Delayed Grief

Recently I read an article in the New York Times by Nicole Johnson called” My Mother Died When I was 7.  I’m Grieving 37 Years Later  ( ) it took me back to an experience I had many years ago.

I was engaged to get married and was observing the death of my father by lighting a memorial candle.  Suddenly, I was overcome with sadness and tears and felt overwhelmed with the thought that my father would never know my wonderful soon-to-be husband. I thought about the things they would have in common, like the love of baseball and gardening, and how similar they were in their values.  Each thought family was very important and did not hesitate to express his love to all of the members of his family.

But WHY was I now feeling so grief-stricken. Like the girl in the article by Nicole Johnson, my father had died when I was seven years old, although his death was caused by a heart attack at the age of 39.  No one expected someone so young to die and the family was in chaos.  My grandmother did not open her eyes for a month and my mother kept us from the funeral, probably trying to protect us from grieving. We were passed from one aunt to another because my 34-year-old mother could barely function and had three children to deal with.

Today, I understand that what I was feeling just before my marriage is called Delayed Grief.  As a child, we never talked about my father after he was gone.  As the oldest child, I was the closest to him, but there was no discussion of how I felt.  It was not that my family was trying to harm me by not helping me process my father’s death, but that they didn’t know how to help a child who had suffered such an enormous loss and they were traumatized themselves.   As a result, I never really grieved or said goodbye to my father and never confronted the loss of that most important relationship – the one of father and daughter.

There were other times when I was surprised by the depth of my grief – once when I was ill and found myself missing my father as if he had just died yesterday.  Another was when I had just started college and felt very uncertain and alone. In addition to mourning a huge loss, I felt surprised at what was going on for me – grieving so long after the actual death.

I have come to believe that we all grieve as much as we are able during a sad period in our lives and then we move on.  And then an event, or memory, or experience triggers that grieving again, so we once more grieve that very important loss.  Each time the grieving is different and the meaning we get from it varies.

Children’s grief is colored by their relationship to the person and by the age of the child when a loved one dies.  It is also affected by the way adults around them handle their grief.  When my father died, my mother recovered and continued to do her job of taking care of three children, but never talked about my father.  My siblings and I were afraid to ask questions for fear it would upset her.

Today we know more about how to handle a child’s grief or our own, but can still expect that people will have some episodes of delayed grief.  With the pandemic affecting our ability to engage in normal funerals and grieving rituals, we will certainly see more people experience delayed grief.

Whether you are an adult or the parent of a child, there are many losses we have all suffered during this pandemic year.  Some of these losses are of loved ones and we have been unable to say goodbye to them or hold funerals, wakes, or sit shiva.  Some losses are of relationships that have been geographically distanced or events that were not able to take place, like weddings and graduations. While these events may feel less important than the death of a person we love, all losses are important and need to be acknowledged.

If you are someone who feels as If your grief is unresolved and is getting in the way of daily functioning, please call a psychologist for help or join one of the many grief groups that are available.