Delayed Grief

Cruse Scotland volunteer, Lilian McDade, reflects on her own experience of delayed grief and encourages others to seek support – even if grief surfaces decades after a bereavement.

September 09, 2021

What is delayed grief?

Delayed grief is grief that a bereaved person does not fully experience until some time after the death of a loved one. There can be many reasons for this including the shock of bereavement, the need to get back to work, or the necessity of supporting other family members, all of which can lead us to suppress our own grieving process. We may deliberately push our emotions away thinking to protect ourselves from those which threaten to overwhelm us. However, at some future point, we may very well be confronted by an upsurge in grief, triggered by another loss or a change in life circumstances or even by becoming older and having more time on our hands to think and remember!

My own experience of delayed grief

I woke this morning from a strange dream where I’d been desperately trying to contact my parents by mobile phone but couldn’t connect to them at all. In the dream, I even visited an agency which promised to be able to connect to any mobile phone anywhere but that didn’t work either. I woke with a feeling of sadness and loss.

I keep a Dream Journal which is, in effect, a little notebook beside my bed where I write down my dreams on waking, hoping that they might give me some idea of what my subconscious is up to in the dream state which might then give me some clues about my path in life and my inner feelings. Often, I know I have been dreaming but the content of the dream escapes me very quickly on waking. On this occasion, the dream stayed with me very clearly so this prompted me to think about what it meant for me.

The strange thing about this little dream is that my parents died within six months of each other 25 years ago, long before the advent of mobile phones! I think the dream was telling me how much I miss them and how I long to have a conversation with them now. When they died, they were living at a distance from me so I only saw them about five times each year when I would take my three children and stay with them for a few days. I started to wonder why I am missing them so much now and I cast my mind back over the years, remembering that at the time they both died, I was in the middle of caring for three children following my divorce, plus I had started a late career as an English Teacher… In other words, I was very busy and distracted.

I do remember phoning them after they had died as I was at that stage of grief when it is hard to accept the reality of a death – of course, I knew they were gone, but I still sometimes woke thinking it had been a bad dream and hadn’t really happened. This is quite common after a bereavement.

As a Bereavement Counsellor, I speak to many people who saw their parents almost every day and when one dies, the loss is immediate and immense, and that leaves a big ‘hole’ in their lives, but when you only see someone intermittently it is harder to take on board that they are gone.

I recently read an article about unresolved, delayed grief in war veterans who have often returned to their daily lives following combat but have kept the awful things they have seen, including the deaths of comrades, locked deep inside. Returning from war situations, veterans sometimes have not allowed their grief to be acknowledged or expressed. The psychologist writing the article explained how the grief surfaces when they grow older as it has been ‘unresolved’ during their busy years adjusting to civilian life again. Unresolved grief in combat veterans, complicated grief, the hidden wounds of war, were all addressed, which made me reflect and I remembered clients in counselling who had been suddenly overwhelmed with grief for a lost loved one many years after a bereavement.

What to do if you are experiencing delayed grief

When delayed grief surfaces, it should be acknowledged and examined as it gives us a chance to confront our emotions and to heal. If you are experiencing delayed grief, it helps to talk about it to family and friends, or to a counsellor, and it is very important to allow yourself time and space to think and reflect. Even if we have consciously tried to ignore our emotions and our losses, our subconscious never forgets and a time will come when we have to confront them.

Cruse Scotland is here for anyone experiencing grief; even if the bereavement was decades ago. We understand that the grieving process may have been delayed, for any number of reasons. Please do not feel anxious or embarrassed about seeking support – we are here to help and are ready to assist you in exploring and coming to terms with grief and the grieving process. Call our free helpline: 0808 802 6161, or use the webchat service on this site.

Delayed Grief

About the Author

Lilian McDade - Cruse Scotland Volunteer

Lilian is a Person Centred Counsellor/Therapist who completed her Post Graduate Diploma in Counselling in 2002. She had previously counselled with Cruse in the 1990's and later at the Tom Allan Centre and the Marie Curie Hospice, returning to Cruse in 2017.

In 2002, Lilian's son Daniel suddenly died, aged 21, from a virus and through that loss and the aftermath, she decided that she wanted to concentrate on Bereavement Counselling. Lilian has always been interested in the 'mysteries' of life and death and wrote her dissertation at University (in her 40's) on "Western Attitudes to death" - being aware that, in our Scottish culture, the rituals of grieving have been lost with the general decline in religion, leaving many bereaved people trying to deal with a loved one's death without the background support and comfort of a belief system. Having been through the devastation of the loss of a child, Lilian believes that she can understand and support those who are in the throes of finding their way through grief.