Delayed grief - A personal reflection

Feelings of loss can strike us when we least expect it. For some, it can be immediate, while for others it can take more time. When I was 14 years old, I lost my paternal grandfather. At the time I do not recall feeling overwhelmed with loss.


However, I noticed at the age of 43 I was dreaming a lot more about him and reflecting on what this may mean. David Kessler and Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in their book 'On Grief and Grieving' describe these sorts of dreams as possible unresolved grief. Accompanying this was a strong need to personally mark the 30th anniversary of his passing.

I found him a kind and warm man that always seemed pleased to see me and the rest of his grandchildren. I have fond memories of sleeping at my grandparent’s house, having porridge for breakfast then walking over to the local playing fields to walk their Scottie dog. I want to personally reflect on some of the themes that may have caused a delay in my sense of loss, in hope that it might resonate and help others going through grief.

I feel at the age of 14 I simply accepted the news of my grandfather’s death as a fact, without actually connecting to the emotional feelings surrounding the loss. Depending on the modality of the counsellor, or at least through a Systemic frame intellectualisation, can keep us safe from uncomfortable feelings.

In my case, it may have been that this process was happening subconsciously, it can be difficult to know what you need to work on if it is not in your awareness. The downside of staying in this intellectualised state is that you avoid processing the loss. I did a similar thing with my parent's divorce at the age of 16. It was only when I attended therapy at the age of 34 did I realise that, even though I had intellectualised my parent's separation, I had not processed the loss of a stable family unit which may be why I was filled with anger and resentment. It may also explain my suicide attempt in 1998, which now as a trained counsellor, underlines the importance of therapy, to explore unprocessed feelings of pain, hurt, anger and loss.

From a societal perspective, there can exist a narrative around who has the right to feel loss, for example, a child who has lost a parent or a spouse that has lost their partner may assume that their sense of loss is greater. I feel that part of the intellectualisation I experienced was attached to this idea, my father has just lost his father, and therefore his grief supersedes my own. Again I wonder if this lack of permission to feel the loss of my grandfather was a subconscious act and if so where did this come from?

Systemic counsellors/psychotherapists would be curious about what stories would families or society at large say about what age children should be allowed to attend funerals. This is a pertinent point, as this is pretty much what I was told, therefore I did not attend my grandfather’s funeral.

Grief therapist David Kessler calls children who are not allowed to attend funerals, ‘forgotten grievers’, speaking within an American context and arguing that children should attend funerals. He goes on to say that, though it is not a pleasant experience, it is important that children are allowed to join the rest of the family/friends of the deceased as this gives them a chance to say goodbye. In many ways, I place this missed opportunity down as one explanation as to why I am only experiencing this sense of unresolved grief now.    

It is only natural that counselling/psychotherapy training has a way of unlocking hidden memories and feelings, most in training as part of their course will have counselling as part of their professional development. When I began my training in Systemic therapy, I was already having counselling for depression, since my aforementioned suicide attempt depression has been a frequent visitor in my life; something now I try and live beside rather than get rid of.

Systemic learning requires counsellors to consider themselves as part of interconnected social systems (family, work, plutonic friendships). In this frame we might consider grief as very much a relational experience, this I feel began the uncovering of this hidden loss. I noticed that I was dreaming of my grandfather more, the dreams had an authenticity to them for when I woke, I felt like I had lost something close to me.

Triggers in relation to loss can appear via association, a smell, a date, or something that connects us to those we have lost. For me this came in the form of my son announcing that he would like to be an architect, my mind went straight to the old draughtsman's table used to draw technical drawings. They were sometimes placed in a summer house at the top of my grandparent's garden, which my siblings and cousins would often use as a base of operations for one of our games.

There are many ways that those suffering a loss can address feelings of bereavement and everyone does not grieve the same. Some write letters, some talk to a photograph, urn or even grave, seek therapy or others may want to mark the anniversary in some way. Because 2023 would be the 30th anniversary of my grandfather’s passing I felt that marking it would be a useful way of processing the sense of loss that I feel. Trying to suppress such feelings can lead to destructive or unwanted patterns of behaviour.

I hope this personal reflection will highlight the relational nature of grief while at the same time being very personal to the individual. Think about a public figure or sportsperson that died and how many lives that loss touched and how the feelings may have been unexpected.

Loss can sit within us for many years, so it is not at all surprising that clients that attend bereavement counselling range from having difficulty processing a loss within weeks of it happening to 20-30 years later.

Take time privately or amongst close friends or family to allow the expression of loss, counselling offers a safe space for clients to feel vulnerable and is a useful resource, processing grief in the therapeutic setting can mean having a space where you feel comfortable and safe to get upset.  

There is no time limit on how long it takes to be able to sit with a significant loss, I use ‘to sit with’ purposefully; we seldom ‘get over’ grief and is unhelpful to suggest to anyone they do so, I am not overwhelmed by my feelings of loss, but it is still present.

It can be difficult when others have moved to a place where they are able to sit with the loss of a significant person, especially if you have chosen ‘to be strong for others' and set down processing your loss in favour of helping others with theirs. Or you make the assumption that you are okay only to be surprised by a delayed reaction to grief. Remember though you may have processed your feelings of loss, the feelings of loss within others are still valid.

I will leave you with this meme and quote I found on LinkedIn, it is a picture of an Ox and a boy sitting under a tree.

“Yesterday, I sat with my anger until it told me its real name,” said the boy.

“What is it?” asked the Ox.

“Grief” replied the boy.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Bedwas, Caerphilly, CF83 8EH
Written by Anthony Purnell, BSc (Hons), MBACP (Accred) MNCS (Prof Accred)
Bedwas, Caerphilly, CF83 8EH

I am an accredited counsellor with the BACP and NCS, I am Systemically trained and work with clients in a relational way and I am also a qualified supervisor. I work in private practice which I began in 2019 and work with adults over the age of 18 either as individuals or as couples.

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