Grief can look different for everyone. For some people, it can take a while for a loss to seem real. A delayed grief reaction can pop up out of nowhere, sometimes years after you experience a loss. These emotions can take you by surprise and even make you feel disoriented.
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If you’ve felt this before, you’re not alone. Delayed grief can overcome your thoughts and emotions when you least expect it. You can manage this grief better when you understand how and why it took longer to develop.
What is Delayed Grief?
Delayed grief occurs when you push off your grief reaction instead of facing it right away. You put up a mental wall around your feelings so they can’t overwhelm you. Others may tell you how strong you are or that you’re handling the loss so well.
This delayed reaction happens because you aren’t able to handle the emotional weight of your grief or the reality of your loss right away. You may have been very young or your loss may have happened in a traumatic or sudden way.
Is it different from regular grief?
Delayed grief has the same range of emotions that regular grief does, including sorrow, anxiety, and even rage. You’ll still feel these emotions no matter how long it’s been since your loss. Your grief reaction will be strong and overwhelming at times, even with the delay.
One difference is how the passage of time affects your emotional expression and coping skills. You change and evolve as a person every day. So if you push off your grief for a year or more, all the life experiences you’ve had during that time will influence how the emotion affects you.
How Delayed Grief Works
Delayed grief happens because something stops you from embracing your grief right away. A person with a delayed reaction can still go through all the stages of grief.
These steps explain how and why the reaction takes more time.
Traumatic or sudden event
You experience, witness, or are strongly affected by a sudden loss or change. The loss hits you like an avalanche and shakes your sense of stability. It’s jarring and almost beyond belief.
Grief reactions often stem from the death of a loved one. But a person can grieve the loss of financial stability, a dream job, physical objects, or a previous lifestyle.
When the loss happens, you can embrace grief as it comes over you. But if for any reason you feel like you can’t face it, you may move on to the next phase of delayed grief: feeling stunned.
Feeling stunned or not ready to grieve
You realize right away that this loss is too much for you right now. You either live your normal life or become consumed by this grief. You feel frozen for a while, unsure of what to do next.
Some possible reasons for this reaction could include:
- Feeling too shocked or surprised to accept the loss as real.
- Too much trauma occurring around the loss.
- Traumatic injury that delays your ability to focus on much beyond your recovery.
- Being a small child without the ability to comprehend your loss at the time.
- Feeling obliged to stay strong for everyone else in your family when a loss or death occurs.
- Being in survival mode for a long time to recover from a tragic event (flood, tornado, house fire, etc.)
Putting off grief
You put on a mask that says to the world, “I’m fine, I’m strong.” For a while, you go about your normal life. Eventually, you may convince yourself that you’re fine and that the loss doesn’t bother you much. Others may even comment on how strong and steady you are through everything.
But your grief isn’t gone, it’s just pushed off. You haven’t faced it or taken care of it. Your grief waits to come flooding in someday because you can’t hold it off forever.
Trigger for grief to begin
The trigger for your grief might snap you out of your haze in a moment. Or your grief could gradually creep up on you as your emotional mask wears down. Once your guard is down, your reaction will come over you. You may feel like you’re drowning in emotion and stress. You may feel disoriented and not understand why it’s happening.
You realize this is your out-of-sync grief showing up, and now you have a choice. You can cover up your grief and push it away again or you can embrace it and feel your emotions completely.
If you don’t push the grief off again, you can begin to cope with your feelings. You may have grown and changed since the loss happened. Perhaps you understand the situation better now, or you’ve grown older and matured emotionally. Maybe you found personal support you didn’t have before.
Whatever the case, this is your chance to deal with your grief. Your feelings will come and go in your daily life. Grief has no timeline, so it’s normal to feel waves of emotion from time to time. With support from loved ones, you can learn how to live with your grief every day.
Examples of Delayed Grief
Delayed grief is easier to understand in the context of a specific scenario. These examples include sudden or shocking events that often delay a person’s grief response.
Traumatic event at a young age: Julie was six years old when her parents were killed in a car accident. She and her older brother were taken in by their aunt and uncle in the same town. Suddenly, they were living with several of her cousins and went to a different school. Julie was sad for a while but eventually got into family life again. Adults remarked on how well Julie seemed to take the loss at first.
Then two years later, Julie started to withdraw from friends and family, developing intense fears and phobias she’d never had before.
Sudden death of a loved one: Joe was in his 20s and worked with his dad, Mike, at their family-owned auto shop. Mike had a heart attack when they were both at work. Joe tried CPR, but Mike died before the ambulance could arrive. Joe was in complete disbelief that everything had changed so quickly. He threw himself into managing his dad’s business and worked around the clock to keep it going.
A few years later, Joe felt angry all the time and drank beer every night. Joe had kept the business afloat, but now he was exhausted and frustrated by the littlest problems.
Surprise loss of job and financial security: Maggie was about to shift roles at her job and get a promotion when the company suddenly announced corporate restructuring. By the end of the week, she was laid off. She scrambled for a few weeks and eventually found a job that paid half what her previous one did. The next month, Maggie moved across town to a more affordable apartment.
Months later, she finally adjusted to her new neighborhood and her new job. Maggie started to miss her old neighborhood and felt lonely, even though she had friends at her new job. She withdrew more and found herself getting teary every day.
Natural disaster: Jessie and Tim raised cattle and farmed on several large plots of family-owned land. A massive spring storm system hit their area, first with a dangerous blizzard and then heavy rainstorm. Most of their livestock were killed and much of their farmland flooded. Jessie and Tim worked day and night to keep their cattle and farm going.
After a year, they were ready to start again with their livestock and fields. On the one-year anniversary of the flood, they were suddenly reminded of how much had changed. Jessie and Tim were overcome with sadness and felt the full weight of their loss.
House fire: Layla was a 15-year-old girl when she and her dad lived in a small house on the edge of town. One night, Layla saw smoke coming under the doorway of her bedroom. She struggled to open her bedroom window but escaped just before the entire house caught fire.
Layla and her dad lived with family members for several months before finding their own place to live. Her dad was so distraught by the house fire that he only had the energy to work and sleep.
For months, Layla took on many responsibilities, such as buying food, going to school, and taking a part-time job. One night, her friends asked her to go out with them. Layla said she couldn’t and suddenly began crying. She cried for hours and didn’t sleep all night. She felt confused and surprised that she became so upset.
Coping with Delayed Grief
A sudden loss can be a shock to your system and grieving can be too much to handle at the time. Delayed grief can be overwhelming when it finally presents itself. If you don’t feel like you are coping well with your grief, you may find counseling helpful and supportive.
- “Coping with Grief After a Sudden Death,” Northwestern University, www.northwestern.edu/counseling/shared-assets/homepage/grief-coping.pdf