This is the second installment which looks at one of the stages of grief. The five stages of grief according to Kuebler-Ross are Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. My first installment was about depression and can be found HERE. I do not necessarily subscribe to Kuebler-Ross’ five stages as an ultimate guide to grieving. There are many other features of this dynamic journey which I want to explore with you; however, her framework is a good start for anyone facing grief.
So this brings us to the big question: What is Denial? Webster’s dictionary defines denial as, “a statement saying that something is not true or real : a statement in which someone denies something.” Pertaining to Psychology denial is, “a condition in which someone will not admit that something sad, painful, etc., is true or real.” The tertiary definition is, “the act of not allowing someone to have something.” When it comes to grief the psychological definition is the most understandable and useful. However, the entire definition is helpful.
Let’s break this down a little bit. Mary’s son was killed in an automobile accident three months ago. She went through the motions of the visitation and funeral as most people do but now that all of that is over she continues to say to herself and others that “this didn’t happen….it is not real….I will wake up from this dream soon.” Mary is in denial because she is having difficulty acknowledging that her son is really dead. As a matter of fact a great deal of the terminology we use in American society actually facilitates denial. We say, “they past away”, or “we lost them”, or “they are gone.” We have tremendous difficulty saying that our loved one died.
I think denial to some extent can be helpful. Especially at the beginning of the grief process. I believe God gives us the process of denial so that we are better able to meter the emotion that we have to face all at once. However, if denial continues much past the funeral it can cause complications that prolong one’s journey through grief. There will be a modicum of ‘partial denial’ during the grief process but behind that partial denial is always the realization that the death did occur and that the person is not returning.
Denial fosters problematic and complicated grief because it leaves unresolved grief on the clip-board of the griever’s life. Those in denial continue to deny and not process a death that occurs when they are in their 20s so the death of their friend or parent 5 years later adds another layer. We are fond of calling this the onion of grief because layer after layer of unresolved grief becomes this complicated, and quite often smelly elephant in the room. What eventually occurs is a future death, or even major and unexpected life change (such as divorce or illness), can cause an intense and sudden loss of stability (mentally, physically, and otherwise). This ‘break’ results in almost inescapable depression or severe health consequences that can permanently alter the life of the griever even more.
If denial were the only thing grievers had to go through it would be challenging enough. But throw on top of the denial the other emotions and symptoms of grief and you get a cocktail for hopelessness; and hopelessness, as I have said before, is the largest indicator of suicidality. Anger comes in waves. Sadness comes in waves. Depression comes in waves. After a while one can get tired of waves and just allow themselves to go under, dragged to their death by the undertow of intense hopelessness.
But where does the responsibility for denial lie? Look back at the definition, “a statement saying that something is not true or real : a statement in which someone denies something, a condition in which someone will not admit that something sad, painful, etc., is true or real, AND the act of not allowing someone to have something.” The responsibility for denial comes from us. In relation to these definitions we allow ourselves to make statements contrary to the reality around us. We refuse to allow ourselves to accept the reality of the death because it is too painful for US. We do not allow ourselves the peace of acknowledging the reality of the death and processing through the emotions in a way that allows us to survive and move forward with our lives.
Many people believe that in order to overcome denial they must forget. Actually, overcoming denial is not a process of forgetting. Instead, forgetting is denial in one of its rawest forms. Overcoming denial is about acknowledging and remembering the person who has died. Moving them from a physically present position within our lives to a position of remembrance and honor.
So what can we do for someone who is in denial? Allow them to talk about the death. Encourage them to talk about the death. Let them know you are there for them when they ARE ready to talk about the death. Remind them of the memories they had with the dead person. Remove terms from your vocabulary such as “lost” or “gone” or “past away” when referring to death. Yes, this will be painful. It will be painful for the person suffering through it and it will painful for you to watch and listen to; but, it is necessary in order for healing to take place.
The verses from the Bible that I shared in part one of this series apply to dealing with those going through denial as well as depression. Support, encouragement, and community are vital to anyone walking through this process. Pray for them, walk with them, listen to them, and in all cases rely on the work of the Holy Spirit within them to provide the strength to face the reality of the death in their life.