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Why Do We Experience Delayed Grief After a Loss or Divorce?

Delayed grief can be a good coping strategy as long as it works. Then what?

Key points

  • The initial revelation of a divorce or separation can be shocking, leading to a sense of disbelief or denial.
  • Focusing on practical matters may delay the emotional processing of grief.
  • Grief counseling provides a safe and supportive space for you to express your emotions.

My father died three months ago at the age of 99. He lived a full, adventurous, and satisfying life. He decided he was ready to die when he could no longer do the things that gave his life meaning: reading the New York Times, walking down Russian Hill to North Beach to see who was hanging out at the Trieste, sharing a meal with his children and grandchildren. I was with him until he took his final small breath. He just slipped peacefully away.

It all felt complete, even perfect. We’d said everything we needed to say to each other. I knew he loved me. He didn’t suffer. Although I was sad, I jumped right into action mode. After several weeks of not crying, I wondered, “Why is this grief so different from the other losses I have had?” Then it came to me: I am having a delayed grief response.

What is a delayed grief response?

Source: Liza Summer/Pexels
We all experience grief differently and in our own time.
Source: Liza Summer/Pexels

Delayed grief happens when you have a significant loss, such as the death of a loved one, or a divorce, but you don’t experience the typical signs and symptoms of grief. Instead of expressing grief when the loss occurs, you might find waves of emotion arising later. For me, it has taken three months, and then the sadness hit me hard. I had suppressed my emotional response as a way of coping with the challenges of each new day.

Divorce is a kind of death, and you may find that your grief increases over time, or feels heavier months later, just when you thought you were feeling better. Yes, divorce can indeed cause a delayed grief response. The end of a marriage is a huge life change that involves the loss of a primary relationship, the death of shared dreams, and often the complete restructuring of one's life. Divorce brings many emotions, and grief is most common.

It isn’t that you aren’t and haven’t been grieving, though. It’s just that you have postponed its expression, intentionally or unconsciously. Later, perhaps in a quiet moment and when you least expect it, the emotional impact may surface. My grief hit me when I was brushing my teeth! As if I had just realized I would never see my father again. And that’s when you can start to process and work through your grief.

Why do you experience delayed grief? There are many reasons.

Shock and Denial: The initial revelation of a divorce or separation can be shocking, leading to a sense of disbelief or denial. “This can’t be happening,” you might think. This shock may delay the full emotional impact of the situation. Shock can be a protective mechanism, to help you cope. Later you may realize that you had gone into a state of shock or numbness when you divorced or lost a loved one. When you’re numb, you avoid the emotional pain of the loss. Temporarily.

Legal and Practical Matters: Similar to other types of losses, there are often practical matters to attend to during a divorce, such as legal proceedings, financial arrangements, and co-parenting discussions. Focusing on these practical aspects may delay the emotional processing of grief. Perhaps you were trying to cope with having to move or clear out personal possessions. A divorce requires rational decision-making and a lot of logistical changes.

Not unlike a divorce, a death requires many other responsibilities, as I discovered when my father died. To function, I unintentionally repressed my grief—but that only works until it doesn’t work anymore. Practical matters require immediate attention, such as funeral arrangements, filing paperwork, etc. Divorce also leads to complex legal issues, filing paperwork, and other responsibilities. You may focus on these tasks first, delaying the emotional processing of your grief.

Avoidance as a Coping Mechanism: We all might use various coping mechanisms, such as keeping busy with work or other activities, to avoid confronting the emotional pain associated with loss or the end of the marriage. We learn these coping strategies in childhood, often survival tactics. Obviously, grieving can be intense and painful. Sometimes people consciously or unconsciously avoid acknowledging their emotions and instead choose to distract themselves with work, activities, or other negative coping (e.g., drugs, alcohol, high-risk behaviors). Avoidance works…for a while.

Social Expectations: Societal expectations and stigmas surrounding divorce may influence you to suppress or delay your grief. Every culture has its “normal” way of dealing with grief. Some cultures keep grief very private, to keep a “stiff upper lip,” or look fine on the outside while feeling terrible inside. Others grieve together in families or communities. In some families, grief is expressed as anger; in others, it shows up in physical symptoms. Your culture or background may influence how you express grief. If your culture or family has expectations about how grief should be expressed, you may delay or change your emotional responses to fit those expectations.

Fear: Expressing grief makes you feel vulnerable. You may fear being judged or misunderstood and, so, delay your grieving process until you feel more secure in sharing your emotions. You may also hear unhelpful comments from friends or families that cause you to keep your emotions tamped down.

Unresolved Past Losses: If you have experienced previous losses or trauma, you may find it challenging to confront additional grief. The accumulation of unresolved grief from past experiences can contribute to a delayed grief response. As I become aware of my grief for my dad’s death, grief arises about other deaths I have experienced. If your past includes losses, perhaps your parents’ divorce, it may be hard to process your own divorce if you haven’t fully processed your childhood experience of divorce.

Complex Emotions: Of course, divorce involves a mix of emotions, including relief, guilt, anger, and anxiety about the future. You may have to work through your other emotions before you arrive at the grief. It’s OK to be patient. Recently someone told me that grief is love, that grief is a sign of love for someone or something. If you are grieving the loss of your marriage, it may mean the loss of the dreams you had (and loved) when you got married.

Children and Parental Responsibilities: If you have children, you may focus on their well-being and needs during the initial stages of the divorce. This focus on parental responsibilities may delay your own grieving process. Focusing on your children makes sense, especially when the loss is fresh and emotions are raw.

Of course, people are different and we each grieve in our own way. There is no right or wrong way to grieve. Some of us naturally take longer to process and express our emotions, and that’s OK. There is no set timeline for grief.

How to cope with grief, whenever it comes

Grief counseling, also known as bereavement counseling, is a form of therapy designed to help you through the emotional, psychological, and physical challenges associated with grief and loss. Grief counselors are mental health professionals who specialize in supporting people as they navigate the complex and painful process of grieving. Here are some key aspects of what grief counseling typically involves:

Emotional Support: Grief counseling provides a safe and supportive space for you to express your emotions. It allows you to share your thoughts, feelings, and memories related to the loss without judgment.

Exploration of Feelings: Grief counseling encourages you to explore and identify your emotions. This exploration can lead to self-discovery and personal growth.

Understanding Grief Reactions: Grief can manifest in various ways, including sadness, anger, guilt, confusion, and even physical symptoms. Grief counselors help you understand, normalize, and navigate these reactions.

Coping Strategies: Grief counselors offer skills and healthy coping strategies to manage the emotional pain of grief. These strategies may include relaxation techniques, mindfulness exercises, and other therapeutic interventions.

Addressing Complicated Grief: If you experience complicated grief, which involves prolonged and intense symptoms that disrupt your daily functioning, grief counselors are trained to recognize and address this.

Support for Life Changes: Grief often brings significant life changes. Grief counseling helps you navigate these changes, whether they involve adjustments to daily routines, relationships, or future plans.

Family Dynamics: Grief counselors may work with you and your family to address the impact of the divorce or death on family dynamics. This can involve facilitating communication, understanding different grieving styles, and supporting family members in their grief journeys.

Rituals and Memorialization: Grief counseling may involve discussions about rituals and memorialization to help you find meaningful ways to honor and remember your marriage or loved one, and the changes the loss has brought.

Long-Term Healing: Grief counseling is not just about immediate support but also promotes long-term healing. Counselors can help you find a renewed sense of purpose, meaning, and connection in your life.

If you’re experiencing a delayed grief response, seeking support from friends, family, or mental health professionals can help you navigate and cope with your emotions. It's important to know that there is no right or wrong way to grieve, and everyone's grief journey is different.

© Ann Gold Buscho, Ph.D. 2024

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