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.
A note about trauma:
Just a little more talk of subjectivity (sorry for those of you who like things black-and-white); it’s important to note that it isn’t necessarily the specific nature of the death that makes it traumatic, rather how the event is interpreted and experienced by the individual. One cannot underestimate the impact of personal factors like emotional regulation, cognitive responses, secondary stressors, coping style, prior history of trauma, and access to support and resources in determining how a person responds to an event.
It is true that certain types of death happen in a way that they are more likely to be experienced as traumatic, but it isn’t a given. So, for example, it is not a fact that a loved one’s death by homicide or car accident will be experienced as traumatic, only that it potentially could be. Ultimately, one must allow for a wide range of variability when it comes to potentially traumatic events. All deaths have the capacity to overwhelm, shock, terrify, and shatter worldview. PTSD symptoms are not only found in those who survive violent and sudden deaths, but also those who experience the death of a close person to terminal illness.
Okay, so what is traumatic loss?
There’s variation in how traumatic loss is defined in the research, but for our purposes, I think this definition from Wortman & Latack (2015) does the trick:
“A death is considered traumatic if it occurs without warning; if it is untimely; if it involves violence; if there is damage to the loved one’s body; if it was caused by a perpetrator with the intent to harm; if the survivor regards the death as preventable; if the survivor believes that the loved one suffered; or if the survivor regards the death, or manner of death, as unfair and unjust.”
That’s a pretty broad definition, and we should also add circumstances in which the survivor witnessed the death, when their own life was threatened, and when the mourner experiences multiple deaths.
In addition to the nature of the death, other trauma risk factors include:
Generally speaking, it has been shown that traumatic death, especially violent deaths, lead to increased distress. For example, a 2003 study looking at the bereavement trajectories of 173 parents who experienced the death of a child by accident, suicide, homicide, or undetermined causes found that five years after the violent death 27.5% of mothers and 12.5% of fathers met the diagnosis for PTSD. These rates were significantly higher than those in the general population.
When someone experiences a traumatic death, their challenges become two-fold. One, they must cope with the trauma and two, they have to cope with their grief. The experiences of trauma and grief are two different things unto themselves, yet after a traumatic death, they get thrown into one big emotional blender. Things get tangled, thoughts and emotions get fused, and people sometimes find themselves utterly stuck. Understandably, it is not uncommon for people who’ve experienced a traumatic death to experience significantly more intense, pervasive, and prolonged symptoms.
After a Traumatic Loss One May Experience:Shattered assumptions about the world, themselves, and others: Many people live with the assumption that the world is a predictable, fair, and just place. They believe that they are in control, that they are generally safe and secure, and that other people can be trusted. Experiencing a traumatic death, something that feels profoundly meaningless and unjust, can shatter each of these assumptions and lead to a sense that the world is unsafe and unpredictable, that others are malicious and evil, and that one is powerless in protecting themselves. Going along with this, it is also common for one to question their faith and to feel abandoned by God after experiencing a traumatic event.
Ruminations: It is common to ruminate about a death regardless of the circumstances. However, someone who has experienced a traumatic death might experience increased rumination as they seek to answer questions such as…
Feelings of guilt and blame: Even when a person is clearly not at fault, it is common to struggle with feelings of guilt and self-blame. For example, one might feel guilty for circumstances that preceded the death but which could have played a part in the chain of events. A person might make appraisals about the inadequacy of their own actions, feelings, and behaviors at the time of the death or even ruminate over actions and conflicts between the mourner and deceased well in the past. Negative thoughts about guilt and self-blame can impact how a person adjusts to bereavement and are often associated with feelings of depression and anxiety.
Fear of grief and trauma reactions: After a death mourners often feel as if they are going crazy, and, as noted, those who have experienced a traumatic loss often experience intensified and prolonged grief/trauma reactions. If a person interprets their symptoms as dangerous, threatening, or indicative of a larger mental or physical problem, they are more likely to fear and inhibit their reactions. Concerns about one’s own reactions following a death add to existing emotion by causing additional anxiety, depression, anger or shame. Those who are fearful of their reactions may also engage in maladaptive and persistent avoidance of triggers or reminders which can contribute to the development of posttraumatic stress disorder and which prevent the mourner from finding meaningful ways to continue their bond with their loved one.
Poor social support: Evidence suggests that social support can reduce the impact of stressful life events. Sadly, after a death, many people don’t receive effective support for a number of reasons. This is especially true after a traumatic death when the enduring impact of acute grief can last much longer than society has been taught to expect it. A few reasons why people do not receive effective support after a death include:
Anger can be unattractive, there’s no question about it. It’s messy and unpredictable, sometimes loud and violent. And in a world where we like things to make sense, it’s often unacceptable. But never more than when you’re grieving. There’s a long list of people we can be angry with:
The person who died: why didn’t they take better care of themselves? Why didn’t they ask for help? Why did they take such a stupid chance? What were they thinking?
The medical community: why didn’t the doctors notice something was wrong? Why didn’t the paramedics get there sooner? Why hasn’t someone discovered a cure for cancer, etc.?
God: why did you make a good person suffer? Why did you leave those parents without a child? Why did you leave those children without a parent? Why them? Why now? Why not someone else? Why not me?
The family: why didn’t they make him go to the doctor? Why did they let her live alone?
Death is, after all, the great unknown. Despite stories of white lights and visions of deceased relatives, no one’s come back from any extended time in the afterlife. We don’t know what awaits us.
And we REALLY don’t know why people die when they do. We say “it was just their time,” and obviously, it was. When the person we lose is a friend, that sense of helplessness can create even deeper anger.
Many times when I’ve grieved I’ve been angry, although I rarely shared those feelings. Despite being one of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ famous stages of grief, it’s probably the least acknowledged.
Anger can be useful, but when turned inward, is more likely referred to as depression. That’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about white-hot, body-shaking, screaming-at-the-top-of-your-lungs anger.
You’ve already realized that the grief you feel for your friend is being devalued because you’re not family. And that can add to the anger you already feel.
Even those who are also grieving are unlikely to accept your anger. Think of Sally Field melting down in the cemetery in Steel Magnolias, and the shock on her friends’ faces. The minister in The Big Chill – “I’m angry, and I don’t know what to do with my anger” – is much calmer about it, but the look in his eyes is anything but.
The problem with suppressing the absolutely justified anger we feel when a friend dies is that it will bubble up eventually. It will present itself suddenly and loudly and often in a completely unrelated situation. And that presents its own complications. Screaming at a barista who doesn’t know you won’t bring back your friend.
So, if you’re angry that cancer treatments and cures came too late for your friend…
If you’re angry that your friend’s family dismissed her threats of suicide…
If you’re angry that your friend drove drunk…
If you’re angry that an evil person chose your friend at random to kill…
Embrace that anger: accept it and embrace it. You’re angry because of the pain that your friend’s death has caused. That’s, dare I say it, normal. Frankly, it would be strange if you weren’t angry. You’re angry because you loved them and wanted them to stay close to you always. Selfish maybe, but normal and human.
Anger in itself is a natural reaction to grief and loss; getting mad occasionally is normal. But if anger stays too long, it can develop into a stronger emotion called rage, and that can turn out of control. Anger that is unresolved can create bitterness. If it’s left to fester too long, anger can also turn into fury and vengeance. These are all dangerous and destructive by-products of a normal emotion that you don’t want to keep. Through diligence and forgiveness, the anger you feel now will become weaker until it ultimately changes forms. The energy is still there, but if you allow it to, the anger can change from negative to positive.
Anger tends to come and go before it’s finally resolved. Yes, anger can be resolved, and should be. Rather than being held in the caustic grip of prolonged anger, you can chose to release the powerful and negative emotion. If you hang on to it for an extended period of time, it can become a stumbling block in your recovery. Even though it’s typical to feel this way, it’s important to get these feelings out. However, you don’t ever want to take your anger out on another person. There are some things you can do to release these emotions constructively. When feeling angry:
So, as long as you don’t hurt yourself or anyone else, you have my permission to be angry. Then you can work on channeling your anger into positive action, to keep your friend’s memory alive every day of your life.
Grief following the death of someone close is one of the most painful and stressful life events. It is experienced in many ways–emotionally, physically, spiritually–and everyone grieves differently. Shock, anger, sadness, guilt, and anxiety are common feelings during the grieving process, and they can be overwhelming. Occasionally there are no emotions, there is only numbness. Some people find it difficult to cope with their loss and believe they’ll never be happy again. One of the benefits of grief therapy is that this kind of counseling offers support at this challenging time. It is a form of therapy that helps the bereaved to explore and process distressing and confusing feelings.
Loneliness and isolation are also common feelings after loss, and the support of family and friends can be invaluable. However, it isn’t always possible to grieve freely and openly among them; after all, they are grieving too. Some families and cultures insist grief is endured stoically and resolved quickly, while others come together for support until the funeral, after which everyone is left to find their own way. For people who are facing grief alone, counseling sessions validate their feelings and provide a safe, non-judgmental space to fully express emotions. Several family members or couples can attend counseling sessions together if they wish to learn how to support each other more effectively. A grief counselor explains the grieving process and helps the person forge a new relationship with their lost loved one, replete with healthy memories. Counseling facilitates the journey to a state wherein the bereaved can cope, make choices and move on.
How will grief counseling help you? In a culture that often avoids talking about loss, grief counseling give you the opportunity to share your story openly and guilt-free. If you are looking for a support system in your grief journey, you should consider grief counseling. You will find the following things there:
We can all benefit from therapy! Why? Because I think everyone is “crazy?” No! Read on for nine great reasons why we could all use some good therapy in our lives.
1. You’re at a crossroads.
Life is full of loss and full of transition. Coping with the loss of a loved one, considering divorce or ending a long-term relationship, starting a new job or considering a career change, moving to a new area, and children leaving for college are all times of transition in life. During times of transition and/or loss, you may find yourself contemplating difficult decisions. Therapy can help you to regroup, find your footing, and help decide which direction is right for you.
2. You need some affirmation.
To affirm someone is to provide emotional support and encouragement. Umm… don’t we all need this? Maybe you’re not getting enough of this in your daily life or you’re feeling misunderstood or unsupported by friends and family. You question your feelings, “is it normal to feel this way?” Therapy can normalize thoughts and feelings you have. Additionally, therapy can help you to reframe thoughts and feelings that are holding you back. A good therapeutic relationship will leave you feeling heard, understood, validated, and affirmed. And as you leave the office, you feel lighter, like a weight was lifted from your shoulders.
3. You’re caught up in the “shoulds.”
How many times have you said, “I know I should [fill in the blank]?” We often get caught up in how we should act, how we should feel, what we should do, how we should do it, and where we should be in our lives. When we’re not acting, thinking, feeling, or doing what we think we should, we think we must be doing something wrong. Which can lead to feelings of guilt, shame, inadequacy, and envy. Therapy can help you to take a step back and start challenging those “shoulds” and questioning where they come from in the first place, whether your upbringing, your friends, society, the media, and sometimes out of nowhere.
4. You’re not taking risks.
Years ago, a wise woman shared with me, “we’re not living if we’re not taking risks.” But to be clear, I’m talking calculated risks here, not impulsively buying a new car with your credit card and hoping your end-of-year bonus will cover it. How many times have you said “I could never do that!” Why not? Because it’s a risk? Because it would take you out of your comfort zone? Because you’re afraid? Therapy can provide the confidence boost you need to step out of your comfort zone and uncover your potential.
5. You’re not taking care of yourself.
In life, you often feel pulled in too many directions. Overworking, over committing in your free time, taking care of the kids needs before your own. What would it be like to start putting on your own oxygen mask before helping others? Therapy provides that one hour per week that you get to focus on you.
6. You’re not meeting your goals.
Part of how we grow and change in life is to set goals for ourselves. And part of how stay stuck in life is to set BIG goals for ourselves and not achieve them in our unrealistic time frames. Then what happens? We beat ourselves up and tell ourselves all sorts of bad things like we’re not good enough, disciplined enough, strong enough, etc. BIG goals are great, but it’s helpful to break them down into smaller ones. Therapy can help you create realistic goals and objectives for yourself. Checking in with your therapist at regular intervals (typically weekly or biweekly) can help you to keep track of your progress and identify what’s holding you back from achieving your goals and ultimately getting in the way of your success.
7. Increased self-awareness.
Self-awareness is being conscious of our character, our feelings, our reactions, our motives, and our desires. If we’re not aware of what causes us to feel certain ways, its harder for us to understand and manage our own reactions. Wouldn’t it be great to understand why we feel certain ways in certain situations? And when we understand ourselves better, we often understand others better. And when we understand others better, that often leads to better relationships with our partners, family, friends, children, coworkers, employees, etc.
8. Treat the mind, treat the body.
Its estimated that one in four adults will experience a major depressive episode in their lifetime. Given it's a common experience, I’ll use that as an example. Some of the physical symptoms of depression include changes in sleeping patterns, appetite issues, weight changes, and loss of interest in hobbies. If you’re not sleeping enough, not eating enough, losing weight, and not engaging in hobbies that keep you active OR if you’re sleeping too much, eating too much, gaining weight, and non engaging in hobbies that keep you active, these clusters of symptoms can worsen the physical impact of depression on the body. Therapy can help treat the symptoms of depression and in turn, reduce the negative impact of depression on your physical health.
9. The benefits of therapy don’t stop when you stop going.
The benefits of therapy aren’t limited to that 50-minute session each week. Throughout the week, whether or not you realize it, you continue to do the work on yourself before your next session. And after you’ve accomplished your goals and no longer feel the need to go to therapy, the skills you learned will continue to help you for years to come as you deal with the stresses of life. Therapy may seem like a big financial investment in the short-term. But it would be short-sighted not to consider the long-term investment on your emotional and physical health and well-being.
Waves of grief.
Picture yourself in the ocean. Sometimes the ocean is crystal clear, sometimes it’s choppy, sometimes there are tidal waves, and worse, sometimes there are rouge waves. These waves symbolize a normal part of the grief process.
Grief is not pretty, in fact it is one of the most agonizing things we experience in life. One minute our ocean of grief is calm and then another minute we are hit with a huge tidal wave of grief. We feel like we are going crazy and losing our minds when in fact, we are experiencing the agony of grief. I tell my clients some days will be good and some bad. I also tell them some days you will have good minutes and bad minutes.
Grief is like an unpredictable ocean. The key is walking straight through it. There are no short cuts - it will manifest itself in some shape or form. Being prepared for the waves of grief can help you handle the choppy waves, the tidal waves, the rouge waves and even the crystal clear waves. Knowing what to expect from the grief process can better help you handle the waves of grief.
1.) Expect grief to last longer than you expected. As I always say grief doesn’t go away it just gets different with time and with time we learn how to live with it.
2.) You won’t get over your grief, but you will learn how to create a life without your loved one in a way that honors them and yourself.
3.) You will laugh again...it may take a long time but eventually you will slowly start to find joy even if it’s only the little things.
4.) You will be forever changed and see the world through different eyes.
5.) Grief doesn’t always make you stronger but it does make you different.
6.) Somedays you will feel like your truly going crazy when in fact it’s grief.
7. ) Grief is not pretty, but knowing that your waves of grief are normal may help you in your darkest moments.
8.) Humans are much more resilient than we ever realize.
9.) When your hit with a wave of grief know that it won’t last forever
10.) Consider talking to a grief counselor to help you understand and educate you about the grief process.
Grief and Self Care.
There is no right or wrong way to grieve, however there are some unhealthy ways to cope with grief that will only delay the process. The ONLY way to deal with grief is to walk through it, without alcohol or substances to numb you out.
While alcohol may temporarily provide some sort of relief, the second it wears off, you're back to where you were before you drank. Drinking only delays your ability to process and handle grief.
Here are some helpful self care strategies:
Dealing with an Anniversary of Death: The 3 P’s of Grief
Grieving is especially hard around anniversaries, birthdays, death anniversaries, the holidays and other special occasions. I always tell my clients to do the three P’s: Plan-Predict-Prepare.
Plan- it’s vital that you make a plan on these important days so that they don’t sneak up on you or over take you. Your plan can be as simple as staying busy, binge watching your favorite show, spending time with family or friends, or being alone. Everyone grieves differently so you need to make a plan that will work for you. Remember be kind to yourself, treat yourself as well as you treat your best friend.
Predict- Expect that you will be on a emotional roller coaster during this time. Predict that you will want and need to talk about it or not want to talk about it at all. Predict your worst and prepare for that in whichever way works best for you. Remember grief is as individual as we all are. Again be your own best friend.
Prepare- It’s extremely important to be prepared for this day. That could mean letting our loved ones know that this day is approaching. The point is to let your loved ones know that this day may be hard for you and you might need or want extra support. I always tell my clients: prepare for the worst - this way nothing will sneak up on you. Be prepared to have waves of grief, crying, anger, sadness, loneliness, etc. on this day. Again, remember to be kind to yourself and treat yourself as kindly as you would your best friend.
The Million Dollar Gift - Dreams about our Lost Loved Ones.
I often tell my clients if they are lucky enough to dream about their loved one that’s a million dollar gift! We would all pay a million dollars if we could just see them or talk to them again! It’s a beautiful thing when these dreams happen!
Here is a great little tip to remember these dreams. First get paper and a pencil by your bed. It’s vital that you have a pencil rather than a pen because a pen doesn’t write upside down. In the dark when you wake up just write down the images from the dream.
You do not need to write out your dream as your images will trigger the dream! We lose our dreams 15 seconds after waking up so the best way to do this is lay in bed with your pencil and write the images you remember! I encourage my clients to keep a dream journal. I hope this helps someone in being able to receive their million dollar gift!
Ways to help the bereaved when you’re not sure what to do:
1. Be a good listener.
2. Respect the person's way of grieving.
3. Accept mood swings.
4. Avoid giving advice.
5. Refrain from trying to explain the loss.
6. Help out with practical tasks.
7. Stay connected and available.
8. Watch for increased use of alcohol.
9. Offer words that touch the heart.
10. Don’t try to change the subject.
11. Realize that just being present for their pain is enough, you can’t fix the issue.
12. State the truth this hurts but I’m here and I love you.
13. Make a note to reach out 90 days after the loss as most people feel very alone at that time in the grief process.