What Delayed Grief Means and How to Overcome It

Published April 22, 2020
Sad woman sitting on floor at home

The grieving process manifests differently for everyone and depends on many factors. For some, the loss of a loved one may not bring up the full-blown feelings of grief until later on. Known as delayed grief, this type of processing can occur months to years after losing a loved one.

What Is Delayed Grief?

The grieving process can be unpredictable and is not linear in terms of recovery time. This means that as time goes by, you may begin to get used to the idea of not having your loved one around, but your grief related symptoms may have yet to peak. Delayed grief may take you by surprise, especially if you thought you had already gone through the process of grieving and recovering from this immense loss.

When Delayed Grief May Appear

Delayed grief can show up months to years after the passing of your loved one and may feel confusing at first to understand what's going on. This can lead to changes in your behavior, as well as emotional reactions. Because the brain has a tendency towards seeking some form of closure, delayed grief bubbles up when your mind attempts to process, reconcile, and heal from the loss you have experienced.

Why Does Delayed Grief Happen?

Delayed grief occurs for many reasons and is your brain's way of insulating you to this painful experience so you can carry on temporarily. This can occur if you are not able to fully process what has happened right after it occurs. While there are many reasons why you may not be able to process this loss immediately, it takes your brain a great deal of effort to keep your grief-related feelings from bubbling towards the surface. When the delayed grieving process begins, it's your brain's attempt to resolve these unfinished and unprocessed feelings, as well as reduce the energy directed towards keeping these emotions dampened.

How Do I Know if I'm Experiencing Delayed Grief?

You may be experiencing delayed grief if you had a lot on your plate during the time of your loss and needed to carry on without a lot of time to process what actually happened. Those at higher risk for experiencing this include:

  • If you tend to be the sibling or family member who organizes, plans, and takes the lead in terms of responsibility
  • If you were expected to plan and organize the funeral and/or memorial, as well as deal with the will and sort out the deceased's estate
  • If you were a child or teen when your parent passed away and your surviving parent was so emotionally distraught that you took over adult responsibilities in order to survive
  • If your parent has passed away and you are now the caretaker to the surviving parent
  • Loss of a loved one during the midst of a personal crisis
  • Loss of a loved one soon after receiving a health diagnosis for yourself or someone in your immediate family (like a child or spouse)
  • If you used to use drugs or alcohol to cope, and are now processing previous losses from months or years ago
  • If you lost someone in a tragedy or as part of a tragic occurrence (natural disaster, accident, crime, and so on)
Sad man leaning on kitchen counter

Delayed Grief Symptoms

Delayed grief may feel like it pops up out of the blue. On closer inspection, you may notice something that triggered the memory of your loved one such as a familiar smell or experience. Signs and symptoms of delayed grief may include:

  • Feeling suddenly emotionally numb
  • Increased levels of anxiety
  • Symptoms of depression including sleep changes, shifts in appetite, feeling low, feeling sad, and/or feeling angry
  • Experiencing physical pain that seems to come on out of nowhere
  • Having anger outbursts and being short with others
  • Wanting to isolate
  • Intrusive and/or obsessive thoughts about your loved one

Keep in mind that grief and delayed grief signs and symptoms will vary from person to person. If you are experiencing thoughts of harming yourself or others, or are in such distress that you are having serious difficulty with acts of daily living, reach out for help immediately.

Managing Your Delayed Grief Response in Healthy Ways

Although time can alleviate some discomfort associated with grief, it's important to understand and process your thoughts and emotions so healing can begin. Remember that the only way to move through grief is to allow yourself to tap into the thoughts and emotions that have been stored in your mind and body since the passing. You can:

  • Create a grief journal where you can track your emotions and vent about what thoughts and feelings are coming up for you.
  • Reach out to a grief counselor.
  • Consider eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR).
  • Join a grief support group that specializes in delayed grief or the type of loss you've experienced.
  • Practice grief centered yoga.
  • Try to incorporate mindfulness practices and/or breathing techniques into your self care routine as these exercises can help ground you.
  • Speak with family members and friends who you trust and share your experience with them.
  • Find ways to honor your loved one such as writing them a letter, planting something for them, and supporting an organization that was important to them.
  • If you'd like, you can consider throwing a small memorial for them as this may assist with closure.
  • Create something that honors your loved one like a creative project, scrap book, artwork for a remembrance tattoo, or a framed picture of your favorite memory.

Understanding Your Delayed Grief Reaction

If you are experiencing a delayed grief reaction, know that this is completely normal. This temporary pause on the rush of intense grief related feelings and thoughts was your brain's way of protecting you right after your loved one passed away so you could carry on and get whatever you needed to do done. While painful to have your grief resurface, it's your mind and body's way of telling you that it's time to finish processing this loss so you can heal in a healthy way.

What Delayed Grief Means and How to Overcome It