Delayed Grief: When Grief Gets Worse

Delayed grief

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 it’s 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 to 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 a 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 then the remaining 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.

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One of the reasons www.griefincommon.com was created was to provide a place for grievers who aren’t necessarily “newly bereaved” to come and cope. So many of the groups and services out in the community are for those with a new loss. Only the griever understands how important it is to have help available even years after a loss. Find people here who understand – join us today.

24 thoughts on “Delayed Grief: When Grief Gets Worse”

  1. I just went through the 114th anniversary for my son. I wasn’t sure I would survive and at times didnt want to. This has been one of the hardest times I’ve had in years. I know there is much grief stuffed inside. Decided it was time for some therapy again. Also upped my meds.hard work ahead.

  2. Reading your post will push me to see someone. I don’t do well in large groups so I will reconnect with someone who helped me once before. It has been 18 months for me and I am seemingly worse. I need to get a handle on this and release it

  3. Hi
    My father died almost 5 yrs ago. I took care of him with Mmom. Then mom got extremely sick. I took care of her for 4 yrs after he died then she died. I was sole caregiver. The grief was terrible. I wanted to run from the pain and to make it worse siblings 1000 of miles away and well meaning friends told me to get over it. I found Griefshare it helped but last week my sister’s spouse died and it opened the wound in my heart again. I am crying a lot again and having a hard time dealing with 6 deaths now as my husband & I lost 3 adult children to cancer within a 16 month span of time. Thinking of going back to griefshare.

    1. My God Elizabeth. You’ve been through SO MUCH!! I lost my lovely father when i was 17. (He had a massive heart attack). (I’m 47 now!!) My lovely mother helped me through the awful pain. Then i lost my brave strong mother in October 2017. She was 82, cancer took her. We were so close. I developed arthritis in my 20’s. I still have treatment every month for it. My life is so empty & emotional without her. I miss her every minute. The pain is so intense. Because we were best friends & she was a great mum. I feel like i’ve lost 2 people. The pain is bad enough for me. But you. You’re such a strong person. I admire you! Hope you can get some help. I went on a Bereavement course. Met some nice, kind sympathetic people. Good luck in your journey of grief.

  4. I lost my husband of 33 years. It was not just a marriage, it was a love affair. We adored each other. I just can’t find myself doing anything without him. I have done all that is expected of me, babysit, travel, take care of myself and look strong for my family but I am broken. My heart is broken. I don’t want to hear any more words of comfort, they don’t help. I feel like no one can truly understand my loss. We worked hard all of our lives to be able to have “our time” once our 6 kids were on their way. We raised them all and dedicated ourselves to the family all the while looking forward to now. He got liver cancer and died within a month and a half. I feel robbed of our dreams, our plans. Every travel brochure, every activity brings me to tears. We were not joiners, we loved our time alone, we were the same. I don’t want to join a group. I went to a therapist but she was in her 30s and single. Sweet but no help. I don’t really believe that anyone could possibly feel my pain. I took my grandkids and parents on a cruise and I’m happy they loved it but it just revealed the life I have lost.

    1. Vivian,
      I truly understand what you are going through. I lost my husband of 32 years on April 5, 2018. He was and will always be my only true love. We raised 3 wonderful sons together and have 1 awesome grandson. But I am completely lost without him. He was my world, and me his.We really enjoyed each other and were always happy together. I used to have joy and really appreciated life, but it all died when my Michael died. I too do the things required of me, but I see other couples and am envious of their happiness. We were childhood sweethearts and were married as teenagers and we endured a lot in our lives together but no matter what we always had each other. My middle son recently told me that his dad and I were one heck of a team together and never had he seen a couple go through the things we did and come out on the other side swinging. Michael was a diabetic and was on dialysis and went into cardiac arrest and passed away. He died 2 weeks before his 48th birthday. So, just know you are not alone. I also don’t want to hear anymore “kind” words, you are right they do not help. I just thought I’d share my grief too. God bless, Carmen

    2. Wow, Vivian Marxauch, you nailed what I’m feeling too. Nobody has come close til now. I lost my husband of 32 years suddenly. We did everything right, house (white picket fence), family (2 boys now amazing men), jobs, dog, cars, and just when it’s our time, he’s gone. He doesn’t get to reap the rewards of his labor. He was only 57. And now everything brings pain. Holidays, travel destinations, music, movies, etc. It’s been 6 years and it’s worse. It’s funny how you said you don’t want to hear anymore words of comfort because I get that too. Even with my first grandchild. She is the air I breathe my morning dew my grounding rock the most beautiful thing I know, I still say inside my heart to him “ where are you, you’re supposed to be here with me”…a life’s plan gone wrong.

    3. I share some of your feelings. My spouse/best friend/love of my life for 33 yrs was killed in a fatal car accident almost 7 weeks ago. I had two children from previous marriage when we married. Our honeymoon was going 50 miles away for the weekend which was still fun don’t get me wrong. We had one child together. While they were growing up we took three vacations to amusement parks. We’ve both worked hard all of our life. About two weeks prior to his accident he said we really deserve a vacation and where he would like to go. He was thinking next yr for our 25th anniversary but, I let him know had opened a vacation club beginning of yr and that we could go there this yr and some place better next yr for 25th. He brought home his available vacation schedule from work two days before the accident. And, we had been looking at possibilities to stay in that area in the meantime. He had 4.5 yrs before retiring. Had plans on spending lots of time on our houseboat, fishing, traveling and just really enjoying life and each other that we no longer will have the chance to do. So, now I’m dealing with selling the houseboat that we did get to enjoy for 2 yrs and a few months because of living in the Midwest snowy and cold winters. I’m so glad we did this when we did. Every time we stepped on the boat we felt like we are on vacation even if it was only for a few hours. As well as my grown kids coming every weekend to get the house ready to sell. I know my time without him has been short but, we did everything together. And, because of everything am dealing with I haven’t had a lot of time to just grieve. Don’t get me wrong I do but most of the time it has been suppressed in order to get my new me secured for my future. Hugs to you!

    4. My mum & dad were married 43 years when dad passed and like yourselves, were such a special couple. Proper soul mates. Met at 17 & married 9 months later. And no she was not pregnant, they waited along time for me. I just wanted to tell you that it does get better. Yes my mum still struggles but by god has she come along way. The inner strength that you will find will shine through. You have people around you who love you, cherish them. Let them in and help you.

  5. I AM FINDING THIS TO BE TRUE FOR ME. THE OLDER I GET, THE MORE I GRIEVE FOR WHAT I HAVE MISSED…….AND THE MORE DISAPPOINTED I AM WITH LIFE. I FEEL SO ALONE…….EVEN THO I DO HAVE ONE ADULT CHILD LEFT………

  6. I lost my 53 year old husband to leukemia a year and a half ago. It was terrible watching him go through the stuff that had to endure. Lately, all I can think about is his death and the days leading up to it. I cry every day. I don’t think this grief will ever go away.

  7. Do you have any resources for those of us that have recently lossed a spouse/father. There is no meeting places at this time and my husband was killed in a fatal car accident at the end of May.

    1. Mary, I am so sorry for your loss. Support can be very hard to come by. Hopefully you can find it by visiting us at http://www.griefincommon.com. It is free to join, and our site is filled with grievers to connect with. Please visit us today for the comfort, support and validation every one who has lost a loved one needs.

  8. Starting in 2004 I lost my father in law who I loved dearly, then my father(2005), then one of my best friends(2006), then my step father(2007), two weeks later, my mom(2007), then my brother (2010), then my sister in law (2014), my mother in law (2914), then the love of my life, my husband if 38 years in 2016. No children, my dogs were my babies and they (2) died in 2013, then the other in 2015. Ok, I guess you have the picture, partly. In between that “fun” I had breast cancer, mastectomy, problems with reconstruction, diagnosed with arthritis, and need 4 operations in order to feel somewhat human. Cannot move without pain, so sitting around, not doing anything but feeling pain and missing my husband like crazy. We always said, two people with one heart, now 1/2 of my heart is gone. Physically ripped out of me. I adopted a new little dog, he is so helpful but I am putting a lot of me in this little boy. I cry, talk to myself, my friends have all disappeared because they don’t understand I can’t go out easily due to my arthritis, to the activities invited to, after 2+ years, they have given up. Stopped calling. I have nothing to say to them, I really don’t care anymore. I feel helpless. I go to two therapists regularly and even they are perplexed. Medication is difficult because everything interacts badly with other meds…. I just am lost. After 2 1/2 years the only thing that keeps me going are the beautiful loving eyes of my dog, who is here for me. I just don’t know what to do. No one needs to respond. I just feel a tiny bit better writing it all out. First time I did this. And I forgot to say interspersed in between all of the above deaths, a few very close friends did also pass away. People I did care for very much. And the Attirneys, Wills, non-Wills, property, houses, etc. with arguments that weren’t necessary…. added in the mixture. Ok. I’m done. Thanks to anyone reading this. Back to watching the rain, listening to the thunder and thinking.

  9. Lost both my parent’s, Mum was very sick for a long time , we still wasn’t prepared for it. Don’t think you ever are. Watching her suffer and wasting away like that was heartbreaking. Dad was taken from us suddenly, no warning, no nothing. Them leaving as left alot of unanswered questions, and a huge void in our lives. For me, the grief hasn’t gotten worse. The looks and sighs from family like “I should be over it by now” I feel I’m not the same person anymore, its totally life changing. I know I’ll never get over this.. the pain, heartache I feel is so overwhelming.. Can’t stop it! Been trying to overcome thus..but it’s engulfed me. Forgot what it’s like to smile..genuinely. sick of putting on a fake smile. Whilst inside I’m screaming

    1. I totally sympathise. The fake smile & fake being happy is tiring :( so so tiring. Its been 3.5 years and I feel I get “worse” sometimes. Feel so lost. People all around you laughing & joking, you can join in but inside you are screaming for help. For a solution. For someone to make it all go away. So sorry you have lost both parents. I am lucky I still have my mum. What I had in 27 years with my dad some people don’t ever get in a lifetime. I try to look at it that way.

  10. David my husband of 40 years died just over 12 weeks ago. I fell in love with him when I was 14. People keep telling me to start my life again. There is absolutely nothing that I want to do. David was my entire life. When he was in the funeral home at least I had something I could live for. To hold his cold cold hand, to touch his cold cold body. Now I have nothing. I know it will never go away. I cried for years because I was afraid to lose him and what Frightened me most in life has come to pass. There is some sick cruel monster out there. Does anyone agree?

  11. I lost my dad 3.5 years ago and I really thought I coped well. He was my best friend, we certainly had a special relationship. He was my support, my confidence, my safety net. I was always told when It happened that I had to be strong for mum as she is not a strong person. I all of a sudden feel like a different person. I don’t like who I am. I don’t see friends, family the way I want. I have no money. I feel sad and down a lot and do not understand why. I did get into a relationship not even a year after my dad passed away and it has been really turbulent. Sometimes I just want to run away and hide. Then I feel horrible for wanting to do that. I feel my smile and happiness is forced 99.9% of the time. Its hard work. I don’t know how long I can go on like this. It is like there is a ticking bomb inside of me. I hate being this way but don’t know what to do. A lot of guilt is carried as I have always felt I should have asked for a second opinion in the hospital the night before my dad passed away. I knew he wasn’t right. (He passed quite suddenly) How do you get happy again??? Figure out what you need to do???

  12. This year I lost my dad, uncle, father-in-law, and grandmother. It was about eight months between my dad and father-in-law. When my father-in-law passed, all of a sudden the flood gates opened and I was grieving for my dad.
    Hospice folks told my family that grieving is different for everyone and no one goes through the “stages” the same way, or even in order most times.
    It’s good to know this is not unusual.
    At 34, this year has been the first time I’ve lost someone close to me. Everything hurts and though I remember having a cheerful outlook on life, right now things feel bleak and useless.
    Yes, I am going to counseling, but a bit frustrated that counselor is focusing on things that I don’t think are connected with the grieving.

  13. I grieved while he was alive…dying of stage 4 cancer. I’ve been fine since his death…until I realized that our house is still a mess. He was a hoarder…I am stuck in a rut of downsizing. It seems more overwhelming than ever. I can’t seem to move forward. It’s been almost 4 years and I don’t see any progress. So, I’m feeling (all of a sudden) that this might be some kind of depression.

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