Ask the doctor: How long does grief last?

Q. I lost my brother several months ago, and there are days when I still feel overpowered by sadness. Is it normal to grieve this long?

A. I'm sorry to learn of your loss. The brief answer to your question is that everyone grieves differently. Rarely does grief have a clear beginning, middle, and end, like hiking up a mountain and back down along a defined trail. And popular culture promotes the misconception that there is an orderly progression of emotions that will lead to "closure." This is also probably wrong for most people.

The truth is that grief doesn't neatly conclude at the six-month or one-year mark. Depending on the strength of the bond that was broken, grief can be lifelong. Parents whose children die often say they never get over the loss. The loss of a spouse is also devastating. But the loss of other loved ones, including a sibling, can take a long time to get over as well.

Although it may persist, grief does usually soften and change over time. How this goes will be influenced by your emotional style, the nature of your support system, and the culture you are a part of.

The loss of a sibling is not talked or written about as much as other losses, but it has a unique quality. Siblings share an upbringing and history. The more integral someone was to your life, the more opportunities there are for happy and sad reminders that underscore the massive loss. Alongside warm or warring memories, you may always feel the absence. Sadness, abandonment, disorientation, and even anger may arise around birthdays, weddings, the anniversary of the death, and holidays or other occasions you might have shared. A familiar scent, song, or likeness can trigger feelings of grief, too. All of this is entirely normal. And siblings are contemporaries, part of your generation, which may raise concerns about your own mortality.

Usually the raw, all-consuming shock of early grief will ebb slowly within weeks or months. Gradually, at their own pace, most people do find themselves adjusting to the loss and slipping back into the routines of daily life.

So give yourself time. In the midst of loss, many people find opportunities for growth. In many cases, people emerge from the depths of their grief with greater confidence in their ability to manage life's sorrows and difficulties.

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