Monday, June 10, 2013

Tips for Coping with Disbelief and Denial in Grief

[Reviewed and updated January 27, 2023]

Denial is only anxiety management. ~ Anonymous

Because it is a gradual process of weaning and disconnection, the shock that is felt after the death of a loved one may continue for weeks, months, or even years, in waves of disbelieving aftershocks. “Forgetting” that your loved one is gone, you may find yourself setting an extra place at the dinner table, expecting your beloved to walk in the door at the usual hour or to be on the other end of the line when the telephone rings. And each time it happens, you’re confronted once again with the brutal reality that your special person is forever gone.
Denial is understood as a defense against that brutal reality. It blunts the impact of the loss, offers you a temporary respite and allows you to process those overwhelming feelings more gradually. On one level you recognize that your loved one has died; on another level you’re unable to grasp all the ramifications of that harsh and unwelcome reality.

Denial is a problem only if it is used deliberately to avoid the reality of death or to escape the emotions resulting from a loss (which can manifest themselves as insomnia, fatigue, anxiety or chronic depression). You may be avoiding reality to one extent or another if you:
  • Continue to speak of your lost loved one in the present tense.
  • Refuse to believe your loved one has died.
  • Pretend the deceased is away on a trip.
  • Leave clothes and other personal articles exactly as they were for months after the death, and get very upset if anyone moves them.
  • Dispose of anything and everything that serves as a reminder of the deceased.
  • Neither talk of the deceased nor speak your loved one’s name.
  • Downplay your relationship with the deceased.
  • Stay so busy with work or travel that you are running away from your grief.
  • Resort to chemicals (drugs, alcohol, nicotine) to block out the pain of loss.
Suggestions for Coping with Denial
  • Understand that denial serves a normal function, especially in the beginning. It is your mind’s way of protecting you from more pain. Besides, your brain doesn’t “get it” because it is loaded with memories of your loved one. Although the person has died, the one you love continues to exist in your memory and in the memory of others.
  • Your goal is to acknowledge the truth and accept the reality that your loved one is dead.
  • Denial must be dissolved eventually, but there’s no specific time frame. It becomes a concern only if it interferes with your ability to function normally.
  • Don’t pretend that things are all right when they are not. Be honest with yourself and others. Distractions may keep you occupied but don’t help you move toward resolution.
  • Face up to the truth of your pain; open up the protective shell you’ve built around yourself.
  • Take a hard look at what is gone and what remains. Take stock, count, recite and recount what’s been lost.
  • Face the fact of the death squarely. Name it, spell it out and talk it out. Replace delicate words and phrases such as passed on and passed away with more truthful terms like died, dead and widowed.
  • Try some confrontations and experiences to jolt yourself out of your denial. Confront the reminders rather than avoiding them — both pleasurable and painful: people, places and situations. View your loved one’s body; visit the grave site; reread old letters; smell a favorite cologne; look at photographs; go to church; listen to songs; gather meaningful sayings and phrases; visit special places; wrap yourself in your loved one’s clothing.
  • Let others (especially children) see your tears and participate in your sorrow; it lets them know how much you care and assures them it’s all right to feel sadness when you lose someone you love.
Your feedback is welcome! Please feel free to leave a comment or a question, or share a tip, a related article or a resource of your own in the Comments section below.
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  1. Marty, you inspired me to write a post about memory overload in grief and how creating a legacy portrait can bring relief to both the bereaved and those who love them by helping friends and family members find the right words to help us process those "endlessly playing" memories. It can be found on my website, Best, NG

  2. Outstanding, Nancy! Thanks so much for sharing! ♥


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