How Long Does Active Grieving Last?

 Vijai P. Sharma, PH.D. Clinical Psychologist

 According to the reports available on female survivors, less than half of the women were themselves again at the end of the first year after their husband's death.  In the Boston study, although more than half were not feeling wholly themselves, four out of five reported to be doing reasonably well after the first year.  Survivors report a specific event or an experience that marked the turning point in their recovery from grieving.  For example, some survivors had to finally assert themselves in a situation or with an individual that had been bothering them for some time.  They decided it was not right to go on putting up with it or they had to speak out or they felt so enraged that they instantly took the matters in their own hand, casting away that passivity and apathy.  At that moment they found themselves on the path to recovery.  For some, the turning point comes when they decide to sort through their spouse's clothes and possessions.  For others, a sudden and prolonged fit of crying dispels the "heavy cloud that has been sitting there for so long" and they feel ready to "move on with their life."   

During the second and third year of the loss, a large majority of the survivors come to organize their life.  Loneliness continues to be a problem if one does not commit to a close relationship.  If recovery is not in progress by the end of the first year, that can be noticed by friends and family members, there are likely to be problems in healing from the loss.  The chances are that either the physical and/or emotional disorders are already present or will follow.  This is what we refer to as the "complicated grief."  

Full recovery, according to Bowlby, takes two to three years rather than a year.  In the older age group, it appears that a few never fully recover their former state of health and well being.  As one woman, in her mid-sixties put it five years after her husband's death, "Mourning never ends:  only as time goes on, it erupts less frequently."  Active grieving does occur occasionally, even after the first year is over, especially, when events remind the survivor of the loss.  Setbacks are to be expected.  Survivors frequently report in the second and third year that they are progressing favorably, then they meet with a disappointment or face a hardship and they slip back in to a sad and mournful state.  

 The survivor suffers with a deep sense of loneliness and it persists.  Why does the loneliness persist so long and why is it often a big problem for the survivors?  In order to answer this question, let us differentiate between the two kinds of loneliness, the social loneliness and the emotional loneliness.  Social loneliness can be overcome by social relationships and support while emotional loneliness can only be replaced by intimacy.  Social relationships can't seem to take away the emotional loneliness.  This was pointed out by Robert S. Weiss who was working with a divorce support group organization, "Parents without Partners."  Weiss observed that members in the support group did provide one another a kind of friendship which contributed to their well-being.  Although these friendships were felt to be very important by the members, they did not especially diminish their loneliness.  All members knew about loneliness as they all had to grapple with it on an ongoing basis.  They understood each other's loneliness, they shared it and discussed it, and that made the loneliness a little easier to manage.  The group was helpful in providing the support and assurance of friends who could understand but it did not take away the loneliness.  

 Based on these observations, Weiss (1975b from Bowlby) concluded that while the loneliness of social isolation can be overcome by social relationships and support, the emotional loneliness remains untouched.  Emotional loneliness is the result of emotional isolation as social loneliness is the result of social isolation.  Superficial sexual relationships and short-term affairs do not take away the emotional loneliness and then the loner desperately seeks more relationships to fix the problem.  Emotional loneliness can only be overcome by involvement in an intimate mutually committed relationship.  Such relationships are long-term, involve a deep attachment and therefore are different from ordinary friendships.  

Relationships, such as with an intimate friend, sister, mother, partner, can involve that level of attachment.  Without a deep level of attachment, the emotional loneliness is bound to continue.  The grief studies indicate as well that the survivors who do not have at least one relationship with deep attachment and commitment, continue feeling lonely with the passage of time.  

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Copyright 1996, Mind Publications 


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