Grief expert Lianna Champ outlines 17 of the most common signs that you haven't fully processed your grief for a loved one.
What causes delayed grief?
Grief doesn’t just affect us emotionally, it affects us physically, mentally and spiritually too. Delayed grief is how we describe grief that isn’t recognised at the time of a loss and which can then be triggered at any time, manifesting itself and taking its toll in many ways.
Loss accumulates when it has not been properly grieved, and this happens when we continually ignore or avoid our pain and pretend we are OK.
Sometimes we may feel that holding on to our grief will be a way to show the world the depth of our love for the person who has died and we continue to hold ourselves in a place of pain.
When we’re happy, we want to share our feelings. It’s the same when we are sad—both emotions need equal expression. But for whatever reason, when someone significant in our life dies, we often don’t want to burden others with those feelings of sadness. We may be afraid of being overwhelmed and appearing out of control so we bury the pain and try to carry on as normal. But if we don’t allow some release and we don’t grieve properly, we can only absorb so much before the grief begins to colour everything we do.
When we suffer a significant loss, automatic coping mechanisms kick in which enable us to function in the early days. We don’t always question these coping mechanisms and may think what we are doing is the right thing for us and so continue to use them. It might be that we think it is the correct thing to try to think ourselves over our loss and carry on as normal—especially if we have children or others in our life who rely on us.
Why is it damaging to delay grief?
We may feel that we should be the one who doesn’t fall apart or let our tears show in an attempt to make those around us feel better, to show them that we are coping and strong, all the while burying our own feelings and ignoring our own emotional pain.
If we don’t deal with our grief at the time we experience our losses, we can experience a whole host of emotional and physical symptoms and can struggle to be in the mainstream of living because we are using all our energy just trying to function-day to-day.
Physical and emotional signs that you haven’t grieved properly include:
- Preoccupation with sad or painful memories
- Refusing to talk about the loss in any way
- Increased use of alcohol, food, drugs or cigarettes
- Being abrupt and distracted when in company
- Spending a lot more time working or exercising—keeping busy to distract you from your grief
- Lack of energy
- Difficulty concentrating
- Withdrawing from family and friends
- Avoiding places that you visited together, in an attempt to avoid bringing up painful memories
- Keeping everything exactly the same in case it means you might forget them—creating a shrine to someone who has died can become an anchor in your grief that can keep you in a place of pain
- Being afraid to form new relationships for fear of being hurt
- Being disconnected from what is happening around you
- Inability to function in everyday activities—work, socialising or hobbies
- Digestive problems
- Loss of confidence—you may feel incomplete, especially if the person made you feel special and loved. Growth in self-confidence comes from thinking, deciding and acting, no matter what we are feeling. Even when we don’t feel good about ourselves, we can decide to act in ways that are good for us—making ourselves exercise because we know it’s good for us, eating well because we deserve to be healthy.
- Depression—physical symptoms of grief can feel like depression so it is important that we can identify the difference. Grievers have a reduced sense of concentration and often have trouble focusing. It plays havoc with their sleeping and eating patterns and simple tasks become difficult. Grievers can also self-identify as being depressed. Medicating grief does nothing to resolve the pain, it just masks it. Grief is not a medical condition. It cannot be cured with medication. It can, however, be something through which we pass if we are willing to realise that it is directly related to our unfinished emotional communications with the person or relationship we have lost.
What should I do now?
If you think you are experiencing unresolved grief and are looking for a way to recover, a good place to start is to imagine if you could have just one last conversation with the person who has died, what would you say to them?
Think about the things you admired about them, what you miss most, things you need to apologise for, things you need to forgive and what you loved about them. Have your pen and paper ready and a box of tissues.
Lianna Champ has over 40 years’ experience in grief counselling and funeral care and is author of practical guide, How to Grieve Like A Champ
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