As a kid growing up in a chaotic home where difficult emotions were never discussed openly, I learned how to suck up my feelings and numb myself pretty early on. I only realized recently how that emotional repression impacted me, though. In fact, it silently controlled my thought patterns and behaviors well into my late twenties. It wasn’t until I had a mental breakdown at 27 that I began to feel the full weight of those repressed emotions, and boy was it intense. At that time, my psychotherapist explained that I was experiencing something called “delayed grief,” meaning that I was processing emotions from my younger years that I had never felt before.
According to Joseph F. Atanasio, a psychologist based in New York, “Delayed grief is when the emotional pain from loss is repressed or put on a shelf so to speak, to be dealt with at a later time.” The feelings can arise later on, usually unexpectedly, and have great psychological or emotional impact on a person. Since grief is a very personal experience, there is no one set of emotions someone will feel when going through this, but some of the common feelings may include shame, guilt, isolation, sadness, or anger.
Dr. Dalia Spektor, a licensed psychologist, says that when going through a period of delayed grief, you may feel sad, heartbroken, detached, or numb, and it may also be harder to experience pleasure or joy. Beyond this, delayed grief can have physical symptoms. “Your appetite may change. You may have difficulty sleeping when you’re tired. You may have digestive issues,” she explains.
While we most often associate grief and grieving with the death of a loved one or the end of a close relationship, grief can occur in a variety of different situations. For example, Atanasio says, “The loss of a home such as in a natural disaster, the uncertainty of one’s relational or familial future within a strenuous divorce, or even the loss of one’s personal safety and autonomy during trauma can all contribute to periods of grief and grieving.” For me, my delayed grief was related to the divorce of my parents and the departure of my father, which occurred right before I left for college.
While delayed grief can be painful, Atanasio argues that experiencing it is an important part of the grieving process, even if it occurs several years later. Though delayed grief can often be misinterpreted as “running away” from something you should’ve handled or confronted immediately, there are circumstances that can prevent a person from coping with their emotions head-on. For example, if someone is in an environment that does not feel safe or supportive, they may consciously or subconsciously choose not to confront their trauma. Moreover, society teaches us to be emotionless super humans who overlook trauma and simply “grin and bear it,” and that leads to all manner of emotional repression.
It’s important to keep in mind that everyone grieves on their own timeline. Thus, “individuals experiencing delayed grief should never be judged for a sometimes-conscious choice to not explore their loss, but rather [be] emotionally supported,” says Atanasio.
So how do you can handle it?
According to Atanasio, there are many ways someone can manage delayed grief in a productive manner, but the first step is to practice awareness of what you’re going through, and then find safe spaces where you can process the emotions and feel validated. For example, he recommends individual or group therapy as it can help you gain insight into your delayed grief patterns of behavior or emotion, while support groups can provide comfort and healing. In her own practice, Dr. Spektor runs a psychotherapy group for men and women who are going through a relationship loss.
It can also be helpful to practice meditation or mindfulness. Atanasio says it “can build emotional constitution and feelings of acceptance.” You might also find spending time in nature, volunteering, or joining a religious community to be helpful.
While the grieving process can be difficult to stomach, Atanasio says it’s important not to judge yourself if you feel an abundance of feelings. “There is no finish line and you need to give yourself patience. You owe this to yourself,” he says. To help you through it, he also recommends engaging in things you love, rewarding yourself in small ways for moving forward, and not shaming yourself when you experience setbacks.
In my own life, I have found that allowing myself to feel the full spectrum of emotions my delayed grief brought on—from anger to sadness—has ultimately brought me immense catharsis and opened me up to experiencing a level of forgiveness and joy I never thought was possible. If you think you might be experiencing delayed grief, speak to a professional—this article is a starting point but no substitute for a licensed practitioner.