Monday, April 3, 2017

Delayed Grief: When We Don't Take Time to Mourn

[Reviewed and updated February 22, 2024]

You can close your eyes to the things you don’t want to see, but you can’t close your heart to the things you don’t want to feel. ~ Johnny Depp

A reader writes: I don't know what's happening. It has been more than three years since my friend Jane died. We shared a home for over ten years. Both of our parents had died and our siblings were gone also. We were the only family that either of us had. After she died I went right back to work. Really I went back to overwork. Last December I went to Kenya for four months; when I came back I was not working. I started having dreams about Jane. She would go somewhere and I couldn't find her. I would wake up in a panic.
After I started telling people about this the dreams stopped. Yesterday was so horrible. I had to go to the doctor, get the car fixed, call a plumber and just everything. This morning I got up to go to church and realized that yesterday was Jane's birthday. I started crying. That's all I want to do. I should be over this by now, and here I am crying! I wanted to live alone after she died, but just this week I have been thinking that it would be nice to have someone to share things with. Yet, here I am crying so that I can't do anything today. What is wrong with me?

My response: First of all, I don’t think there is anything wrong with you. What is more, it seems to me that what is happening to you now makes perfect sense. When we don’t take the time to mourn a significant loss in our lives, the grief that we feel doesn’t get resolved; it just goes dormant and lies there waiting, until we give it the attention it requires.

You say that after your friend Jane died, “I went right back to work. Really I went back to overwork.” I don’t know what actions you took at the time your friend died, what rituals you engaged in to honor and remember her, or whether you ever took the time you needed to mourn Jane’s death, but it sounds as if you did everything you could to keep busy, perhaps in an effort to keep at bay your intense feelings of loss.

It’s interesting to me that when you came back from Kenya, during the time you were not working (and when you were not keeping busy with the distractions of work), you began having dreams about Jane. It’s as if your unconscious mind took advantage of the pause in your busy life, and found a way to remind you that you still had grief work to do.

It’s also interesting that, once you started talking to others about your dreams, the dreams stopped—perhaps an indication that paying attention to your dreams and giving voice to your feelings about Jane’s physical absence in your life was helpful to you.

The way that you remembered Jane’s birthday is an example of how even if we do forget, our bodies remember our feelings. On the actual date of her birthday you were too busy and distracted to notice the importance of that day, but the next day, as you were preparing to go to church and were in a different mind-set, you allowed yourself to remember, and suddenly you realized that Friday was Jane’s birthday.

Your letter reminds me of a post that appeared in our online Grief Healing Discussion Groups a while ago. My response is addressed to a woman whose father died seven years before, but I think what I said to her will have resonance for you as well, as it deals with this matter of delayed grief. Just click on this link and you’ll go right to my post: Grieving 7 Years After the Death.

See also the resources listed on the Death of a Friend page on my Grief Healing website, as well as the related articles I've listed below.

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