Grief is many things, but it is not an on-demand experience. We can’t order it up, tune it in, or turn it off. And although we might like to control the “how long” of our grief, we simply cannot will it to be over. More often than not the complex emotions of grief defy the straight-line assumption that we will deal with our loss and move on with life, all within some finite period of time. When we wonder how long our grief will last, what we really want to know is how long we’ll feel the pain of sorrow, and when, if ever, our heartache will subside. “How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long?”(Psalm 13:2 NRSV). Yet with each new day, God uses our grief to teach us patience, forbearance, and faith.
In our technology-driven age, we insist on instant gratification and quick results. Perhaps you would like for your grief to be at an end now, this very minute, this very day. Yet try though we might, we cannot hurry and “get over” our grief, especially when we feel pressured by others to “be done” with our grief. Others must wait - we cannot schedule the end of our grief for the convenience of those who love us but cannot understand our personal experience of grief.
Grief doesn’t come with instructions on how long it will last. There’s no standard or norm for how long we’re “supposed to” feel the way we do, or how long we “should” grieve. We soon learn that grief is oblivious to the calendar. How could it be otherwise? There’s absolutely no way to measure in days or weeks or months or even years the depth and breadth of our love for the one now lost to us in death. We grieve as long as we grieve.
Often grief is described as a journey. It’s not at all like a quick trip to the corner store or running errands on a Saturday morning. For some of us the journey is a real trek - it usually takes much longer than we think – there’s no shortcut around our grief or through it. But what we discover along the way is our God-given strength and courage for life after loss so that when the end of grief nears, we’re at a different place spiritually, enriched by the journey through grief.
A young woman whose husband died quite unexpectedly on the way to work one day shared several months later that she was no longer actively grieving. This struck me as particularly insightful because the notion suggests a turning point in grief when we discern that we’re less focused on the daily pain of loss and sorrow and nearer acceptance of the death of our loved one. But the sense that we’re no longer actively grieving has nothing to do with forgetting the one we now grieve. It’s more a personal acknowledgment that gradually, steadily we’re incorporating our loss into our lives as part of who we are and who we’re still becoming.
How long does grief last? For some, it may take several years to work through the emotional turmoil of profound loss and grief, the kind that requires the insight of a professional. For others, there may be a defining moment such as remarriage that clearly cues the end of grief. Yet seldom is grief really over for all time because we will always love and remember the one now lost to us in death - always. And though we may declare our grief at an end, for most of us grief lingers forever as a whisper in our soul, a small, tender shadow in our heart that reminds us of what we have lost and makes us thankful for all we have left.
And while grief lasts - for as long as it lasts - we are encouraged by God’s steadfast love and faithfulness, “It is the Lord who goes before you; he will be with you, he will not fail you or forsake you; do not fear or be dismayed” (Deuteronomy 31:8 RSV). Grief lasts as long as it lasts.
Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord! -Psalm 27:14 NRSV
Keep me this day, O God, in the search for your direction. Amen.