Delayed Grief

The term delayed grief refers to any part of mourning and grieving that is still to be resolved or come to terms with. Whatever our preconceptions might be, it is not uncommon for grieving to take place at a delayed period after the death of a loved one. In some cases, the delay might last years, even decades, and although mourning and bereavement are ordinary parts of life they sometimes remain very hard to attend to.

Delayed grief is normal

When the time gap between the bereavement and the emergence of symptoms (perhaps not sleeping, loss of confidence, loss of energy and interest in ourselves, and in life and relationships and work) is long, it can be complicated to see how the pattern of symptoms you are experiencing now, relate to the loss.

I was in a market town in France and I saw a flash of white hair across the road, and I thought it was my father, and then it hit me. It can’t be, he’s been dear for two years. I thought how strange it was, that I’d had that instant association. That a part of me seemed to think he might still be alive. I sat in a cafe and wept. I realised how sad I felt. How painful it was even now to think about him. Really, I think that was the beginning of me beginning to process my emotions. It was only then that I was able to engage with my feelings.

A client’s story

It can take time to engage with delayed grief

You may find yourself investigating what seems like a random change in your mood and bodily sensations before you turn your attention to the loss and start to consider whether that is the source of your change in mood.

In some cases, particularly where there has been a traumatic death, or a childhood bereavement, our loss is simply too difficult to comprehend at the time. Instead, we go into some kind of defensive reaction, our emotions become suspended. We shut our feelings down, we go into a kind of automatic coping mode. This is quite understandable; we have after all been through a loss that is too painful to engage with. But it is probably better to find a way to approach our grief rather than leave it as something that is forever deferred.

When someone dies we have all of the practicalities to attend to, registering the death, the funeral service, and so forth. We go through the motions, attending to everything that needs doing, but all the time our emotions sit, cocooned, enveloped, and protected deep within us. We focus on the practical, it helps us get through. It is only after this that we can start to do the work of saying goodbye. Until that time our feelings remain unresolved.

This doesn’t just apply to death. The break up of some relationships can be very hard to come to terms with. Divorce can take a long time to come to terms with, as can the shock of redundancy, particularly when we were happy and at home in our work.

In delayed grief, it is as though we have slipped into a prolonged emotional winter

We may be familiar with the idea that there are five stages to grieving (the Kubler-Ross model), known as denial, anger, bargaining, depression and then acceptance. Since it first became popular, it has been acknowledged that this model was developed in relation to people who were dying rather than people who had been bereaved.

But Kubler-Ross did recognise that grieving is not a linear and orderly process and that these stages are better understood as different reflections we may have to grieving. We all have to find ways to adapt to our loss.

Adapting, engaging with delayed grief

In Carl Jung’s view, the psyche is understood as an organ of adaptation, and for our psychologies to thrive, we need to be able to adapt to changes in circumstances on an ongoing basis. Some of these are easier than others and it is seldom easy to adapt to the death of a loved one.

When we lose someone close to us it is like we have to gradually say goodbye to them, gradually acknowledge all of our memories of being together, and the hopes we had of what we were yet to do together.

When we speak of a delay, we are referring to anything that will need to be done later. It hasn’t disappeared, it is still work to be done. It is perhaps the case that complicated experiences of grief are more likely to be delayed.

How do we recognise that we may need to pay attention to our delayed grief?

Often it is through paying attention to ourselves, to being aware of how well we are sleeping, to how able we are to do the things that bring us pleasure and joy. In delayed grief our spirit, life energy, libido becomes reduced. It is like Hamlet says;

I have of late, but
wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth…

Hamlet, Act 2, scene 2

Delayed grief may show itself through occasional bursts of emotion, irritability, anger, loss of appetite, a sudden outpouring, a sudden heightened reaction, bad dreams, and nightmares. We may suddenly find ourselves crying for no apparent reason, having heart palpitations, becoming forgetful and confused, and though it can be unsettling to experience random emotions like this, it often makes sense when we find a way to look into the experience further.

What has happened is that the delayed, repressed, suppressed, and ignored feelings have suddenly found a route to expression. It is a bit like when a plant finds a way to break through the tarmac. Though it is painful and unsettling to have these sudden feelings, there is also room for new life.

When we delay our grief we are not just keeping ourselves away from pain, we are blocking ourselves from living fully. Grieving, and particularly powerful feelings of grief need to be metabolised. They need to be expressed so that we become more able to live to our full potential. When we shut off one of our emotional reactions we are shutting ourselves down. It is understandable that this happens, our losses are often traumatic and hard to approach, but in the longer term when we deny them, we live half-lives. It is as though a portion of us has been buried with our loved one too.

Recognising we still need to grieve

In grieving we allow ourselves the chance to say goodbye, we allow ourselves to acknowledge not only what was lost but to really recognise the strength and power of the relationship we had together. In time that can become something we come to be grateful for, but right now that may feel like a long way ahead.

Perhaps you are starting to see that your grief, maybe long delayed, now needs attending to. It is never too late to come to grief, and the feeling that it is time to do so now is how the process of adaptation starts to occur.

Contact me

Having the chance to speak in a confidential setting is often the key to developing a clearer understanding of the state of our delayed grief, of the mourning we are still to do.

By giving yourself a safe space to look at these things you may start to discover a greater sense of possibilities, and this may be the beginning of developing a greater sense of understanding how to relate to yourself and others, and how to start living more fully again.

The chance to reflect on ourselves, our feelings and experience can be powerful and transformative.  Out of this, you may be able to develop a clearer understanding of how you and your sense of your problems have developed.

I have been working with people on issues such like this for more than twenty years.  My work is built around helping you to develop greater insight into who you are, and how you live. 

Contact me to arrange a free telephone consultation to discuss how my approach might help you.


Email: toby@tobyingham.com