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Delayed grief after dad's death?

Dear Alice,

I can't stop crying. I haven't cried in months. This morning I was fine and now it's 7:00 at night and I can't stop crying about my dad. He committed suicide five years ago, six in April. What's wrong with me?

— Suddenly Sad.

Dear Suddenly Sad,   

The tears and grieving you’re currently experiencing may be painful, but they don’t suggest that there’s anything wrong with you. On the contrary, these emotional expressions may be a sign of healing. As with most human experiences, everyone grieves differently; there's no right or wrong way to mourn. The timing and processes of grieving are influenced by many factors such as brain chemistry, past experiences with loss, and relationship to the person lost (more on these in a bit). Generally, grief is characterized by emotional and physiological effects shortly after the loss, with symptoms usually waning over time. That being said, for many, the experience of grief may be different — it could be delayed, ongoing, or not occur depending on an individual’s unique situation. While it can be tough to ask for help, seeking support from other family members, friends, or health care professionals may help you weather these changes, no matter how long the mourning process takes.   

While it was previously thought that grief happens in a linear sequence of stages, there’s actually little scientific evidence to back this up. Instead, they may be thought of five domains of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. People may experience all, some, or none of these domains. Researchers recognize that grief is complicated and doesn’t always follow a neat trajectory. In fact, about 15 to 30 percent of bereaved people experience the phenomenon of delayed grief. This type of grief can occur when a person experiences a loss but isn’t in a position to fully contend with the grief and sadness at that particular moment. Instead, the feelings of distress and sadness surface at various points in later years, and sometimes in different and unexpected ways. For instance, when grief is delayed, a person may report other physiological symptoms such as stomach upset, headaches, changes in appetite, and trouble sleeping. Examples of factors that can interrupt the initial grief process include:   

  • Age: Losing a parent at a young age can delay the grieving process. Brain development is one culprit for this one but another is the unique role of a parent. Often, parents are a primary source of emotional support, not only in childhood but into adulthood as well. Sometimes, children and teenagers experience feelings of abandonment when they lose a parent. Feeling orphaned can sometimes be too much to deal with until a person is older. Grieving may sometimes continue (on and off) well into adulthood.    
  • Substance use: Using substances to cope or to dull the pain of a loss acts as a primary coping mechanism for some who are grieving. One downside of this is that it interrupts the grieving process by temporarily "shutting off" the painful feelings. The problem here is that the feelings need to eventually be felt in order for full healing to occur.   
  • Social support: Your social support at the time of the loss and being able to express your feelings of loss and sadness to others may have affected how you processed this experience. It’s also worth mentioning that both subtle and overt messages that it’s time to snap out of it or get over it can delay the grieving process.   
  • Previous loss: Grieving patterns from the past can be re-enacted and solidified when new losses occur. Previous losses that are still unresolved can make current pain much more intense because you’re experiencing cumulative pain from multiple losses (such as deaths, break ups, divorce, job loss, loss of a friend, and many others).   

Additionally, there are numerous other factors — culture, gender, socio-economic circumstances, trauma associated with the death, survivor guilt, etc. — that can contribute to intense feelings of sadness surfacing unexpectedly. Significant dates and other reminders of the person who was lost may trigger intense waves of sadness similar to what was felt early on when the loss first occurred. No matter how and when one experiences grief, speaking with a mental health professional can be helpful in working through it. Therapy often helps shed light on the effects of previous losses and provides tools for healing from the pain of losing a loved one. Talking to other people who have experienced a similar loss may help, too. You may be interested in exploring support groups for people who have lost a parent.   

With any source of grief, feelings of sadness, anger, confusion, or abandonment, among many others are common. Giving yourself the space and permission to cry and feel them may help you along the healing process. If life circumstances don’t allow you to step away for a moment (such as needing to work or attend class), you may consider designating space at a later time to experience these emotions. It’s worth mentioning again that you don’t need to go through this alone. Enlisting the help of supportive others — from your network of family and friends, a support group, or a mental health professional — may provide you with much needed solace and refuge. Kudos to you for submitting this question. It's an indication of your strength and bravery. Best wishes to you on your path towards healing.   

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Last updated Feb 19, 2021
Originally published Mar 04, 2011