief goes unprocessed, a person may experience physical reactions to their grief months or even years down the road.

COLLECTIVE GRIEF

Collective grief is the grief that occurs when a tragedy affects a large group of people, such as an entire community. For example, both natural disasters and high-profile deaths may cause collective grief. When President John F. Kennedy and Princess Diana passed, people around the world mourned the loss.

Collective grief also occurs in the aftermath of a terrorist attack or mass shooting. People around the globe engaged in collective grief in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States.

Common Causes Of Grief

There are many things that may cause grief. Anything that causes a sense of loss and mourning can cause a person to grieve. The following are a few of the most common causes for grief.

DEATH OF A LOVED ONE INCLUDING PETS

One of the most common causes of grief is the death of a loved one. This can be the passing of a family member, significant other, friend, coworker, or even a pet. Any time someone significant in your life dies, it can cause grief.


DIVORCE OR BREAKUP

People grieve when they’re going through a divorce or breakup. Just like the death of a loved one, the grieving person now has to find a way forward without someone in their life. In his song “Death Without a Funeral,” Jason Gray sings about how the separation from his wife causes the same grief as a death without the validation of a funeral.

Even though the death of a relationship is often considered inferior to the death of a person, it’s important to remember that grief is intensely felt by the person grieving.


DIAGNOSIS OF A TERMINAL ILLNESS

People grieve when they (or someone they love) are diagnosed with a terminal illness. In the previous section, we discussed anticipatory grief, which is the type of grief experienced by people when there’s a terminal diagnosis.


ILLNESS OR INJURY

Even if the illness or injury isn’t terminal, these things may still cause grief. People grieve the loss of the health they once had. They may also grieve the fact that they are no longer able to engage in activities they enjoyed when they were healthy.


ESTRANGEMENT FROM A LOVED ONE

Similar to grief caused by a divorce, estrangement from a loved one can cause intense grief. When a conflict causes a rift in a previously close relationship, a person can experience a deep sense of grief.


FINANCIAL LOSS

Financial loss is also a cause for grief, especially if the loss is great. When a person loses their job or their home, they feel a sense of loss because they no longer have the sense of security they once had. Since people sometimes tie their self-worth to financial success, they may also feel a sense of loss because they no longer live up to the expectations they had for themselves.


INFERTILITY, MISCARRIAGE & STILLBIRTH

Infertility, miscarriage, and stillbirth are common causes for grief, yet many experiencing this grief feel disenfranchised in their loss. Although 1 in 3 women will experience a miscarriage during their lifetimes, many people still struggle to talk about the grief caused by pregnancy loss.

For women facing ongoing infertility, the grief can be compounded by multiple miscarriages. Many infertile women often face repeated grief events as other women have healthy babies and yet another month passes without a successful pregnancy of their own.

How Grief Changes Over Time

Now that we’ve covered different types of grief and their causes, we’re ready to talk about how grief changes over time. Just a reminder: grief isn’t linear and every person grieves at a different pace. You might be fine one day and completely crippled by grief the next.

The following guide isn’t meant to be prescribed grieving steps or a painting of what’s “normal” during grief. Instead, we’re painting with broad strokes to help you understand some of the ups and downs you might experience during the grieving process. 

STAGES OF GRIEF

You’ve probably heard of the five stages of grief. Even though these stages are commonly referenced in pop culture and armchair psychology, it’s important to remember that these “stages” don’t necessarily happen in a certain order. In fact, a person might experience two or more of the stages at the same time!

The five stages of grief describe five different emotions a person might feel in the aftermath of a great loss. Although information about each stage is provided below, you can read more about the topic with this great guide from WebMD.

Denial

While denial can occur at any point during the grief process, it’s most common as the first response to grief. For many people, their first reaction to grief is “This can’t be happening” or “I don’t believe it.” Many people feel shocked or numb.

Denial is your mind’s way of helping you deal with the overwhelming emotions associated with grief. This defense mechanism allows you to make choices in the aftermath of grief. In ancient times, it allowed people to get out of harm’s way when a loved one died. In modern times, it allows us to manage all the details of a funeral.


Anger

Anger may seem out of place in grief, yet anyone who has grieved can tell you that anger is a normal part of the grieving process. You may feel frustrated, helpless, and angry about the situation that caused your loss.

If you’re grieving the loss of someone who caused their own death, you might even feel angry with the person who died. When a loved one dies from suicide or drug overdose, it’s normal for their loved ones to be angry about the choices they made. You may even feel angry with a loved one who died from an illness, especially if they delayed or denied treatment.


Bargaining

Bargaining is another stage of grief. During this part of the grieving process, you might think of all the things you could have done to prevent your loved one’s death. You might get caught up thinking “If only...” or “What if...?”

People who believe in a higher power may also try to strike a deal with their deity. This can be in the form of bargaining, such as “If you heal my loved one, I’ll be better” or pleading, such as “Please heal my loved one.”


Depression

When most people think about grief, they think about depression. Depression is the stage of grief where a person is overcome with sadness. It often occurs when a person begins to understand the magnitude of their loss.

People in the depression stage may experience crying, decreased appetite, sleep issues (such as sleeping too much or sleeping too little), and a loss of interest in work or hobbies.


Acceptance

Acceptance is often considered the “final” stage of grief because it is the stage where a person accepts their loss and learns to manage life without the deceased. While the sadness may not completely go away, it becomes a background character in the mourner’s life.

It’s important to remember that even if a grieving individual gets to the acceptance stage, events can cause them to move through the other stages of grief again. Even years after a loss, a mourner might feel anger or depression in the face of their loss.

INITIAL GRIEF

In the days and weeks immediately following a loss, the feelings of sadness and shock may be intense and all-consuming. During the initial grief, a person often feels their most intense grief symptoms.

Physcial Symptoms Of Grief

During this period of time, grief can cause a number of physical symptoms. Grievers may experience a loss of appetite and trouble with sleep. Others may experience panic attacks that include rapid heartrate and shakiness.

Some people even experience physical pain when they’re grieving. Whether the symptoms are mild or severe, grieving can take a serious toll on a person’s body.


Support Systems

Fortunately, this is the period of time when support systems are their strongest. As a person grieves a loss and goes through the funeral process, friends and family often come around to offer support and condolences.

Many people offer sympathy meals to grieving families, since it takes pressure off of them. Since daily activities are a challenge, sympathy meals allow the grieving family to focus on their time together instead of worrying about their next meal.

GRIEF & DEPRESSION

As the weeks and months go on, a grieving person may experience deepening depression. While the initial shock of a loss helps individuals manage funeral arrangements, shock is often short-lived. Depression is often the longest stage of grief as well as the one most associated with loss.

The depression stage may last weeks, months, and even years. If the depression stage of grief goes on for more than a year, it’s important to follow up with your doctor and a mental health professional. When chronic grief occurs, professional treatment is often required.

Others Moving On

The depression in this stage is often compounded by the fact that life goes on. The same friends and family who came around the grieving individual in the aftermath of the loss will go back to their jobs and their daily lives. It isn’t that they don’t care, but when the grief isn’t their own, they cannot sustain the intense emotions required for genuine grief.

When others move on, it can leave you feeling stuck and alone. This can cause the grief and depressed feelings to intensify, especially when others may be celebrating milestone events in their lives. By comparing your experience to those around you, you can end up with even more grief.


Impact Of Life Without The Deceased

As a person’s normal schedule resumes, daily activities pick up. Even if the grieving individual had some time off for bereavement leave, going back to work is always a difficult step. By resuming their usual schedule, they quickly realize what life looks like without their deceased loved one. The hole left when a close friend or relative passes can be profound.

During this time, you’ll start to experience what life looks like without being able to see or talk to them. When you start to accept your new normal, it’s normal to feel distress. People who are grieving a loss often feel guilty when they allow themselves to move on. No matter how much you miss your loved one, you’ll need to gradually move forward with your new normal.

PAIN SOFTENS

After some time, the pain softens. The amount of time this takes is different for everyone. However, over time the symptoms of grief will decrease, allowing life to grow around the grief. When the pain softens, the grieving person may even go days without thinking about their loss.

Inactive Grief

In the first days after losing a loved one, you might wake up and immediately think of your loss. Some people don’t laugh or smile as they wade through the deep waters of grief. However, a point comes when you wake up with other things on your mind or laugh at something that brightened your day.

This can often cause a person to feel guilty, since they are learning to enjoy life after their loved one’s death. Things will never be the same, yet you can also feel some of the joy you once felt.


Happy Memories

At this point in the grieving process, you might begin to recall happy memories with your loved one without an immediate sense of sadness afterward. Although remembering your loved one may still bring a touch of pain, these memories serve as a reminder of the love you have for your deceased loved one.

If possible, find someone to share these memories with. Grieving friends and relatives often find comfort in the happy memories others have of their lost loved one. In fact, some people are trading out a traditional funeral guestbook in favor of a memory book for people to write down their favorite memories of the deceased.

THE ANNIVERSARY EFFECT

The anniversary effect is a phenomenon described by psychologists to describe the way grief often gets worse around certain dates. Even if a loved one has been gone a long time, a person might feel worsening grief on the anniversary of the person’s death or on dates that hold special significance (birthdays and anniversaries).

You can read more about the anniversary effect in this article by Psychology Today. Grief that worsens on special dates is such a well-documented occurrence that many grief support groups prepare grievers for this wave of emotion.

Grief Intesifies Again

Even if you feel like you’re healing and moving on, certain anniversaries may make you feel like it’s the first days of your grief all over again. The intensifying grief may feel especially isolating because many people fail to remember the anniversary of your loss.


Milestone Effects

A similar thing happens with milestone events. An otherwise happy event (like a wedding or birth) may be marked by grief by those who miss their deceased loved during this happy occasion. For some, happy milestones bring a whole new batch of “what if...” questions. Others may feel regret and sadness that their loved one isn’t there.

A common example is when a woman gets married after her father passes. Since the father of the bride has such a big role to play in Western wedding traditions, many women feel the loss with intensity on their wedding day, even if their father has been gone for years.

MOVING FORWARD

Eventually, your grief and sadness will decrease to the point you can move forward with a new sense of normalcy. Although life will never be the same, the pain will fade enough to let life go on.

You never stop grieving, but eventually grief looks a bit different. Although you may still experience periods of sadness, there will come a point when you’ve mostly moved on from your loss. People require different amounts of time to get to this point. While some may move forward within months, others take years to move forward from their losses.

Missing The Deceased During Hard Times

Hard times can cause new waves of grief to come to the surface. If you’re going through a stressful time or coping with another loss, your feelings of grief may come back. Many wonder what their loved one would think about a situation or what advice they’d offer.


Fading Memories Compounding Grief

When your memories of the deceased start to fade, it may cause grief symptoms to reappear. For example, forgetting the sound of your loved one’s voice may leave you feeling frustrated. Something once familiar may fade to the outer reaches of your memory.

Some people feel like forgetting is a betrayal to their loved one. It’s important to remember that forgetting is a normal part of life. You shouldn’t beat yourself up the memories of your loved one begin to fade.


Remarrying After Loss Of A Spouse

People who have lost a spouse may eventually remarry after their loss. While this can be a time of great celebration, it’s also normal to miss your deceased spouse. If you’re considering marriage after the loss of your spouse, our article on the topic may be helpful for you.

How To Cope When Grief Changes Or Resurfaces

Grief can change or resurface over time. Even if you’ve had years to heal, the feelings of grief can come back and leave you feeling depressed, isolated, or overwhelmed. The following are a few things you can do to cope when your grief changes or resurfaces.

TALK TO YOUR DOCTOR, CLERGY OR THERAPIST

Talking to a clergy member (like a pastor or priest) or a mental health professional (like a counselor or therapist) can help you cope with your emotions. They are trained to listen and walk you through your grief. Since their sessions are done confidentially, you don’t have to worry about what others will think about your resurfacing grief.

If your grief continues to resurface and causes long-term depression symptoms, talk to your doctor. Ongoing depression after a loss may need medical treatment, especially if your symptoms are preventing you from carrying out daily tasks.

GO TO A GRIEF SUPPORT GROUP

Grief support groups are a great resource, no matter where you’re at in your grief. Since the people at the support group are also working through grief, you’ll have sympathetic ears that truly understand what you’re going through.

Alternatively, you can go on a grief retreat or cruise. Grief conferences also provide speakers and workshops to help people work through their grief. To read more about grief retreats, conferences, and cruises, see our guide here.

CALL A GRIEF SUPPORT HOTLINE

If you want to talk to someone anonymously, use a grief support hotline. While their hotline focuses on mental illness and substance abuse, the SAMHSA helpline is a useful resource for people grieving a loss. If you are having a mental health crisis, their hotline at 1-800-662-4357 is available to point you to the right resources.

TALK TO A CLOSE FAMILY MEMBER OR FRIEND

Take some time to talk to a close family member or friend about how you’re feeling. Since they are already familiar with your situation and your grief, they can listen to how you’re feeling without the need to explain the history of your loss.

DO SOMETHING YOUR DECEASED LOVED ONE ENJOYED DOING

Many people find comfort in activities their loved one once enjoyed. For example, a son might go fishing in memory of his father who loved to fish. Whatever the activity is, enjoy spending some time remembering your loved one while enjoying their favorite activity.

THINK ABOUT HOW YOUR LOVED ONE WOULD WANT YOU TO FEEL

Sometimes it’s helpful to think about how your loved one would want you to feel in their absence. In most cases, your loved one would want you to move on and be happy.  While this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t grieve at all, thinking about what your loved one would think may be the kickstart you need to actively deal with your grief.

WRITE A LETTER TO THE DECEASED OR WRITE IN A GRIEF JOURNAL

Writing a letter to your loved one or writing in a grief journal is a great way to process your emotions. If you’re worried about someone reading what you wrote, you can always shred or burn the pages later. You can check out our guide to grief journaling here.

PRACTICE MEDITATION TO HELP YOU COPE

Meditation is a powerful tool to help you when your grief worsens or resurfaces. It can help you reduce stress, manage anxiety, improve focus, decrease depression, and improve sleep. Since all these things suffer in the face of grief, meditation may be just the thing to help you cope. To read more about the benefits of meditation and how it can help you cope with loss, check out our complete guide here.

HAVE A PIECE OF MEMORIAL JEWELRY MADE

Having an item like a piece of memorial jewelry can bring great comfort, since it allows you to feel connected to your deceased loved one. Consider having a piece of memorial jewelry created to help you memorialize your lost loved one.

Photo Engraved Pendant Or Keychain

Keep your favorite photo of your loved one with you at all times. An engraved pendant or keychain is a great fit if you have a photo that you particularly love.


Thumbprint & Signature Jewelry

Instead of featuring a photo, these pieces feature your loved one’s signature or thumbprint. These are a great option, especially if your deceased loved one was particularly camera shy.


Cremation Jewelry

Cremation jewelry is jewelry that contains a small portion of your loved one’s ashes. If your loved one was cremated and you want to carry a little piece of them with you, these pieces allow you to do just that. You can get pendants, keychains, rings, and even bracelets made with your loved one’s ashes.

Grief Changes Over Time Frequently Asked Questions

What can I do if I have a setback with my grief?

The first thing you should do is remember that setbacks are a normal part of the grieving process. You’ll have days when you feel better, followed by days when you feel worse. Because grief isn’t linear, it’s important to release yourself from expectations that you’ll always improve.

When you reach a setback with your grief, reach out to a friend or counselor for extra help. Plug in to a local grief support group. Whatever you do, don’t try to do it alone. Even if you feel like you should be past this point in your grief, remember that your loved ones care for you and want to help you through this time.

What happens if my memories of my loved one fade?

Your memories will eventually fade. There will come a day when you start to forget about your loved one. If it’s important to you to hold onto those memories, put together a scrapbook or compile a journal filled with memories of your deceased loved one. When your memories fade, pull out your scrapbook or journal and reminisce. 

How do you help someone who’s grief has resurfaced after suffering a loss a while ago?

The best thing you can do for your friend is to be there as a loving, supportive listener. People who are working through their grief often need someone to sit and listen to them talk. If you’re looking for other ideas to help a friend who is coping with grief, check out our article with ten ways to support a loved one after a loss.

Can my grief resurface? Is it common for grief to resurface after time has passed after a loved one’s death?

Yes, your grief can resurface. In fact, it’s so common for grief to resurface a year after a loss that psychologists even have a name for the phenomenon: the anniversary effect. If you have new or recently worsening grief symptoms, that’s a perfectly normal part of the grieving process.

What if I feel guilty for forgetting about my deceased loved one?

Although there’s no need to feel guilty for forgetting about your deceased loved one, guilt is a normal part of moving on. It’s important to remember that your loved one wouldn’t want you to walk around with your guilt.

How long does grief usually last?

Grief varies from person to person, but typically lasts between three months and two years. Once those two years are passed, people typically move forward with their lives. While they may never stop missing their loved one, the daily burden of grief has been lifted.

Changing With The Tides Of Grief

Grief can be complicated, which is why we have over a dozen different names for different types of loss. Whether you’re coping with a “normal” loss or struggling with disenfranchised grief, grief often changes over time.

In the early stages of grief, you spend a lot of time overwhelmed by your emotions. Although those emotions get more manageable over time, it’s common to experience days and weeks where your grief is worse again. The grieving process is never linear, so it’s important to remember that the ups and downs are a normal part of the process.

April 28, 2022 by Jeri K. Augustus