Delayed grief…some grievers may wonder why they’re starting to experience their grief more intensely when it’s been several years since their loss. Rather than feeling they are getting “better”, they may find that they are crying more, withdrawing from friends and family, and perhaps feeling even less accepting of what’s happened.
How can this be? With more time to process, more time to experience life without a loved one, and more time to re-learn what this new life looks like…why would it suddenly feel like its harder to cope? And is it normal?
I don’t need to tell you that losing a loved one is unlike any other experience. While there is nothing that can ever prepare us for it, we can’t help but expect all the same rules of life to apply.
Grief can be a cruel teacher, and one thing grievers quickly learn is that everything changes after loss. Life changes and all the rules have changed too.
Prior to loss you probably experienced the healing nature of time. After a surgery or illness, after a fight with a friend, following a traumatic event…in almost every one of those cases we can say that while other things may have contributed to the recovery, it was time itself that ultimately made the difference.
But the rules are different in grief. Rather than experiencing improvement as a steady climb that could be charted on a graph, most grievers will say their emotions and coping are predictable only in that they are totally unpredictable.
While there is no predictable path for coping after loss, there is a whole section of grievers who face the unexpected experience of delayed grief…and for them the question becomes “why?”. As in “why am I having a harder time coping now than I did before?”.
For the most part the answer lies in the individual circumstances of the griever, and while this won’t be the explanation that fits for everyone, typically those who experience a delayed grief reaction will fall into one of these categories:
1. Losing a spouse at a young age with children still left to care for: I’ll always say there’s never a good time or good way to lose someone you love, but anyone who is widowed at a young age knows there are unique circumstances surrounding this type of loss. As parents we are always trying to protect our children from pain- from the littlest scrape to an issue with a mean kid at school. So trying to protect them from the pain of losing their Mom or Dad while simultaneously suffering with the loss of a spouse is a monumental task.
2. Losing a parent, immediately followed by the care of the remaining parent: This may be one of the more common scenarios, but it doesn’t make it any easier. Because not only does the loss of parent mean there’s a significant void in your life…this loss may create a black whole you don’t want your remaining parent to get swallowed into. We’re so used to our parents looking out for each other that a loss of one makes us realize that there’s no one left to look out for the other. So most children in this situation will shift their focus away from their own grief, and immediately into the care of the parent who is still here.
3. Loss of any loved one in the midst of or immediately followed by your own health concerns: Few things slow us down like illness. Illness gets in the way of work, chores, travel, socializing…it even gets in the way of grieving. Because when we’re sick (and this can be physical or mental health) it will be nearly impossible to focus on much else. Grief zaps a healthy person of their energy. Someone who is already sick will have none left to spare.
4. Loss of a loved one at a time where other significant events were taking place (divorce, loss of job, move): This comes up in almost every group I facilitate…wouldn’t it be nice if every griever could take time out from absolutely everything else and focus on nothing but their self care? To do nothing but sleep, and eat well and relax…like a spa retreat for grievers? It may sound crazy but that’s only because we know how unrealistic it is. Real life keeps happening and keeps moving forward. Not just the bills, and work, and holidays and laundry…for some grievers, their loss is coming at a time when they are dealing with another big life change that may be almost (or equally) as stressful. Can there be any time or attention left to grieve in the midst of these challenges?
5. Any type of loss where the griever feels it is their responsibility to be the “strong one” in the family: A lot of people may say this about themselves, but this a perceived need for strength to the extreme. A griever in this scenario would be showing almost no sign of emotion, and would prohibit themselves from being sad or fragile (perhaps even privately) for fear it would cause the rest of their family structure to collapse.
There is one thing that each one of these scenarios has in common: in almost every case the griever may have felt they had to turn away from their grief for something more immediate…something that felt like it needed more urgent attention.
And why not? It’s easy to feel like there’s nothing to do about grief. Put it in the closet, stuff it under the bed, hide it away and forget about it…if you’re too busy with other things that need your immediate attention it may just feel like mourning is a luxury you can’t afford.
But here’s the bottom line: grief is very patient and will wait for you until every part of it has been fully realized. The grief you’re feeling now may just be the grief that was there before, only now you have more time to sit with it.
Maybe you’re just now coping with the loss of a spouse because the kids are a little older and more busy and they don’t need as much of your time. If you have already lost one parent and the other parent dies, you may find yourself suddenly grieving for the first….even if it was many years ago since they passed. If you were sick and are healing or if you were going through a tough time and some of that situation has stabilized or even improved…there will be the grief. Waiting for you. Because it was always there all along but you may have just been too busy or too distracted or simply too unable to face it.
So do just that: sit with it. Realize it. Acknowledge it but don’t label it. Experience it without judging it. Throw the timeline away and don’t worry how many days, months or years it’s been. Don’t let the calendar decide how you should be feeling. Grieve in the way that you weren’t able to before, and regardless of when it happens know that the only way to get to the other side of grief, is through it.