Whether it’s losing a parent, losing a spouse, or losing a child, grief is a necessary process for closure. Grief is an emotion that can take many forms and show up in a variety of ways. There are many types of grief, such as complicated grief, chronic grief, anticipatory grief, disenfranchised grief, traumatic grief, unresolved grief, and ‘normal’ grief, and while some people may experience the grieving process immediately, others might have what’s known as a delayed grief response. Delayed grief occurs when the feelings associated with loss don’t come for weeks, months, or even years after the event.
Delayed grief can be hard to understand, and it’s not often talked about. Learning more about delayed grief and the symptoms and triggers that may cause it can help you, a family member, or a loved one navigate the grief process and start to heal. Continue reading to learn more about delayed grief.
Delayed grief is an emotional response to loss that doesn’t manifest until long after the initial event. It can be challenging to recognize because it often appears as if there’s no reason for sadness or other emotions related to grieving.
This type of delayed grief trigger can occur due to shock, denial, guilt, or simply being overwhelmed by the situation. Some studies suggest that not immediately processing grief won’t always lead to delayed grief in the future, but more research is still needed.
What triggers delayed grief?
Several things can trigger delayed grief, including traumatic events like death or divorce, significant life changes such as moving away from home, and unresolved issues from childhood like physical or emotional abuse or neglect. Other potential triggers may include physical illness, financial problems, and relationship difficulties.
Regardless of what triggers grief, it’s important to remember that everyone grieves differently. There is no “right” way to do so – even if your feelings don’t surface immediately after your loss.
“Wakanda Forever, the latest Black Panther film, addressed the death of the main character/actor Chadwick Boseman. The writers focused on what happens when we hold on to guilt and shame surrounding the loss. Those feelings are often turned into anger directed outwardly. Chadwick’s death opened a larger conversation about grief.”
The symptoms associated with delayed grief response are similar to those experienced during acute bereavement (the period immediately following a death).
Symptoms of delayed grief may include:
Intense emotions like:
Physical symptoms like:
Changes in appetite
Withdrawal from social activities
Feeling overwhelmed by everyday tasks
Lack of motivation
Energy levels dropping significantly lower than usual
Additionally, some people may experience intrusive thoughts about their deceased loved one, which can lead to flashbacks or nightmares. As these dreams or thoughts fade away when reality sets back in, they can trigger another grief response.
Even though it’s not unusual for people to experience delayed grief, it can be hard to understand why it happens. Here are some common causes of delayed grief:
You’ve had enough time after the loss
Sometimes, you need time to process your emotions before fully grieving. For example, when someone dies suddenly, you may not have had enough time to come to terms with their death and start grieving right away. Unfortunately, this means that your feelings may catch up with you later on down the line when you finally have enough space in your life for them.
The busyness is over
Another cause of delayed grief is related to the busyness that takes over following a loss. Taking care of practical matters like funeral arrangements, sorting out finances, and reaching out to friends and family might not leave much time for processing emotions. Then, once everything else has been taken care of, there’s nothing left but you and your feelings. This can lead to intense bouts of delayed grief surfacing in the future.
You’re faced with sudden reminders
Sometimes reminders from everyday life can trigger an unexpected wave of grief, according to studies. You might hear a song that reminds you of your lost loved one. You may see something they used to enjoy doing. These sudden interactions could bring up emotions without warning — even if it’s been months since their passing.
Delayed grief can begin weeks, months, or even years after the death of a loved one. It’s important to acknowledge that delayed grief is just as valid and authentic as immediate grief. However, because of this (sometimes extensive) gap between loss and grief starting, it can be challenging to know how to navigate this time.
Here are six tips on how best to deal with this type of complicated emotion:
1. Find support
Reach out for help if needed so you don’t feel alone during this difficult period. Talk openly about what you’re going through with people who’ll listen without judgment, such as close friends and family members who knew your lost loved one.
2. Seek grief counseling
If talking doesn’t seem enough, consider seeking professional help with online grief counseling. Therapists trained in bereavement counseling can offer advice tailored to help you manage intense emotions stemming from delayed grief.
3. Practice mindfulness
Some quiet moments each day dedicated to activities like yoga, mindfulness meditation, or journaling can help clear your mind while allowing space for reflection. These acts can bring clarity to thoughts and emotions, potentially making healing easier.
4. Be kind to yourself
Remember that there’s no right way when it comes down to grieving, so allow yourself to take all the time necessary, without any pressure from anyone else. Self-care means not pushing yourself too hard, either. Get plenty of rest, eat healthy meals, and do something you enjoy daily. It can even be small things, like watching your favorite movie or walking in your favorite neighborhood.
5. Let yourself feel
Allow yourself to fully experience all the different emotions connected with losing someone. Don’t suppress your feelings or think you need to move on quickly. It’s ok to cry, shout, and scream — do whatever feels right for you because, eventually, those feelings will start to fade naturally once you express them.
“It’s important to know that the way you go through the loss of a loved one may look different from another person. There could be times when people may think you are not grieving the way they think you should. This is where self-awareness comes in. If you are aware that your view of the world has gotten more dark, scary or less loving after your loss, then you could be stuck in one of the stages of grief and may need help to move through it.”
– Talkspace therapist Dr. Karmen Smith, LCSW, DD
6. Honor the loss
Lastly, find ways to honor the memory of the person you lost. This could mean creating a photo album full of pictures together, writing a poem, holding a memorial, or doing something meaningful that was important to them. Sharing stories with others can keep your loved one’s legacy alive forever, and that can help you move through the grieving process.
“Many people focus on what they have lost, and there may not be much healing. Switching their focus to what they gained from that person being in their life can bring huge healing.”
Delayed grief occurs when you experience the death of a loved one but don’t process your emotions until much later. This can cause confusion and distress for those affected by delayed grief. Fortunately, there are ways to address this type of grief, including through online grief counseling with Talkspace.
Online therapy services offer support for any grief, including when it’s delayed. By connecting with experienced therapists at Talkspace, you’ll have access to helpful resources and personalized guidance that helps you cope in these trying times. Join Talkspace today to start healing from delayed grief with effective grief therapy techniques.
Bonanno GA. Examining the Delayed Grief Hypothesis Across 5 Years of Bereavement. American Behavioral Scientist. 2001;44. doi:DOI:10.1177/00027640121956502. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0002764201044005007. Accessed December 21, 2022.
Wilson DM, Underwood L, Errasti-Ibarrondo B. A scoping research literature review to map the evidence on grief triggers. Social Science & Medicine. 2021;282:114109. doi:10.1016/j.socscimed.2021.114109. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S027795362100441X?dgcid=author. Accessed December 21, 2022.