The natural grief process helps us adjust to loss. Delayed grief means the grief process hasn’t started or is stuck. This can be for a variety of reasons.
Grief doesn't follow a straight line. Everyone’s grief is as unique as their fingerprint and lots of things influence how a person grieves. After a loss, some people can go through a time when the natural grief process hasn’t started for them. Or it started, but then stalled. Grief reactions can be delayed for hours, days, weeks, months, or even years.
Factors that delay grief, can include:
- Putting it off because of pressing matters that need attention, such as supporting others (including grieving children/teens), taking care of a practical family situation, or keeping routines going
- Experiencing ongoing severe shock, so the person cannot take in the fact, that a loss has happened.
- Experiencing denial (a common early reaction), which becomes ongoing, with a person actively refusing to accept or address their loss
- When the unhelpful expectations and words of others, let a person know they should ‘be strong’, ‘pull themselves together,’ or ‘move on’. This can cause a person to internally shut down their grief processing
- When someone avoids the pain of the loss by pushing it away, or down, so it won’t intrude on their life. They often ‘keep busy’ and distracted to avoid focusing on their loss.
Denying or suppressing grief reactions, can be intentional and conscious, or subconscious. Either way, it is a self-protective measure in the face of a debilitating and frightening loss. We all manage the impact of grief the best way we can. The challenge is, however, that when grief is delayed, physical health and mental health issues can sometimes emerge. For example, migraines, stomach upsets, eating problems, sleeping problems, illnesses, high levels of anxiety, intense unexpressed emotions (such as guilt or anger), disruptive outbursts, self-isolation, depression, and even suicidality. This is not surprising, when we realise that the mind and body are holding in the pain of grief and inhibiting its healthy release.
It is important to note, however, that sometimes a person may not have delayed grief at all. It may be that a person simply isn’t grieving as expected. because what or who has been lost, hasn’t negatively affected them the way others assumed it would. We are all different.
When the grief process has been delayed, it will typically start, or restart, in its own time and often in unexpected, unpredictable ways. It might emerge when someone experiences another loss. For example, the loss of a pet may trigger memories of a relative’s death that wasn’t grieved fully, at the time. It might be triggered by an event or item relating to the loss, such as finding an old photo, hearing music from a funeral, meeting a friend who wants to talk about someone who is not in your life anymore, or going to a place that echoes with memories. The grief might begin when things have become more settled, and a person has more time to think and reflect.
Grief takes its own time. It cannot be forced. The good news is, that when delayed grief does end, the grief can still be experienced in normal and healthy ways. A person’s grief may be intense and full on for a while, just as it would have been when the loss first happened. Self-care and stress management strategies, can all be helpful. If it becomes overwhelming or hard to cope with, drawing on support networks, talking to someone trusted, joining a support group, visiting a GP, or seeing a grief counsellor, could all be helpful.
If a person’s delayed grief appears to be permanent, or there are concerns about the negative effects it’s having on their well-being or health, professional assistance is indicated. This is true for children and teens, as well as adults. Seeing a GP, a counsellor or a psychologist, could assist a person to understand their delayed grief and gradually explore ways to address the loss and release their grief in helpful, healthy and healing ways. Having someone outside their usual network who can help them to take time to stop, think, and talk about the loss can make a very positive difference.