Your gain: Understand the concept of delayed grief, what it is, how it can affect us, and how to cope with it.
It’s no secret that grief is a universal human experience. It’s an intricate web of emotions that follows the loss of something dear to us. While we often associate grief with immediate reactions and intense emotions, there’s a lesser-known aspect that many individuals experience: delayed grief.
Unlike the traditional grieving process which unfolds in the immediate aftermath of a loss, delayed grief emerges unexpectedly and often catches us off guard long after the initial event. Here, let’s dive into the concept of delayed grief, explore its causes, manifestations, and strategies to cope with it.
The Nature of Delayed Grief
Delayed grief, also known as unresolved or complicated grief, refers to the prolonged or postponed emotional response to a loss. It can manifest weeks, months, or even years after the event that triggered it.
While immediate grief is often characterized by intense feelings, delayed grief is more subtle, often simmering beneath the surface. This delay can stem from a variety of factors. An individual’s coping mechanisms, personality traits, and the circumstances surrounding the loss.
My Experience With Delayed Grief
This certainly happened to me and is a type of grief I know well, let me tell you! As my parents died just six months apart, I barely had time to grieve my mom before my dad’s health started declining. It was surreal, honestly. I actually didn’t even realize I hadn’t fully grieved (or really even begun grieving) my mom’s death until my dad died.
Only then did I have the chance to take a step back and say, “Whoa… this is pretty bad. In fact, this is REALLY bad. This really, really hurts… I’m in an excruciating amount of pain right now. This is deep.” As if each of those deaths weren’t deep enough on their own, I found myself in new depths of despair once both were gone. It was a level of shock, despair, and pain I had never felt. I had never been more alone in my life.
Delayed grief came long because felt like I couldn’t really grieve my mom properly. Why? Honestly, because my dad needed me. I wanted to be there as fully and presently as I could for him, and that required time and energy. it was quite a distraction from the other intense sadness I was feeling around my mom. Another big part of me didn’t want to grieve my mom yet. Like, it was so shocking that she was gone I couldn’t even wrap my mind around it. Looking back on it now, this was both due to being a coping mechanism and being faced with yet another death and more loss shortly after.
Causes of Delayed Grief
There could be a variety of reasons that delay grief rears its ugly head. A couple I just spoke about in my own journey, but let’s go over some of the most prominent ones to cover all of the bases.
In some cases, people may suppress their grief due to social expectations, responsibilities, or a need to stay strong for others. In terms of societal expectations, this could be anything from feeling the need to get back to work quickly, being limited by how much bereavement time off you have, or the imposition of others’ beliefs on how long your grief should last. Spoiler alert: It’s however long YOU need!
Other responsibilities could include a family (like in my case, needing to still take care of my dad), kids keeping you busy… the list goes on. These added responsibilities can no doubt add an incredible amount of stress on top of an already stressful situation.
Throughout this process, we may find ourselves needing to “stay strong” or “put on a brave face”, which can be harmful when trying to cope with grief properly. Why? Because this suppression can lead to delayed grief as emotions resurface later.
Denial and Avoidance
I’ve talked about this in countless other blog posts and episodes of the podcast, but denial and avoidance are NOT the way to go, folks. Coping with loss by denying its impact or avoiding the emotions associated with it can create a backlog of unresolved feelings that resurface over time, and make your grief that much more painful.
When people face multiple losses or traumatic events in a short span, their emotional capacity to process grief might become overloaded. This results in delayed emotional responses. I won’t go back into my story of losing my parents so close together, but that’s a perfect example and I can 100% confirm the overwhelm was very real. Have you experienced this? Are you there right now?
Sometimes, aspects of the relationship with the deceased or unresolved conflicts can prevent the grieving process from occurring immediately. This is where guilt and regret can come in big time. In fact, I have a two-part blog post about this, too! Check that out below.
That being said, especially if someone dies very abruptly or unexpectedly, this can be a recipe for very complicated grief that lingers for a very long time. It makes it that much more difficult to feel like we don’t have closure, and with little to no closure, coping with our grief can delay.
Manifestations of Delayed Grief
Delayed grief can manifest in a variety of ways, which can often be confused with other psychological or emotional issues. If you feel you’re experiencing very deep and painful levels of this, I can’t encourage you enough to seek support from myself or another professional!
Some common manifestations include:
Ailments such as headaches, fatigue, and digestive issues can be physical expressions of unresolved grief. For me, this really showed up as tension in my neck and shoulders which is very common.
Intense emotional reactions seemingly unrelated to current events can indicate that past grief is resurfacing. Grief can be relentless and ruthless, and it can affect us in ways we may not even know or understand. It’s common for emotional outbursts to occur, for us to wind up taking things out on our loved ones, and for abrupt, complex feelings to surface seemingly out of nowhere. But more times than not, there’s a little something behind that!
This is difficult, because emotions can run so high and truthfully, sometimes, we just can’t help what comes out. There are a couple of things I want you to remember here:
- When it comes to taking our grief out on others, we need to be careful. Often, people just want to help us. Some might not know how! Some might do it in questionable ways. No matter what, we have to be cautious. For those who are trying to help or be supportive, do your best to remember exactly that–make you feel better. It’s not their fault that we’ve lost what we have, and they’re human beings just like any of us who deserve to be treated with love and respect. If you do find yourself a bit agitated, annoyed or testy with them, express it! Even if you can’t pinpoint what you’re feeling, even if you can’t define it, acknowledge when you’re feeling off and communicate that.
- If you find yourself in an especially emotional place, tap into that! Don’t push it away, confront it. Ask yourself, “okay, what is really at the root of this?”. Is it that you’re missing the person? Something they would do or say? A mannerism or habit they had? I could go on here, but think about it.
When emotions come on strong and quickly, be sure to take big, deep, intentional breaths to calm yourself. I’m always amazed at what just three or four breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth can do. If you want some help with this, I have a free tool to guide you! Click here.
Depression and Anxiety
Delayed grief may contribute to the development of depression or anxiety, as the underlying emotions remain unaddressed. This is when seeking the professional help I mentioned earlier is key. Talking to someone 1) who can understand and 2) is specifically trained to help you cope is so critical. Don’t deny yourself this gift!
My Grief Becomes Gains Online Course is here for you (linked here!), I offer 1:1 coaching upon request (email email@example.com), or perhaps a therapist or counselor is better for you if it is more deep-rooted in past or childhood traumas.
Loss of Interest
It’s so secret our zest for life often goes out the window when we lose a loved one, or even go through a divorce or a more traditional secondary loss. A loss of interest in activities once enjoyed can be a sign that suppressed grief is affecting your emotional state. This is what I’m all about, y’all! Rediscovering a vibrant, meaningful, intentional life after loss that’s full of interests you love, things you enjoy, laughter, joy, and more. My course I just mentioned will help you get there, but if you’re not ready for that, simply know that this can be a telltale sign your grief is lingering in a less-than-healthy way.
So, where do we even begin coping with grief that is delayed (sometimes really delayed? Let’s get into it.
First and foremost, as I’ve alluded to throughout this blog, we have to start by recognizing and acknowledging the presence of delayed grief. And this is tough, because we don’t even realize this is the culprit sometimes! But here’s the thing, self-awareness allows you to create space for the emotions to emerge.
Writing about your feelings and memories associated with the loss can help process emotions that might have been ignored or repressed. Lucky for you, I have just the thing!
My Losses Become Gains Daily Journal is the perfect tool. If free writing feels a bit intimidating (it definitely is for me sometimes), this guided journaling method is tailored specifically to grievers, but is just general enough that anyone can use and enjoy it. Check it out and learn more by clicking here!
Mindfulness and Meditation
Practices like mindfulness and meditation can help you become more attuned to your emotions and promote healing. If you need more help with this, check out the Self-Care and Wellness section of the blog for more resources!
Ultimately, when it comes to grief, we can often live in the past and worry about the future. It’s so important to hone in on a routine and mindfulness/meditation practice to bring ourselves back to the present to focus on what’s in front of us, relax our mind and body, and understand what’s in our control.
Engaging in creative activities such as art, music, or writing can provide a channel for expressing complex emotions. Similar to mindfulness and meditation practices, this can be super healing and, frankly, a great distraction! We can get to the root of a lot of our grief through creative outlets that resonate with us, and it can bring with it a lot of peace.
Delayed grief is nothing if not a reminder that the human heart has its own timeline for healing. While it may catch us off guard, it’s a testament to the depth of our emotions and the complexity of the human experience, which is a beautiful thing! By acknowledging delayed grief and seeking healthy coping mechanisms, we can pave the way for a more holistic healing process.
Just as each person’s journey through grief is unique, so is their path toward healing. Embracing delayed grief with patience and compassion is a crucial step towards reclaiming emotional well-being and finding a renewed sense of peace.
Remember, the blog and my Losses Become Gains Podcast is here to support you with a variety of griefy topics!