When Grief Hits Later: An Introduction to Delayed Grief

Josh just got out of a twelve-year relationship with his partner Amy. They were high school sweethearts who had been together since they were fifteen, and he didn’t know how to be single. He missed her dearly and his life with her and couldn’t understand why it was over. In the months after the breakup, Josh took his time to grieve the relationship and sought therapy.

On the other hand, Amy was relieved when the relationship was over. She was elated with the freedom that was available to her–she felt that the world was her oyster. She said yes to every opportunity and explored sides of her that she had never known before. That was until three months later when the gravity of her loss hit her. She began mourning the relationship and realized that it was truly over and there was no going back, which gave her anxiety. She was afraid of what the future might hold and was unsure of her life. 

Grief is a necessary process to help us move on from unfortunate events. 

It’s a complex mental state to cope with, but it happens to us. When we think of grief, we think of death. However, grief can affect us after any kind of loss. It’s complicated to navigate this type of emotional ordeal; even the standard process can put an indescribable strain on us. 

Delayed Grief, also known as Unresolved Grief, tricks us into thinking we’ve handled a loss better than we have. 

We postpone the grieving process, continuing our daily lives as if we’re hardly phased or entirely unaffected by the situation. However, the emotional turmoil is still lurking inside us, waiting to be exposed and addressed. 

Often, the delayed grief will surface over seemingly unrelated things or out of the blue. It can sometimes show as small things that add up until we’re overwhelmed, but it can also sideswipe us completely in significant ways. 

Below, we explain an introduction to this variation of the grieving process in more detail.

Can Grief Hit Months Later

Yes, this is called Delayed Grief

Whether it’s weeks later, months, or even years down the road, at some point, grief has to be processed to help us handle a loss and live a healthy life. We can delay it, intentionally or not, and try to bypass the whole process. 

But days to years later, it will slide up to our conscious minds again, and we’ll have to face it regardless. 

Even when delayed, the grief is still there with us. It can show in small ways like having a “sad day” or major aspects like unexpected irritation and anger over little things. It hangs in the back of our subconscious, slowly affecting our moods and personalities until we address it properly. 

The longer it’s avoided, the longer we draw out this unpleasant situation. Months after a loss, it can hit us like it’s fresh all over again, sometimes even harder than if we had dealt with it from the start. 

Delayed Grief Explained

As the name would imply, delayed grief is a delayed reaction to grief. 

This means that while most people faced with loss go through the stages of grief while it’s still fresh, some don’t. 

Whether it’s distracting yourself with the technical parts, like entirely focusing on details of organizing a funeral, or simply bottling it up, sometimes people can’t or don’t face their grief and push it aside for a time. 

However, it never stays pushed away. 

Over time, this bottled-up and forgotten grief will continue to build until it’s impossible to ignore. It seeps out into our daily lives, sometimes in subtle ways, until it overflows and demands to be addressed. 

This postponed grief can trick us into thinking we dodged the grieving process, that we might be a little sad or missing what we lost, but it simply isn’t true. The loss is still there, waiting to be acknowledged, and will pop out at some point regardless of what we do. 

Causes Of Delayed Grief

Delayed grief is caused by not facing our grief when it first comes, ignoring it, and pushing it away to muscle on through a difficult time. 

Grief isn’t comfortable. 

It’s not a nice feeling, and it’s incredibly painful to go through. It’s only logical we would want to protect ourselves from this ordeal and avoid it if possible. This can cause some people to ignore their grief entirely, repressing it, so they don’t have to mess with that heartache. Focusing on other aspects of our day-to-day life is an easy way to stay distracted, ignoring the inevitable. 

Anything that could cause grief can lead to delayed grief

  • The loss of someone we love
  • The death of a pet counts
  • Seeing tragedies in the news
  • Grieving the loss of life in general
  • Losing a job
  • The end of a relationship 
  • Aging or feeling we’ve lost our youth.

Any loss can kick up grief in someone, regardless of its kind of loss.

Regardless of what caused the grief, skipping over the grieving process is only a temporary fix, and it will come back to the front of our lives sooner or later. While waiting to address it for a little bit as you handle important issues caused by loss, such as funeral arrangements or finding a new job, trying to bypass grieving entirely will cause this delayed effect. 

Signs to Look For With Delayed Grief

As with grief, delayed grief comes with a whole set of signs to spell out what is going on inside of you. 

They might be hard to notice at first and can be quite subtle, but it all clicks once you know what they are and what’s going on. Some signs to look out for are:

  • Irritability and Anger 
  • Obsessing Over the Loss 
  • Fear of Loss 
  • Overreacting Behaviors 
  • Addictions and Self-Harm 
  • Apathy in Life
  • Unexpected Stages of Grief

Irritability and Anger

Sometimes, we think we’ve developed a sudden anger problem. 

People might comment with concern over our unusual and continuous irritability. We usually write it off as stress or other factors in our current lives, not realizing it’s the grief affecting us from pushing it away. This can cause our system to be too bogged down, giving us a steady stream of irritability or out-of-the-blue explosions of anger

Little things will start to bug us more than they should, minor inconveniences feel like the end of the world, and we get angry. Take note of excessive anger or frustration, especially if it’s out of character for you.

Obsessing Over the Loss

Thinking about who or what we’ve lost is normal, but when it’s constantly on our minds or comes up in thoughts and conversations, we need to take a step back and reassess why. Usually, when this happens, the obsessions aren’t just thoughts about good memories of fun times we had before the loss. 

Typically, we fixate on the loss itself and the negative impact on life. 

We might obsess over what could’ve been done differently, how we could’ve done something or anything else. There was nothing we could do to change the loss in nearly all cases, but it didn’t stop the consuming thoughts. 

This obsessing also includes having an extreme longing for what we lost. Not a usual feeling of wishing it could have gone differently, but a mind-warping obsession and the overwhelming missing of what is gone. 

It also comes up with unrelated situations. It isn’t an everyday task like cooking a specific meal and wishing grandma could be there to enjoy it. These intrusive thoughts will come up when riding to work or playing a game. They attach to every aspect of our lives, even with zero connection to the loss.

Fear of Loss

We can become hyper-alert and sensitive to how vulnerable we are in life. 

While seeing how fragile life can be is normal after a loss, it’s past normal when it gets to the point we can’t live our life. It goes past regular self-preservation or using caution. It’s more than just pausing a second after a light turns green or looking both ways to cross a street. 

Suddenly, everything is a threat, and everyone is on the brink of being lost

This stresses our minds well beyond unhealthy levels and can stress our bodies out. We start to miss sleep because we’re too preoccupied thinking about the dangers of eating bread that’s too dry and choking. It also makes us miss out on making new memories or having fun, as we only think of the bad that could happen. 

In some cases, people lose their jobs or start failing school because they’re worried leaving the house could lead to an accident. 

This fear of losing something again is extremely damaging anxiety. It can get to the point we consider hiding in a bubble to keep from being hurt again. 

Overreacting Behaviors

Many behaviors we develop with loss are normal grieving signs but in an exaggerated or overreacted way. Specifically, under normal conditions, we decide what to avoid in the future to prevent more loss and trauma again. When we have unresolved and delayed grief, this can push us to overreact. 

We can completely flip a switch and avoid people on every level, pushing people away as if not being close to them now will prevent losing them later. There is also the chance we might become obsessive with people, swinging to the complete opposite end and smothering attention in our relationships as if we can prevent loss by it. Both are extreme overreactions and can be devastatingly damaging to relationships.

Addictions and Self-Harm

  • Over-eating
  • Drugs or Alcohol
  • Risky behaviors 
  • Over-working 

The above examples are all signs of addictive and self-harming behaviors. Some delay their grief by overloading their system with something else, filling that void of loss with unhealthy activities that do extreme harm. 

While some are obvious, such as drugs or alcohol, things like eating or working too much are less commonly known self-harming activities. 

Delayed grief can quickly amplify these challenges in people who already face the challenges of addiction and self-harm and make it harder to realize what is happening. 

In either case, seeing new or increasing addictions or self-harming behaviors is a huge red flag. If you start doing risky things or increasing bad eating habits, be aware and dig around to find out why you feel the need to do them. Often, it’s unaddressed and repressed guilt. 

Apathy in Life

Becoming emotionally numb and apathetic can be caused by delayed grief

When we try to shut down the emotions of grief, sometimes we shut down all emotions. While some people spiral into depression, some don’t feel anything anymore. They box up sorrow, and all other emotions fall inside too. 

People who already have depression usually either grow more depressed or suddenly feel nothing, including depression. A why-bother attitude develops over every thought, motivation, and energy levels drop, making even everyday tasks like eating or bathing impossible to accomplish. 

Many who become apathetic also become withdrawn. They stop going to social events or engaging with phone calls or texts. Sometimes, they even stop interacting with people living with them, opting to stay in bed or sit unresponsively and mentally checked out. They turn into entirely different people- or rather, non-people with no personality or life to them.

Unexpected Stages of Grief

If you find yourself suddenly and unexpectedly facing the stages of grief, especially if it’s been a while since a loss. Without other reasons to cause it, you’re experiencing delayed grief. The Kübler-Ross model, introduced by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in 1969, is a commonly accepted theory about the stages of grief. The stages are:

  • Denial 
  • Anger 
  • Bargaining 
  • Depression 
  • Acceptance

This theory holds that the stages are what we need to work through to learn how to live with our loss. Many who experience a loss have found it to be true. As they hit a stage and overcome it, they learn how to move their lives forward rather than be stuck in a loop of grief. 

When we have delayed grief and suddenly go through these stages despite the time that has passed since the loss, we still have to work through them one at a time to get better. 

Some Suggestions to Help

The best help to get is to see a medical professional. If you can’t, or if you’re looking for relief until you do see a doctor, these suggestions might help:

  • Get Closure 
  • Face What You’re Avoiding 
  • Change Behavior Patterns 
  • Be Mindful of Your Health 
  • Stay Social 
  • Take Some Alone-Time

Get Closure

Whether writing out your thoughts or talking with someone, facing the loss and directly addressing it can help get closure. Don’t avoid thinking or talking about it, even the most difficult parts. Once you start directly working through the loss, you will work towards accepting it and learn how to move forward. 

Face What You’re Avoiding

Likewise, you need to face things you’re avoiding with the loss to get closure. Maybe you haven’t opened a certain room after someone has passed or played a specific song after a break-up. You’re avoiding these reminders in the hopes you can keep from feeling more pain. By facing this pain and pushing through it, you start to close those wounds they left. 

Change Behavior Patterns

You may notice you’ve changed somehow, or someone might tell you that you’re acting differently. 

Don’t brush these changes off. Look at them and deal with them. Make yourself change from doing these negative or bad behaviors. 

Maybe you’re having one drink too many or sleeping excessively. Acknowledge it happening and change it, drink less or not, and monitor your sleep patterns. Find a way to reverse the bad habits before they set in for the long haul. 

Be Mindful of Your Health

It can be easy to skip a meal or pull an all-nighter working, but doing these is unhealthy and can cause issues now and down the road. Set reminders or leave notes for yourself, keep yourself fed and make sure you have an adequate sleep. 

Letting your daily health can build up and cause physical and mental complications. By keeping your bare necessities addressed, you build yourself a foundation for getting better. 

Stay Social

The urge to hermit away and hide from anyone and everyone can be overwhelming. It might even make things feel better- but it’s an incredibly fleeting improvement that leads to harder challenges. 

Don’t close off and shut people out, regardless of how tempting it can be. Even the most introverted person needs social support, especially when struggling with something as rough as delayed grief. At the bare minimum, keep up with daily texts or emails, keep people informed about how things are, and let them help you. 

Take Some Alone-Time

While it’s essential to keep social lines open, it’s equally crucial to make time for yourself. Whether it’s an extended bath or sitting alone under a tree with a book, you need to carve out some time. It doesn’t have to be quiet time. 

You can have music or movies going or even play video games. As long as you make time to do something for yourself and your enjoyment, it will help with the stress and strain caused by delayed grief. 

Parting Thoughts on Delayed Grief

Delayed Grief can sneak up on us and cause some substantial damage. We might think we’re handling a loss better than we truly are when grief is delayed, but it will still work for us even months down the road. 

Being honest with ourselves and our emotions is important, as is taking care of ourselves. 

No one wants to face the hurdles of loss, but it’s an inevitable part of life. Knowing what to look for and how to help ourselves will do wonders if we find ourselves struggling with delayed grief. 

Written by Rachna Lakhanpal on

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