I lost my mum in traumatic circumstances. It was my first experience of sudden death. I was 25 years old and all I could think to do after the funeral, was go back to work and carry on. Nobody had suggested that I was most likely still in shock.
About a year later, the grief really hit. In hindsight, this isn’t such a surprise but at the time, it was. What I know now, is that delayed grief is a thing. Especially where trauma is involved.
What exactly is delayed grief?
Delayed grief is exactly as it sounds. It’s grief that you don’t fully experience until a period of time after your loss. There is no timeline for this either. It might play out weeks, months or even years after your loss.
Shock and denial can play a part, but not always. Sometimes it’s just about the way in which we process loss and how we respond within our own frame of reference.
In the case of losing my mum, I had set aside my feelings to do what needed to be done; arranging the funeral, supporting my sister and subsequently dealing with my dad’s health deterioration. So it’s not surprising that my own grief was put on the “back burner”.
Sometimes the shock of a loss or a need to work through immediate practical problems leads us to, consciously or not, ‘press pause’ on our grief. It then catches up with us later, sometimes triggered by another loss, or even something small and otherwise inconsequential.
Other typical factors that can lead to delayed grief:
• Experiencing ongoing severe shock and unable to process the loss that has occurred.
• Experiencing denial (a common early reaction), which then becomes ongoing and a refusal to accept or address the loss.
• When the unhelpful expectations and words of others impacts deeply, i.e. “stay strong”, “pull yourself together”, “it’s time to move on”.
• When avoiding the pain of the loss to the extent of pushing it away or down, as well as keeping busy or creating distractions to avoid facing the loss.
Those who experience delayed grief often describe it as overwhelming emotion that hits them “out of the blue”.
The good news is that, delayed grief is a positive sign. It’s something to be welcomed. After all, it gives us the opportunity to work through our feelings and when we’re ready, heal.
How can you tell if it’s delayed grief?
There is much to be said for using your intuition here because what may appear to be delayed grief on the outside, may simply just be your way of dealing with the loss you have experienced. So be honest with yourself.
If you’re holding back from fully feeling your grief, it may well manifest in other ways. Typical delayed grief symptoms include headaches, irritability, anxiousness, mood swings, lack of sleep, or feeling numb and apathetic.
Once the delayed grief finally hits you, it often feels almost exactly like immediate grief – it’s just that it can feel like it’s come out of nowhere. It can be a whirlwind of emotions such as sadness, anger, guilt, pain and hurt.
You might find yourself having crying spells or be feeling ‘foggy’, unable to eat, sleep or cope with your usual everyday routine. It’s okay – these are all normal responses to loss.
What to do about it.
• Look after yourself. When we’re grieving, self-care falls to the bottom of the list of priorities. Eat healthily – even if you don’t feel like it. Get plenty of rest and maintain a sleep routine as best you can. If you’re struggling to function, see your doctor.
• Talk to somebody you trust. Any grief can be isolating, especially if yours is delayed and it appears that everybody around you has moved on. That doesn’t mean it’s too late for you to talk about this and ask for support.
• Create head space for yourself. This is important and it may mean taking some time off work and arranging some childcare. Carve out as much time as you can for yourself to reflect and check in what you need – even if it’s an hour. Journaling, meditation and relaxation activities will all help.
• Ditch the temptation to use unhealthy coping strategies. Drinking alcohol or comfort eating might numb the pain for a while, but you’ll feel a lot worse in the long run and only add to your stresses.
• Seek professional support. This could be in the form of a bereavement counsellor, grief coach, life coach, CBT therapist or support group. Do your research and decide what you feel will help you the most right now.
If you think you might be struggling with delayed grief, then I’m here to listen and help. I’m always happy to refer or suggest alternative services if coaching isn’t right for you.
Remember, there is no shame in asking for help while you take time out to heal. It’s a strength to know what you need and act on it.