Common Expressions and Experiences of Grief: Denial

When we think of denial, we think about choosing to not believe something that it true. Denial is seen as purposeful ignoring of reality. Although some people do choose to ignore facts and reality, it is more common that we deny something without realizing that we are doing it. This is particularly true when it comes to grieving. Denial in grief is less about refusing to believe what is real, and more about temporarily taking our focus off of our loss in order to go about our daily lives without falling apart.

A very common form of grief-based denial comes after learning about the sudden or tragic death of a loved one. People in this situation may make statements such as, “It can’t be true, I just saw him an hour ago and he was fine,” or “this isn’t real, she can’t be gone.” In these moments, reality has changed so quickly (one minute your loved one is alive and the next minute they are not), that it can be difficult for our brains and our bodies to keep up.
Another common form of denial related to grief is dissociation. Dissociation is our brain and body’s way of protecting us when the things that are happening to us are too much to handle at the point in time. Dissociation often looks like:

-Brain fog, or feeling like you can’t think clearly
-Not being able to speak or form sentences
-Feeling as if what is happening around you is a dream or not real
-Feeling as if you are not in control of what you say or do
-Feeling as if your body has “split” and you are watching what is happening to you, rather than feeling like you are directly experiencing it.
-Feeling totally numb physically and/or emotionally

Dissociation is not an active form of denial. We are not choosing to dissociate, rather our brains and bodies are causing the dissociation in order to decrease the intensity of the pain that comes with our loss. When we think about it, this is a very smart way that our brains and bodies take care of us. They want us to feel only as much as we can handle.

Another common form of grief-based denial is avoidance of thinking about our loss by staying distracted and busy. This can look like intensely diving into our jobs and careers, planning events or social gatherings for every weekend, always having music or the television on, excessive use of drugs or alcohol, and very commonly, refusing to talk about our loss. As has been mentioned above, denial is used because sitting with out grief and pain feels like too much at times.

Is denying our loss wrong? The answer is no. It is not wrong to deny our loss. It is a very normal response, and a very smart way that we try to keep ourselves from becoming totally overwhelmed by our grief. However, we need to find a balance. To find healing after loss, we need to be willing to face the reality of that loss, but we don’t need to feel it all at once.

Recognizing the signs that you may be in denial is the first step. The second step is to have compassion for yourself by saying, “It makes sense that I am trying to deny this loss. This loss is incredibly painful, and I know that I am just trying to survive. It is okay to give myself time to be distracted or to not think about this loss.” Finally, the third step is to find small ways that you can begin to feel the reality of your loss. If you remember your loss and feel the need to cry and breakdown, give yourself permission to do that, knowing that after you have released your tears and pain, you are free to do something that helps you forget for a little bit. Invite others that you trust to sit with you in those moments of pain, so that you don’t have to be alone. Trust that the tears will end because they always do. And finally, if you feel like you can’t sit with your pain without falling apart, seek professional help from someone like a pastor, a mentor, or a counselor. One final note on denying our losses is that not everyone experiences denial, but if you do, just know that it is a very normal response.

Look out for next week’s grief blog: Common Expressions and Experiences of Grief: Anger.

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