We all process loss differently. There are five stages of grief, but we work through them at different paces, in different orders, and experience them in different intensities. Losing a loved one can create an intense wave of emotions that often feel overwhelming. Losing a spouse, parent, child or sibling can be devastating. We find ourselves barraged with thoughtful sympathy gifs and touching condolence notes but still struggle through accepting and processing the emotions surrounding our loss.
Bereavement gifts and sympathy notes are touching, but they don’t erase our pain. We often work through our grief, but what happens when that pain becomes too much? How do our bodies respond when grief and loss are too powerful? Sometimes, in response to a loss, we use denial as a coping mechanism.
Denial and Disbelief After a Loss
Denial is one of the five stages of grief, which means that it is completely normal for you to experience it after losing someone important to you. In fact, it’s one of the first reactions that we normally have.
Our initial reaction after a loss is to avoid the reality of loss. We don’t want to believe that our loved one or friend is gone so our mind blocks out the reality of that idea. After getting a phone call that a parent passed away peacefully in their sleep or that our child was involved in a car accident and didn’t make it, our first instinct is to deny it. We repeatedly scream “No, no, no,” and deny the reality of it. The only thought in our minds is that is not possible, that they couldn’t be dead. This feeling can actually consume our thoughts.
Over time, most of us learn to accept the loss and leave the denial phase for the anger, bargaining, depression or acceptance phase. Most of the time we don’t realize that we’ve left the denial phase, but the subtle changes take place and eventually we’ve worked through our emotions. It takes time, a lot of long days and hard reflection, but most of us are able to process our grief and accept the death. That doesn’t mean we aren’t impacted by it, it just means that we come to terms with the loss and find peace with it.
Unfortunately for some people, this process is not easy. Some of us use denial as a coping mechanism. We receive gifts for a grieving family member and want to throw them right out because accepting the gift means accepting the death. By blocking the impact of the loss, we are offered temporary respite and keeps us from having to grasp the ramifications of the harsh reality that our loved one is gone.
Getting Stuck in the Denial Phase
While it’s normal for us to experience denial after a loss, getting stuck in the denial phase can have negative ramifications. If you are using denial purposely to avoid the reality of your loved one’s death or to shove of the mounting emotions, this is not healthy.
There are some warning signs that show you are stuck in the denial and disbelief phase. Continuing to speak in the present tense when referring to a deceased loved one or refusing to believe they are dead is one example. Sometimes we pretend that the deceased person is away on a trip or even downplay the nature of our relationship with them. Thinking they weren’t that close of a friend helps us tamper and distance ourselves from the true emotions we are feeling.
Another sign that you’re stuck in the denial phase, is disposing of everything the deceased own so that there is no sign of them or refusing to speak their name. Alternatively, in other situations, people leave clothes and personal items of the deceased in exactly the same place for months. We can even lash out if someone displaces or tries to throw them out because our loved one might still need them. These are not rational thoughts, but denial is a strong coping mechanism that some people turn to.
If you are exhibiting any of these behaviors, turning to drugs or alcohol to block out the pain, or are staying so busy to run away from your emotions, it’s time to take active steps to process your grief. Unchecked, grief can consume you. Even if you’re deadest on denying the loss of a loved one, insomnia, anxiety, fatigue and even chronic depression can result if you don’t process your grief.
Coping with Denial
It is not healthy to stay trapped in the denial phase. While it protects us from the intense emotions that surface after the loss of a loved one, it is important to let ourselves feel and process grief. Fortunately, there are many different ways to cope with denial and actively work through it.
It’s important to note that denial serves an important function in our bereavement process. In the beginning, denial protects use from intense pain as our brain processes the loss and the impact it has on us. With that being said, it’s important to remember that denial plays a role is our grief process. Our main goal should be acknowledging the loss and accepting that our loved one has passed.
We should also let ourselves feel. Don’t dismiss your feelings or play everything off as if you’re okay. If you are hurting, don’t pretend that everything is okay. Be honest about how you are feeling with yourself and your loved ones. Own up to your true pain and allow yourself to feel the emotions that surface after a loss. This is not an enjoyable experience, but it’s important when working towards acceptance.
After a loss, it’s important to talk about it. Talk about the person, and use words like died and dead. This seems harsh, but it can help our body understand that our loved one is gone more than when we use words like passed away or moved on. Using concrete terms brings the reality to the forefront.
Confronting the loss is also important for moving out of the denial phase. View their body, visit their grave, look at old photographs, and think back on memories. Most importantly, let others see your sorrow and participate as well. You never know when seeing your pain will help someone else out of denial.
It’s important to remember that grief is a powerful emotion. It easily has the ability to take hold of us and consume our thoughts and emotions. This emanates differently for each of us. If you find yourself stuck in the denial phase, face it head-on. Only when you’ve allowed yourself to truly feel can you work towards acceptance.