How long will it last?

People often expect to be back to normal after just a few weeks or months, and others might expect this of you too. Try to be patient with yourself. Many people are hard on themselves, thinking things like: "I should be over this by now." Grief is very individual, however, and there is no set time frame. Giving yourself time to mourn is the best way to heal.

After the funeral

The period after the funeral can be challenging. Between the death and the funeral, you may have been busy making arrangements and felt surrounded by family and friends. It may not be until after the funeral that you feel the full intensity of your grief. Everyone else may seem to have returned to normal, but your life is forever changed. It will take time to create a new normal for yourself.

Friends and family sometimes make comments such as: "Life has to go on. It's time to pick yourself up and get on with living." Such messages may feel like criticism, as if you are being told not to grieve anymore. Often the person making the comments feels uncomfortable themselves about grief or may have particular ideas about the right way to grieve.

If you feel like you are being told to rush your grief, try to connect with people who are more understanding. Those who were there alongside you when the person was dying may have particular insight into your experience. You can also consider joining an online or face-to-face support group. Talk to the social worker on your palliative care team or at the hospital, or call Cancer Council 13 11 20 to find out what support is available.

"I think time does heal, but the pain is still there and you just learn to cope with it. Sometimes I still cry out `Why?' Darren was so full of life and never complained about anything; I'm still amazed at how he coped with it all." – Troy

Triggers for your grief

Many people talk about the first year – all the `firsts' without your loved one – as being especially difficult. As all of these events pass, most people learn to cope a little more, and with time they find it does get easier. However, milestones might always trigger some sadness and anxiety, and you may continue to feel a deep sense of loss for the experiences that the person didn't get to have and that you didn't get to share.

Other losses could trigger your grief again. This might happen when someone else you know dies or when a pet dies, when a relationship ends, or when you lose a job or special possessions.

You might find there is a time of day when you miss the person most. Or it might be a song, a smell, an anniversary or doing something you used to do together that reminds you of them, and you may feel upset again. The experience of grief section includes ideas on how to help yourself through these times.

The `up and down' nature of grief

People sometimes speak of `stages' of grief. This doesn't mean that grief is something you begin one day, move through step by step, and emerge unchanged from at the other end. Rather, the stages reflect a range of emotions that you may move between.

For most people, grief involves ups and downs, moving between the traditional idea of grieving (crying, missing the person, feeling pain) and what they might describe as moving forward (returning to activities, learning new skills, forming new relationships). This can feel chaotic, but both the ups and downs are part of grief.

Most people find they gradually learn to cope better with their loss, but don't despair if it seems like two steps forward and one step back, with feelings of intense grief again and again – this is common. The experience is often described as like being on a roller-coaster, but it can also be thought of as a series of cycles.

"At times the sadness and pain I feel is all consuming and hard to bear, while at other times these feelings are just in the background of my day-to-day activities." – Anne

Will it always be this hard?

When people find grief particularly difficult, they sometimes worry they will be this unhappy for the rest of their life, but for most people it isn't like that. After a while, the grief usually becomes less overwhelming, and they find that they start to enjoy things and feel enthusiastic about life again. If your grief doesn't seem to be getting more manageable over time, read if you feel `stuck' or desperate.

Many people say that coping with grief doesn't mean getting over the death of a loved one. It's about finding ways to live with the change and adapting to life without them. It's not that your feelings about the person lessen, so much as a new way of living grows around the loss.

Ways to remember

You may find that doing something special to remember the person helps you cope with the loss. Here are some ideas that other people have found helpful.

  • Plant a tree or garden, or place a memorial plaque in a favourite place.
  • Create an artwork in their memory, or use some of their clothing to create a quilt, cushion covers or memory bear.
  • Make a memory box filled with keepsakes such as: photos; a favourite item of clothing, such as a cap or scarf; a bottle of perfume or aftershave; letters or cards; a special recipe; and a list of shared memories.
  • Frame a photo of the person. This can be especially important for children.
  • Share memories by setting up an online memorial page.
  • Establish an award or scholarship in memory of the person, or make a donation to charity in their name.
  • Create special rituals such as lighting a candle, listening to special music or visiting a certain place. Rituals can be particularly helpful at challenging times such as anniversaries.
  • Be prepared for birthdays, anniversaries and holidays by planning how you want to handle the events.
  • Get involved in a cause that was special to the person. Many people have found an energy in their grief that motivates them to make a difference.
  • Talk about the person you have lost. You may feel uncomfortable at first but sharing your memories can help you cope.
  • Remember goals you shared and continue working towards them.

If you feel `stuck' or desperate

Most people have times after a major loss when they feel they just can't go on any longer. The pain of grief is too hard, or just doesn't seem to be getting any better. Be kind to yourself and know that it is okay to have some down days. In a week or two, things will usually change and you will realise there is a pattern of good days and bad days, with the good days gradually increasing.

Sometimes a person may begin to feel `stuck' in their grief and become very depressed or anxious. Or worse, begin to feel suicidal, as though not going on is a real option. If this is the case for you or someone you care about, it is important to seek help. You may need to seek professional help if you:

  • find it difficult to function on a daily basis
  • begin to rely on alcohol or drugs
  • stop eating regularly
  • are sleeping too much or having a lot of trouble sleeping
  • are worried you might hurt someone because your feelings
  • of anger or aggression do not settle
  • think about self-harm or taking your own life.

There is no need to face this experience alone. Find out about the options for professional support and talk to your GP, or call Cancer Council 13 11 20.

If you are having suicidal thoughts, call Lifeline 13 11 14 immediately. The service operates 24 hours a day.

Expert content reviewers:

Kate Jurgens, Bereavement Coordinator, Southern Adelaide Palliative Services, SA; Gabrielle Asprey, Facilitator, Telephone and Internet Support Groups, Cancer Council NSW; Leigh Donovan, Bereavement Coordinator, Paediatric Palliative Care Service, Lady Cilento Children’s Hospital, QLD; Dr Kathryn Dwan, Senior Policy Officer, Palliative Care Australia; Philippa Kirkpatrick, National Policy Manager, Palliative Care Australia; Mary Klasen, Pastoral Care Manager, Mercy Hospital for Women, VIC; Tracey Newnham, Consumer; Caitriona Nienaber, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council WA; Kerrie Noonan, Clinical Psychologist, Palliative Care, Liverpool Hospital, and Director, The Groundswell Project, NSW.

Download PDF Order FREE booklet

Talking bubbles icon

Questions about cancer?

Call or email our experienced cancer nurses for information and support.

Contact a cancer nurse