Monday, July 23, 2018

In Grief: When Sorrow Is Delayed

[Reviewed and updated February 22, 2024]

My grief lies all within, and these external manners of lament are merely shadows to the unseen grief that swells with silence in the tortured soul.
  ~ William Shakespeare

A reader writes: Hello I lost my mum 3 yrs ago, she died suddenly of a heart attack at 41 yrs. I was 19 at the time and had suffered the loss of a friend 7 months prior to mum’s death, as well as the separation with the father of my 14 month old son. After mum died my son, younger sister and i had to move 5 times that year until we were granted government housing. After that, life just kept going and so did i. I feel i have a lot of delayed grief which i wish desperately not to keep bottled up. If you could help me out by sending me some helpful info i would be so very grateful.

My response: I'm so very sorry to learn of the death of your beloved mother three years ago, compounded by the death of your friend, the separation from the father of your boy, and all those moves you had to make in the span of one year. Any one of those major life changes is enough to engender a grief response, let alone so many in so short a span of time.

You say that after all of this turmoil, "life just kept going, and so did I," but now, three years later, you're feeling a lot of what you assume to be delayed grief. I don't know what is happening in your life right now that you're finally allowing yourself to face the reality of all these losses, but for whatever reason, you're more acutely aware of your grief now, and you are reaching out for help. Good for you!

The fact that you're feeling sorrow over each of these losses now doesn't necessarily mean that you haven't made any progress in your grief journey. As you grow and develop through the years, your grief changes, and it will change you as well, influencing who you are in the present and affecting who you'll become in the future. The death of your mother in particular must be worked through, adapted to, and integrated into your life, as different situations and developmental milestones will require you to accommodate the reality of her absence, again and again. Know that you will re-visit your mother's death continually, as you grapple with its meaning ~ emotionally, socially, economically and spiritually ~ and as you struggle to find a place for her in your present and future life.

One of the greatest myths about grief is that if we just ignore it or leave it alone, the day will come when we "get over it." The truth is that grief is a normal reaction to a significant loss, and it's something we all get through and learn to live with, but we never, ever get over it. The love you feel and the bond you have with your mother will continue as long as you hold the memory of her alive in your heart. Death ends a life, but it does not end the relationship you have with the person who has died ~ and there is nothing wrong with holding onto that love as long as you live. It may help you to keep in mind that, although the two of you are physically separated and you cannot be wherever your mum is now, in a very real sense she is very much here with you, wherever you are, because her spirit and her memory live on in you, and because she is so very much a part of you. In many ways, you are more inseparable now than you were before she died, because your relationship with her is not limited by space and time and distance.

When you separated from the father of your son, this too was a death, with all its secondary losses: death of your dreams, death of a possibility, the death of a future you had expected and hoped to have with this man. That does not mean that you cannot go on to live a meaningful life, and even one day to find love again. After all, the relationship you had with this man may have died, but you have not died. You are still here, and you still have a life to live! But first you must do the work of mourning the death of this relationship, and it sounds to me as if, until now, you've not had the time to focus on the work that you know you must do. (You may have heard that "time will heal all wounds," but I'm sure you've learned by now that the passage of time doesn't do anything to heal your grief ~ time is neutral. It's what you do with the time that matters.)

Grieving successfully requires the hard work of confronting, expressing and working through the pain of your loss. To make the process a healing one, you must go through it actively, which means moving through it thoughtfully and working with it deliberately. Expressed grief can be worked with and released, but suppressed grief will torment you in ways you cannot control. Healthy, normal grieving is a process of honestly facing the reality of your loss, coming to terms with its impact on your life, learning to access all available means for recovery, finding meaning in your loss, and continuing to live productively in the years that follow. And when you're faced with multiple or successive losses, each of them must be mourned separately and fully, until you feel "finished" with the work of mourning them.

The good news is that it is never too late to do the work of mourning. That's because delayed or unresolved grief doesn't go anywhere ~ it just lies there waiting for you to deal with it ~ and when the pain of grief keeps coming up for you despite your efforts to ignore it, you are wise to pay it the attention it demands.

So I strongly encourage you to find someone to talk to ~ someone who knows something about the normal grieving process. You might call your local hospice, mortuary or church to see if there is a grief support group offered in your community. Find a chat room, message board or discussion group on the Internet, or join the Loss of a Parent forum that I moderate, at Grief Healing Discussion Groups, which is like a virtual support group and will put you in touch with others whose experiences may be similar to your own. Read all you can about grief to learn what is normal and what you can do to manage your own reactions (for examples, see the tab at the top of this page, Marty’s Articles). Consider ordering my book, Finding Your Way Through Grief, or find and read some of the wonderful articles and books written by others whose mothers have died; this will help you see that you are not alone, and will give you the hope that if others managed to get through it, then somehow you will find your own way, too. See also my Comfort for Grieving Hearts page to read what others have to say about this experience.

It sounds as if you are ready to pay attention to this delayed grief that's been building in your heart for a very long time. Grieving is very hard work, and if you put it off, like a messy chore it will sit there waiting to be done. And the longer it waits, the harder it becomes. But it's never too late to begin, and you don't have to be doing it all alone.

I sincerely hope this information proves helpful to you ~ and please know that I am thinking of you.

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