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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. It's sometimes also called delayed mourning.

When grief arrives unexpectedly, 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 could be countless reasons for this. 

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 often what happens with delayed grief. Many of us push down 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 emotional response. 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, you might not experience grief until things calm down a little. 

What triggers delayed grief? 

Many different things can cause delayed feelings of grief to suddenly happen. These include: 

  • Unexpectedly being reminded of the person who has died, for example by hearing their favourite song on the radio or seeing someone who looks like them. 
  • Having a stressful or traumatic experience, such as another bereavement. 
  • Personal problems, like financial or relationship difficulties. 

However, delayed grief can also occur without any apparent reason at all. It may just be that you’ve now had enough time to process the loss, or that the busy time around the funeral is over. 

What are the symptoms of delayed grief? 

Delayed-onset grief feels much the same as ‘normal’ grief. The main difference is that it comes later. This can mean you’re not expecting it, especially if your grief triggers years later, making it 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 can feel very sad and may cry a lot.
  • 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 happens without warning. You might feel angry at yourself, your situation or the person who’s died. 
  • Tiredness: grief can be emotionally exhausting. It can make you feel like you need more sleep or that everyday activities are harder. 

Other symptoms can include anxiety and trouble sleeping. Delayed grief can even cause physical symptoms like changes in appetite or being unable to fight off a cold. 

Delayed grief vs. Complicated grief 

 Delayed grief and “complicated grief” are often confused with one another. While both are less common ways of experiencing and processing grief, they are different from one another. 

Complicated grief is when feelings of grief are stronger and last much longer than normal, for example lasting for months or even years. Though these types are different, you could experience both. For example, you could have delayed grief that starts months after your loved one passed away. But the grief could then last for years, which would make it complicated grief too.

Coping: how to deal with delayed grief 

Here are 6 things that can help you cope with delayed grief:

1. Share how you feel with a friend, or a family member 

Delayed grief can be a lonely emotion. It can feel like everyone else has dealt with their grief and moved on. If you’re facing delayed grief, you might try to avoid showing your feelings or worry about burdening your friends or family. 

Try not to let this worry stop you from reaching out, as it’s important to share your feelings and get help if you need it. 

2. Contact a bereavement charity 

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. 

3. Look after yourself 

As hard as it may be, you should try to maintain a self-care routine. Make sure you remember to eat, allow plenty of time for sleep and do some gentle exercise. 

4. Avoid alcohol 

Drinking may provide some short-term relief, but it’s likely to make you feel worse in the long run. 

5. Make time for your emotions 

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. 

6. Try writing a grief journal 

If you’re not comfortable talking about your emotions, you may find it easier to write about them instead. A grief journal can also help you make sense of confusing feelings. You can find a guide to starting a grief journal here

Remember 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. 

When to reach out for help 

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 help urgently

If you have hurt yourself or are worried that you’re going to hurt yourself, call 999 for immediate help. The Samaritans run a helpline that you can call to talk to someone 24 hours, 365 days a year.