Advice for How to Push Through Delayed Grief

While grief is a universal experience, the ways in which we experience grief differ from person to person. Some experience deep grief at the onset of challenging situations, while others will experience something called “delayed grief.” 

Delayed grief can be surprising, and we may find ourselves unprepared to cope with this onslaught of emotions long after we lose a remarkable loved one. Today, we’re explaining what delayed grief is, why people experience delayed grief, and how we can heal in the midst of these difficult emotions.

What Is Delayed Grief?

Delayed grief is grief that doesn’t occur directly after a traumatic or painful experience. Delayed grief hits at unexpected times, typically after a significant period of time has passed following a loss. Delayed grief can occur anywhere from a few weeks to years after a loved one passes away. 

Grief is unpredictable, not following a certain formula or general methodology. Because of this, there is no way to know how our bodies will respond in the face of loss. Even if we experienced mourning directly after a loss, delayed grief can appear as we are beginning our healing journey.

Others who experience delayed grief may not initially process their feelings until this grief appears months or years following a loss. This could be due to the involuntary shock that tragedy can bring, voluntary avoidance, or the purposeful suppression of negative emotions. 

No matter the timeline of mourning, delayed grief can hit at unexpected times and can seem all-encompassing. 

What Are Some of the Forms of Grief?

When we lose a remarkable loved one, we each experience our emotions uniquely. However, many of us can see ourselves in commonly-accepted definitions of grief.

To address and process delayed grief, we must first know how to distinguish it from other forms of grief, such as:

  1. Anticipatory Grief: Anticipatory grief occurs before our loved one passes. 
  2. Disenfranchised Grief: Disenfranchised grief refers to grief that is not acceptable when held up against societal norms of grieving. 
  3. Simple Grief: Simple grief is characterized by a variety of emotions and has no timeline. It occurs after a loss or tragic event and can continue on for weeks, months, or years after the event. 
  4. Complicated Grief: Complicated grief persists for much longer than simple grief with no improvement. Complicated grief can inhibit daily tasks and can make it difficult to return to daily functions. 

What Are the Symptoms of Delayed Grief?

One way to distinguish delayed grief from other forms of grieving is by exploring its symptoms. These can include headaches, irritability, mood swings, anxiousness, and feeling numb or apathetic. 

Delayed grief can look similar to immediate grief with the timing being the only distinguishing factor. Delayed grief can bring intense feelings of sadness, anger, guilt, or hurt. This form of grief may also bring loss of appetite or inability to sleep. 

If you or a loved one is experiencing delayed grief, it may manifest itself outwardly in withdrawn behaviors or isolation. Fits of anger may also be an indication that we or someone close to us is experiencing delayed grief. 

What Causes Delayed Grief?

Often, the passing of a remarkable loved one can elicit initial feelings of shock. This can prevent us from processing our loss immediately after it happens. 

Keeping busy after tragedy is another common cause of delayed grief. The thought of entering into the depths of grief and beginning the mourning process can seem too weighty a task sometimes. Continuing life as usual seems more manageable than confronting the difficult emotions that accompany grief. 

Additionally, the loss of a loved one is generally followed by funeral planning and settling estates. Organizing and completing tasks in order to celebrate our loved one’s incredible life can take significant time and energy and can leave little room for grief. 

The trouble with not processing grief immediately following loss — whether consciously or subconsciously — is that those negative emotions will eventually make their way to the surface. This is when delayed grief arises. 

How to Process Delayed Grief

Grief has no timeline, and it is never too late to experience the deep emotions we feel following the passing of an incredible loved one. Here are a few tools and resources when coping with delayed grief. 

Try Grief Counseling 

Seeing a grief counselor can be a helpful way to process the pain of loss. Grief counselors specialize in helping people navigate the difficult emotions that accompany loss. Counseling can also provide individuals with tools for how to respond in the moment to their emotions. 

Grief counseling provides a safe space to open up and be heard. This is especially needed for those who feel they are carrying the emotional weight of loss for themselves and their family. Grief counseling helps to validate the emotions we experience during grief and help us to put language to what is going on in our minds and bodies.

Avoid Isolation

While some alone time during the grieving process is healthy, this is different from purposeful isolation. Many of us tend to retreat from our friends and family for an extended period when we’re feeling overwhelmed or upset. Being removed from loved ones can cause emotions to become all-consuming and realities to be distorted. 

Finding support from close friends, family members, or support groups is a vital part of healing from delayed grief. It is important to find people who will remind us that we are not alone in what feels like an otherwise lonely time. 

Develop Healthy Habits

Incorporating habits such as healthy eating and exercise can be helpful when coping with grief. 

Exercise can be a powerful outlet for stress and a time to check in with ourselves. Eating well can improve mood and help with our mental health.  It is also important to develop healthy sleep schedules because of grief’s potential to affect our sleep. 

We all also have unhealthy coping habits that we may gravitate towards in an effort to avoid our grief. This can look like distracting activities or denial. Denial is a common unhealthy coping mechanism. It is the unwillingness to face reality for fear of pain. Denial will only continue to push off the mourning process. 

Another unhealthy coping habit is substance abuse. Some choose to turn to substances as a way of numbing pain. While this may provide temporary relief, this too will only delay the grief that is sure to come. 

People avoiding grief may also turn to risky behaviors. While this may also include substance abuse, it is not limited to just that. Risky behavior can also include reckless driving or driving under the influence, excessive spending, and a variety of other impulsive actions. 

Isolation is also a coping mechanism that people will turn to when faced with loss. Isolation can increase the experience of loneliness and negatively impact mental health. 

Since delayed grief affects us holistically, it is important to cultivate healthy habits (and avoid unhealthy ones) in the months following loss so that we are prepared if delayed grief arises.

Keep a Grief Journal 

Grief journaling is a helpful tool when processing complicated emotions. Journals allow us to explain the pain that we have experienced and make sense of the world around us. A journal is a safe space to unleash every thought and feeling during our mourning period. 

Keeping a grief journal also provides documentation of our healing processes. Journals offer us a chance to look back on the things that walking through grief taught us about ourselves and the world. 

Writing about the delayed grief that we experience also keeps us from avoiding or suppressing negative feelings. If we have no outlet in which to release our pain, it can often feel too overwhelming. Journaling gifts us with that outlet. 

Journaling through grief has also been known to have many physical benefits. Having a release like journaling can result in lower stress levels, improve our sleep quality, and increase our ability to problem-solve. 

Often, the cause of our lack of sleep is the rate at which our minds race trying to make sense of the emotions we experience. In a sense, journaling puts our minds to rest so that our bodies can follow. 

Positive Effects of Delayed Grief

Experiencing delayed grief — or any type of grief — is a significant process that alters our lives and our bodies. The feelings of delayed grief are painful and should not be overlooked or downplayed. Processing delayed grief and not avoiding it, however, can have a positive impact on a person’s life.

People who have walked through and healed from grief report having a deeper acceptance of the things they can’t change. As opposed to responding to grief with controlling behaviors, acceptance can bring with it feelings of freedom and letting go without diminishing pain. 

Healing from the loss of a loved one can also produce a deeper appreciation of life. Loss allows us to see the fragility of life as well as its transient nature. With this new perspective, we are careful not to take the life we’ve been given for granted. It teaches us to make the most of each day we are given.

Working through grief can also create a deeper understanding of self and others. We learn a great deal about our emotions and our bodies as we journey through grief. Processing grief also gives us confidence that we are able to walk through whatever life throws at us. It allows us to walk into the unknown with courage rather than fear. 

Conclusion

Delayed grief is the grief that occurs a significant amount of time after loss occurs. Delayed grief can come in waves and appear unexpectedly. It can result from a number of different things such as the subconscious shock or conscious avoidance that may follow tragedy. Symptoms of delayed grief can be physical, mental, or emotional.

When it comes to coping with delayed grief, there are many different ways that people choose to process their emotions. The ways we choose to heal from grief vary from person to person because we all experience grief differently. Avoiding unhealthy coping and pressing into healthy habits is key during this time. 

Sources:

How To Accept and Work Through the Delayed Grief You May Be Feeling Now | Methodist Health System

Finding the Positive After Loss | CSI Fond du Lac County 

Types of Grief and Loss | CaringInfo  

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