Grief is a complicated emotion that affects everyone differently.
For some people, grief hits hard and quickly. Others may feel okay to start with, but then experience a wave of grief that arrives weeks, months or years later.
This is called delayed grief or delayed-onset grief.
When grief arrives out of the blue, it can be surprising or upsetting. But don’t worry – it’s a perfectly normal reaction to losing someone.
Why do we experience delayed grief?
It’s easy to feel like you’re doing something wrong if you don’t feel sad as soon as someone dies.
But remember, there’s no right or wrong way to grieve. Some of us just need a little time before we feel ready to start grieving – and there are thousands of reasons why this could be.
Here are some of the most common causes of delayed grief after bereavement.
Bottling things up
Our emotions are a bit like bottles of lemonade. You can keep the lid on your feelings, but the more they’re shaken up, the more likely they are to burst out later on.
This is often what happens with delayed grief. We bottle up difficult emotions because they’re too hard to deal with in the moment. This is a common coping mechanism, especially when people are under a lot of stress. You might not even realise that you’re doing it.
The problem is that these emotions need to come out at some point. This might happen when another person close to you dies. Or it could be triggered by something that would usually feel completely normal and insignificant – like watching a sad TV show or film.
Looking after other people
Are you the ‘strong person’ in your family? Does it often fall to you to look after other people when something goes wrong?
This could cause a delayed grief reaction. After all, if you’re focused on supporting friends and relatives while they grieve, it’s hard to make time for your own feelings.
Being too busy
Can grief be delayed simply because you have too much to do? Yes – and it happens more often than you might think.
The fact is that we all live busy lives. It can be difficult to maintain our daily routines – cooking, sleeping, going to work – while still leaving room to grieve. And if we’re trying to cope with another big life event, such as a divorce or pregnancy, it only makes things harder.
If you’re rushed off your feet or dealing with other problems too, you might not experience grief until things calm down a little.
What are the symptoms of delayed grief?
Delayed-onset grief feels much the same as ‘normal’ grief. The main difference is that it comes when you’re not expecting it, so it can be especially hard to cope with.
According to the NHS, the main symptoms of grief are shock, sadness, guilt, anger and tiredness. These feelings usually come and go – and may arrive suddenly and unexpectedly.
- Shock: this is often the first symptom that hits you. Shock can make you feel emotionally numb or like you’re ‘living on autopilot’.
- Sadness: people who are grieving feel very sad and often cry a lot. This sadness may turn into full-blown depression.
- Guilt: as you start to process your grief, you may dwell on personal regrets and feel guilty about things you did or didn’t do.
- Anger: this is a common reaction to grief, but it can be quite surprising when it comes out of the blue. You might feel angry at yourself, your situation or the person who has died.
- Tiredness: grief can be emotionally exhausting. It can make you feel like you need more sleep or that everyday activities are harder.
Other delayed grief symptoms can include anxiety, trouble sleeping and even unexpected fits of laughter.
Coping with delayed grief
Delayed grief can be a lonely emotion. It can feel like everyone else has dealt with their grief and moved on. That’s why many people who suffer from delayed grief keep their feelings bottled up – they don’t want to burden their loved ones with painful memories.
Try not to worry about this. It’s important you feel able to reach out for help if you need it.
If you can’t speak to a friend or relative, you can contact a bereavement charity for free support. Here’s a list of bereavement charities in the UK that can help you.
There are also bereavement groups throughout the country that may be able to offer face-to-face support. You can search for local groups on the NHS website.
Remember, too, that grief is a natural part of the healing process. It’s a hard process to go through but, for most people, it gets easier with time.
How to help yourself
It’s easy to feel hopeless when you’re grieving, but there are some simple steps you can take to help improve your mood. Here are some suggestions.
- Avoid alcohol: drinking may provide some short-term relief, but it’s likely to make you feel worse in the long run.
- Look after yourself: as hard as it may be, you should try to maintain a self-care routine. This should include eating three balanced meals a day, getting plenty of sleep and doing some gentle exercise.
- Make time for yourself: try not to run away from your emotions – give yourself time to reflect on your grief. This might mean taking time off work, asking for help looking after the kids or simply running yourself a deep, relaxing bath.
- Know when to reach out: if your grief doesn’t go away after a long time or you’re worried about your mental health, it's important to get help.
If you need ongoing support
- Book an appointment with your doctor – they’ll be able to help you find the support you need.
- Visit the NHS website to find psychological support services in your area.