Delayed Grief: Symptoms, Causes, and 6 Coping Techniques

Thursday, June 22

When you lose a loved one, feelings of grief are natural. Sometimes, however, these feelings don't always appear right away. A delayed grief reaction following the loss of a loved one is a common experience, and it's one that can be confusing and challenging to deal with.

To help you navigate the grieving process and the challenges that unresolved grief creates, let's take a look at what delayed grief is, the common causes of delayed grief, and how grief therapy can help.

Understanding delayed grief

Delayed grief is a type of grief that occurs when you cannot process your emotions and feelings of grief following a loss in a timely manner. Instead, these feelings may come as waves of grief that you experience over a prolonged period — or they may hit you all at once at a later time.

The normal grief process allows you to process your feelings and begin healing following a loss. With delayed grief, however, this healing is delayed, leading to unresolved emotions and a lingering impact on your mental well-being.

Factors contributing to delayed grief

There are several causes and risk factors that can contribute to delayed grief. This includes factors such as:

  • Unresolved emotions regarding your relationship with the person who has passed
  • Distractions following the loss (such as planning funeral arrangements) that prevent you from grieving
  • Personality traits such as emotional avoidance
  • Lack of support from friends and family members

Stages and symptoms of delayed grief

The experience of delayed grief is different for everyone. However, there are common stages of grief that many people experience when dealing with delayed grief:

  • Emotional numbness following the loss
  • Emotional avoidance/avoidance of reminders
  • Intrusive thoughts or memories
  • Emotional outbursts
  • Physical symptoms such as headaches, digestive issues, fatigue, and trouble sleeping
  • Feelings of intense grief that disrupt your daily life and routines

Delayed grief vs. the normal grieving process

The grieving process is typically broken down into five stages: shock, denial, anger, sadness, and acceptance. During a normal grieving process, these emotions are usually felt and processed in a relatively short period of time. With delayed grief, though, this grieving process is suspended or suppressed.

Someone experiencing delayed grief may feel numb or emotionless following a loss. They may even actively try to suppress their emotions and feelings of grief. However, these feelings surface over time — and it’s much healthier to accept them and process them than to delay or suppress them.

Common causes of delayed grief

There are several things that can cause delayed grief. Here are some of the more common reasons why delayed grief happens:

You have unresolved emotions

Complicated bereavement (also known as complicated grief) can cause you to experience intense grief that doesn't get better as time passes. Like delayed grief, complicated bereavement can sometimes be tied to unresolved emotions that you have repressed or have otherwise been unable to process.

Complicated bereavement is separate from delayed grief. However, one can sometimes lead to the other. In both cases, it may require the assistance of grief counseling to help you work through the unresolved emotions causing your complicated or delayed grief.

Your mourning busyness is over

The days following the loss of a loved one are often hectic and busy. There are funeral arrangements to plan, calls to make to friends and family members, legal and financial matters to deal with, and a range of other tasks and responsibilities to tend to.

Sometimes, all of this busyness prevents you from really feeling and processing the loss you’ve just experienced. Once everything starts to settle down and there are no more constant distractions, you may experience a delayed grief reaction.

You've had enough time after the loss

Sometimes, it simply takes a little time to process a loss. It may not seem real at first, or the weight of what has happened may not fully hit you for a while. Whatever the case may be, it isn't uncommon to go several days, weeks, or months following the loss of a loved one before grief really sets in.

You're hit with a sudden reminder

Once you've lost a loved one, things that remind you of them are bound to pop up everywhere. Maybe their favorite show comes on the television, or you see a picture of them you haven't seen in a while, or you smell the same perfume they always wore walking through the store.

Sometimes, being hit with a sudden reminder of a lost loved one can trigger a delayed grief reaction. Our senses are heavily tied to memories and emotions, and sights, smells, tastes, and sounds that remind you of your loss can easily cause suppressed emotions to surface.

6 coping strategies for delayed grief

Grieving is a natural part of healing from a loss. Delayed grief, however, is something that can disrupt the healing process and have a negative impact on your mental wellness. If you are struggling with symptoms of delayed grief, here are six coping strategies that you can try:

1. Schedule time with a grief counselor

Grief or bereavement counseling can be a big help for people who are experiencing delayed grief. Grief counselors are mental health professionals who specialize in helping people work through grief, process their feelings, and heal from their loss.

Grief counselors employ a range of therapy techniques designed to help people dealing with delayed grief, like talk therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, and mindfulness/relaxation. Grief counselors will also commonly work to educate you on the grieving process so you can better understand your emotions.

If you’re experiencing delayed grief or any other type of intense grief that is impacting your daily life and overall wellness, scheduling a visit with a grief counselor is a great option to consider. SonderMind makes it easy for anyone to match with and schedule an appointment with a grief counselor — quickly and securely. 

Get started here with a short questionnaire designed to help us find you the best-matched therapists possible.

2. Practice mindfulness

Emotional avoidance is one of the common causes of delayed grief. However, facing your feelings and processing them in a healthy way is much more beneficial than avoiding them. This is something that mindfulness — the practice of focusing on the present moment and bringing awareness to the thoughts and feelings that you are experiencing — can often help you achieve.

By practicing mindfulness, you can bring suppressed thoughts and emotions to the surface where you can process them healthily. For this reason, mindfulness practices such as mindfulness meditation and mindful breathing can be highly useful for coping with delayed grief.

3. Avoid unhealthy habits

There are plenty of unhealthy habits that can make delayed grief worse. Actively trying to avoid your emotions is the first of these habits. Other unhealthy habits that can prolong or worsen the grieving process include isolating yourself from others, self-medicating with drugs and alcohol, and neglecting self-care.

Coping with delayed grief can be a challenge. But it's even more challenging when there are obstacles in your way in the form of unhealthy habits. By avoiding habits that are harmful to your mental health or disruptive to the grieving process, you also avoid making your grieving process more difficult than it has to be.

4. Create a grief journal

A grief journal serves as a space where you are able to explore your thoughts and emotions in writing. Many times, writing your thoughts and feelings down on paper can help you process the things that you are feeling and see them in a different light.

Along with helping you process the thoughts and feelings you have regarding your loss, creating a grief journal also allows you to track your healing progress; when you can look back over your journal and see how far you've come, it can motivate you to keep pushing forward.

5. Get plenty of sleep, exercise regularly, and eat a healthy diet

Caring for your physical health is a vital part of caring for your mental health as well. When coping with delayed grief, be sure to prioritize self-care. Getting plenty of sleep, exercising regularly, and eating a healthy diet will help give you the strength and energy you need to make it through these difficult times.

6. Give yourself time and space to grieve

It's important to set realistic expectations regarding the grieving process and give yourself an adequate amount of time and space to grieve. Even a normal grieving process doesn't happen overnight, and healing from delayed grief can take even more time.

Coping with delayed grief is a journey, but it's one that usually gets easier with every step. By accepting the fact that it is going to take time to heal, you can avoid frustration and ensure that you are giving yourself the time and space you need to grieve.

Find a grief counselor today with SonderMind

Delayed grief can be a difficult thing to cope with. If you are struggling with intense feelings of grief that aren't getting better, a grief counselor may be able to help.

At SonderMind, we make it easy to match with a grief counselor that is ideally suited to your needs and preferences. Simply by filling out a brief questionnaire, you'll be able to match with an online or in-person counselor in as little as 24 hours.

To find the ideal grief counselor for you and begin healing from your loss, be sure to try out SonderMind today.

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