Eric Van Fossen


First things first. I am pleased to say that I am not an expert on grief. I say this because I have been fortunate enough to not have experienced any major grief thus far in my life. However, over the years I have had hundreds if not a thousand conversations and tearful moments with those experiencing real grief.

These people are in pain and sorrow from a variety of causes. The death of a loved one or the loss of a relationship are both common causes of grief. Often times, even the loss of a beloved pet can cause a prolonged grief reaction. These people, in varying stages of pain and sorrow, often have the same three questions. They want to know not only how long the grief will last but how long should it last. Additionally, they often want advice on what to say to well-meaning friends and family that tell them something like, “It has been long enough. It is time for you to move on.”

To tell someone that is grieving a loss to just simply, “Be strong.” or to “Move on for your own good.” is to not acknowledge their loss and their pain in the worse way. One might as well say, “Buck up little camper!” 

I have repeatedly heard over and over how painful this attitude is for those suffering grief.  Sure we all mean well and want to be encouraging, but it is often uncomfortable or awkward and we don’t know what to say.

 I have done pretty well with the motto of, “If you don’t know what to do, then do nothing.” This may be a good approach in interacting with those suffering from grief. Of course, express your sympathy, but beyond that, “If you don’t know what to say, then say nothing.”   Perhaps the best gift you can give someone experiencing grief is some latitude. Offer your sympathy and then give them the gift of your silent presence. Lean in or place your hand on theirs. If they feel like sharing their grief with you they will. Give them the time, silence and space to make that decision. Count yourself fortunate if they share their grief and loss with you. Their gift of trust and tears is an amazing gift they now give to you, as thanks for the present of your understanding and quiet support.

We all need to understand that we are ignorant of the depth or breadth of someone else’s grief reaction.  I cannot tell you how deep and long your grief should be any more than you can tell me how long I felt full after my supper last night.

How long does grief last? Is there an expiration date on grief?

Grief last as long as the sufferer needs or wants it too. It may be of varying degrees for different losses. There is only one person that knows when the grief is gone. Conversely, it may never truly be gone.

Are our fond and happy memories of a long lost loved one not a form of grief?  I like to think that, over an unspecified amount of time, the happy memories we have of a loved one can move grief to be just on the pleasant side of bitter sweet. So maybe grief never goes away. Chances are it is always with us but changes its form, its volume. Perhaps the sadness is slowly dissolved down into a precipitate of pleasant memories… little grains of joy and sadness that we can manage to carry with us as we go about the rest of our life.

There is no expiration date on grief, but it does change.