Sometimes, sadness takes its time
Medically reviewed by Daniel B. Block, MD
Delayed grief happens when the grief response is delayed or postponed following a loss. Also known as a delayed grief reaction, it can occur following the death of a loved one, but it can also happen after a major life change or disruption.
The hallmark of delayed grief is that instead of going through the grief process immediately, the emotions and responses that normally accompany a major loss are postponed, sometimes for an extended period.
It is only later, after the initial shock, avoidance, or denial wears off, that the full impact of the loss finally sets in. You might experience waves of grief that come and go and vary in intensity. In other cases, a trigger may cause your grief to hit you suddenly all at once.
At a Glance
Delayed grief can happen when a person gets stuck in the "denial" stage of the grieving process. It can be a natural reaction that protects you if you aren’t ready to deal with the pain of your loss. However, it can also make it more challenging to process your emotions and may play a role in prolonged or complicated grief.
Grief is unique to each person, so it’s important to remember that there is no wrong way to grieve. Make sure that you are taking care of yourself, get support from your loved ones, and reach out to a therapist if you are struggling to manage your feelings.
What Triggers Delayed Grief?
In normal, uncomplicated grief, you experience five different stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. This process begins with denial and ends with acceptance, but how people experience the stages in between can vary.
"The stages in between might not occur in an exact order, and individuals can oscillate among them," explains San Francisco therapist Dr. Avigail Lev. "For instance, someone might go from anger to bargaining, then back to depression, and again to bargaining, so it's not a linear path."
Going through these stages allows you to process the experience, deal with your emotions, and heal in response to a death or loss.
When you experience delayed grief, you get stuck in that denial stage. This can mean you might be left with unresolved feelings and complications that make it harder to heal.
"In delayed grieving, the denial stage lasts longer, meaning the person remains in denial for a more extended period."
Dr. Avigail Lev
Delayed grief can vary for each person, but there are several factors that can play a role in causing this type of response following a loss.
The Unexpectedness of a Loss
The sudden loss of a loved one can be shocking, and it’s normal to experience denial as a defense mechanism to cope. By delaying grief, people can suppress or dampen the difficult emotions they would normally experience.
"The grief is so overwhelming that the person feels too flooded, overwhelmed, and traumatized to fully process it. As a result, their defense mechanism of denial persists longer to protect them from this pain," Lev suggests.
Stress and Busyness
Even after a loss, people still have to carry on with their normal obligations, such as work, school, and family. Add the stress of suddenly planning a funeral, arranging an estate, and dealing with financial changes, and it's understandable that people feel like they have to swallow back their grief just to keep soldiering forward.
The sudden loss of a significant person can bring up all kinds of difficult emotions, including feelings of regret or unresolved issues. Confronting these feelings isn't easy. Delayed grief can sometimes stem from difficulty dealing with such complex emotional struggles. By staying in the denial stage, people don’t have to face their feelings of regret.
Personality traits, poor coping mechanisms, and poor social support might also contribute to delayed grief. For example, if you tend to avoid difficult emotions, you're much more likely to have a delayed response after a loss.
The COVID-19 pandemic exemplifies how situational factors can contribute to delayed grief. Due to distancing, quarantines, and other precautions, many people who lost a loved one during the pandemic experienced delayed or disrupted mourning process. For many, this contributed to problems such as emotional numbness and waves of mourning as life returned to normal.
Reminders and Triggers
When grief is delayed, emotional responses can be triggered by reminders of that person or additional losses that drench up these feelings of grief. Seeing a photo of a loved one or visiting a place where you spent time together, for example, might suddenly bring delayed grief to the surface.
Signs and Symptoms of Delayed Grief
People don't experience delayed grief in the same way. Some signs and symptoms you might experience can be emotional and physical.
Emotional symptoms of delayed grief include:
A sense of numbness or detachment
Intense emotional reactions in response to things that remind you of the loss
Feelings of persistent sadness
Intrusive thoughts or memories about your loved one
Problem enjoying things that used to bring you pleasure
Changes in how you feel about yourself, your purpose, or your identity
Feelings of guilt or regret
Physical symptoms of delayed grief can include:
Changes in sleep, appetite, or body weight
Feeling tired or unmotivated
Physical symptoms such as headaches, stomach aches, muscle tension, frequent illness, and digestive issues
How Long Can Delayed Grief Last?
Delayed grief does not follow a specific timeline. You might start grieving a loss at any point, whether days, weeks, months, or even years later.
The intensity and duration of delayed grief can be influenced by a range of factors, including the nature of the relationship, the type of loss, and individual factors such as personality, attachment style, age, health, coping resources, and social support.
Grieving is a normal process, but it is unique to everyone. If you are experiencing delayed grief, you may go through periods where you feel relatively fine before experiencing a sudden resurgence of grief. Grief can resurface at different points in your life, such as in response to reminders or anniversaries.
Healing isn't a linear path, and you may find that there are times when you feel better, and other times you feel worse. But there's no timeline you must follow or deadline when you need to be ready to move past your grief.
If your grief persists for much longer than would be expected, you may have complicated grief. Complicated grief affects an estimated 7% of bereaved people and is marked by grief symptoms that are so intense they make it difficult for people to function or move on with their lives. Another study found that 25.9% of adults who experience bereavement in adulthood have a severe grief response.
While complicated grief is not included as a diagnosis in the "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders," a new condition known as prolonged grief disorder has been added to the DSM-5. It is characterized by disruptive symptoms of grief that persist for a year or longer following a death.
Coping Strategies for Delayed Grief
Delayed grief can have significant effects on mental health. Not fully processing emotions can have lingering effects on a person's well-being and lead to greater psychological challenges down the road.
Some of the mental health effects of a delayed grief reaction can include a greater risk for anxiety and depression. It can also worsen existing mental health challenges and contribute to feelings of chronic stress that take a toll on both physical and emotional wellness.
Self-Care Practices to Support the Grieving Process
If you are struggling with delayed grief, there are strategies you can use to help connect with what you are feeling and process your emotions more fully. Some techniques you might find helpful include:
Journaling: Expressive writing can be a therapeutic way to work through the difficult emotions you are feeling. Consider writing a letter to your loved one or write down your favorite memories of that person.
Mindfulness practices: Mindfulness is all about centering your attention on the here and now. It can be a way to connect with what you are feeling and what these feelings mean. Research suggests it can help bereaved people improve emotional regulation and executive function.
Stick to a routine: Keeping a regular routine is important when you are dealing with stressful experiences. It can help you maintain a sense of consistency and normalcy, which may help you feel more in control even when things seem hectic or tumultuous.
Learn about grief: Spend some time learning about what the normal grieving process looks like, including the stages of grief that people typically experience. It can be comforting to know that what you are experiencing is normal and expected.
Honor your loved one: Find meaningful ways to honor the memory of the person you have lost. For example, you might create a memorial or participate in rituals to honor their life.
Seeking Professional Help and Therapy Options
In addition to self-care strategies, it is also important to seek professional support if you are struggling. A therapist or counselor can help you process your feelings of delayed grief. Therapy options that may help you cope include:
Grief counseling: Focuses on working with a therapist to manage feelings of grief and loss while developing effective coping strategies. Research has found that grief counseling reduces long-term symptoms.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT): Identifies and changes the unrealistic or unhelpful thought patterns that might be making it difficult to cope with your grief.
Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR): Helps cultivate a focus on the present and improve self-awareness, which can help people cope with anxiety and deal with difficult emotions.
Expressive arts therapy: Encourages people to explore their emotions using the creative arts.
Lev notes that grief is one thing that does not have a clear therapeutic intervention. A therapist can help you make sense of your feelings and make meaning of the experience, but it still takes time.
This is particularly true, she explains, if grief is traumatic. "The more traumatic the grief, the more likely it is that people will experience a delayed version, where their denial mechanisms last longer, and it takes them longer to process and accept what has happened," Lev says.
The good news is, she suggests, is that it's not necessarily healthy or unhealthy. If someone is experiencing delayed grief, Lev suggests that the healthiest approach is often to trust their defenses. "If they are still in denial, they are actually using the healthiest coping mechanism available to them," she says.
The problem is when this defense mechanism gets carried over into other areas of your life. That's where therapy can be helpful.
"We need to view defense mechanisms not as something to work through or as inherently bad, but as something our body does to protect us. Our bodies know when we are ready to deal with and cope with something, and we have to trust our defense mechanisms," she explains.
"If someone is experiencing delayed grief and extended denial, they are simply not ready to face their grief; in time, they will.""
Dr. Avigail Lev
Supporting Others with Delayed Grief
If someone you know seems to be having a delayed response to a loss, there are some steps you can take to support them as they go through the grieving process. Some basic guidelines include the following
Pay attention to any major changes in a person's functioning, mood, behavior, or self-care. For example, look for signs like changes in appetite, sleep habits, demeanor, and social activities.
Help Them Feel Safe and Secure
Focus on being a safe, supportive, and non-judgmental presence in their life. Don't pressure them to feel a certain way or suggest that the emotions they are experiencing are wrong.
Instead, acknowledge and validate what they feel and their experience with loss. Let them know that you are there to listen to anything they have to share. Remind them that it's OK to have a wide range of mixed feelings—and that such feelings can be complicated, conflicted, and confusing.
Provide Practical Support
Even if someone seems to be functioning normally in the aftermath of a loss, that doesn't mean that they don't need help. Provide help with practical aspects of daily living, like running errands, doing household chores, watching the kids, or preparing meals.
Providing this type of practical support can give people the time and space they need to process their emotions and cope with their delayed grief.
Keep Checking In
Because delayed grief doesn't follow a fixed timeline, it's important to keep checking in and offering support. Keep reaching out and let them know that you are there to help.
Everyone's grief is different. There's no single approach that can help people heal and manage the painful emotions that come from a loss. Being empathetic, flexible, authentic, and supportive can help ensure your loved one has a shoulder to lean on if their grief becomes too much to bear alone.
Healing and Moving Forward
Some strategies that can help you process delayed grief and find closure include:
Accepting difficult emotions and allowing yourself to feel what you feel without judgment
Channeling your emotions into creative outlets such as music, art, writing, or sculpture
Talking about your emotions and grief with friends, family, or a therapist; sometimes, just putting your feelings into words can help these emotions feel less intense and overwhelming
Creating something to memorialize your loved one, such as planting a tree in their honor or making a scrapbook of their life
Keeping a journal where you can express your thoughts or even write letters to the person you lost
Engage in spiritual practices that help you feel connected to something you find personally meaningful
As you move past delayed grief, finding ways to embrace resilience and growth can help you adapt and find new meaning in your life. This process often involves taking time for self-reflection and cultivating a mindset of gratitude. Rather than ruminating on feelings of regret, focus on the things you are thankful for and the nurturing relationships you have with the people in your life.
Work on being kind to yourself. You've endured something difficult, so treat yourself with the same compassion you might show a good friend. Allow yourself to embrace your future while still looking for meaningful ways to honor the person you have lost.
Keep in Mind
Grief often follows a fairly predictable pattern, but each person's experience is different, and in some cases, feelings of grief can be delayed for an extended period. The shock of a loss combined with stress, busyness, and regrets can make processing emotions normally incredibly hard. Delayed grief can serve as a coping tool to help people keep functioning without becoming overwhelmed.
If you're struggling with symptoms of delayed grief—such as numbness, detachment, and guilt--know that there are things you can do to find solace and move forward. A combination of self-care, support from loved ones, and intentional efforts to process the loss can help you deal with your grief in your own personal way.
You don’t have to do it alone. If your grief is overwhelming, delayed, or prolonged, talk to a mental health professional.
Related: What Is Traumatic Grief Therapy?
Read the original article on Verywell Mind.