Monday, February 13, 2017

In Grief: Using Denial to Cope with Loss

[Reviewed and updated March 6, 2022]

Denial helps us to pace our feelings of grief. There is a grace in denial. It is nature's way of letting in only as much as we can handle. ~ Elisabeth Kübler-Ross

A reader writes: I feel extremely depressed. My father, who is my best friend and closest person to me, passed away. Ever since I was little, I was always afraid he'd be taken away from me; he and I were very close, and he was the best father any person could ask for. He's the type of father who'd drive you around town for hours when you needed some last minute item for your school project that's due the next day. He's the type of father who will buy your favorite foods and secretly put it in your fridge. He's the type of father who will drop everything to listen when you're having a problem. We hugged each other every day, and I always told him I loved him. Why did this happen? I must be such a horrible person to be punished in this way.

I had family members come over, telling me to stop crying and that "time will heal." Of course, these are the family members who haven't really lost anyone close. They say I need to accept this. Stop crying, stop crying, stop crying.

People who tell me to get over it have no idea how important he is to me. If I'm not crying, I'm making circles around the house like a zombie. I saw two counselors (I am a very open person about my feelings, so I looked forward to it), but they gave me clichés (he's in your heart; time will heal) and gave me meds without really listening to me (one of them was busy typing on his computer as I talked). I will try others later because I know finding a counselor that fits you is a process unto itself, but right now my mom and I are just talking about him 24/7 without going out except to buy food.

For as long as I can remember I've really enjoyed buying my dad Christmas presents every year. It was a fun challenge because my dad's really hard to shop for. I didn't just buy one or two; I bought him up to six presents every year. I just loved the look on his face as he opened up the presents. I didn't even care about what I was getting. The best part of Christmas was the look on his face.

I still bought him gifts this year. He left us only a few weeks ago, and it just seems wrong not to get him something. He was so looking forward to Christmas with the family. He really wanted to get out of the hospital for the holidays.

Does anyone else do this? I know it must seem very strange. Mom and I put the wrapped gifts on his side of the night table. We aren't celebrating Christmas this year except for this. It's too painful. We expect a miracle to happen. Like God will have mercy on us, turn back time, and bring him back, and mom and I will be better people, having learned the all-important lesson that family is #1, not petty problems. I put the presents there in case He might have mercy on me. I just want to see Dad open his presents.

My response: My dear, you asked, “Does anyone else do this?” Whether others “do this” or not, I want to say a few words to you and your mother that may help you to understand why you are doing this.

It seems to me that buying Christmas presents for your father and “expecting a miracle to happen” are ways that you and your mother are handling the completely unacceptable fact that your father has died. When we are faced with a stressor we cannot change, such as the death of a loved one, denial or avoidance can be a highly adaptive strategy. It isn’t that you really don’t know that your father has died – after all, you wouldn’t be writing to me if you didn’t know that this death has happened. Rather, what’s happening now is that this is so big that you simply cannot let yourself believe it, because your mind cannot fully process it yet.

In grief, denial is an important protective mechanism that helps us to manage our feelings and to give us moments away from our pain. It helps us to cope and to hold onto the belief that we will survive. It enables us to pace ourselves, letting in only as much as we can handle, just a little bit at a time. Letting this in all at once would overwhelm us emotionally.

Denial serves a useful function, especially in the beginning. It is your mind’s way of protecting you from more pain. Your brain doesn’t “get it” because it is loaded with memories of your father. Although your father has died, he continues to exist in your memory and in the memory of others.

Denial is a problem only to the extent that it interferes with your ability to function, and only if it proves to be harmful to you or to other people. If it is used deliberately over a long period of time to avoid the reality of death or to escape the emotions resulting from a loss, it can manifest itself as insomnia, fatigue or chronic depression.

What usually happens is that, as denial continues to fade, the reality of this loss begins slowly to sink in, and all the feelings you’ve been denying or avoiding eventually will start bubbling to the surface. Gradually you begin to search for understanding, which is indicated in your questioning why this death happened.

I think you will continue to hold onto your denial until you don't need it anymore, or until it stops working for you ~ that is, until the reality of your father's physical absence from your life becomes so strong that you won't be able to deny his death any longer. How long that will take is completely up to you. Think of it this way: Right now, denial is for you sort of like a crutch. If your leg were broken, you would need crutches to help you get around, at least until your bones healed and your leg grew strong enough for you to walk without them. In fact, the time would come when you would want to get rid of the crutches, because eventually they would become a hindrance to your walking normally, rather than a help ~ and you wouldn't want to become so dependent upon them that you could never walk normally again without them. In other words, the time comes when you feel quite motivated to get rid of those crutches ~ especially if you're also working hard in some sort of physical therapy to get yourself physically stronger in the meantime.

As you and your mother connect with the reality of your dad's death in the weeks and months ahead ~ however gradually ~ I encourage you both to take time to consider the following:

* Are you pretending that things are all right when they are not? Try to be more honest with yourselves and others.

* Do you keep busy with tasks unrelated to the death of your father? Distractions may keep you occupied but don't help you move toward resolution.

* Are you facing up to the truth of your pain? What would happen if you opened up the protective shell you've built around yourself?

* Have you taken a hard look at what is gone and what remains? Try taking stock, counting, reciting and recounting what's been lost.

* Can you face the fact of this death squarely, by naming it, spelling it out and talking it out? Try replacing delicate phrases such as left and gone away with more truthful terms like died and dead.

* 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. 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 father's clothing.

* Let others see your tears and participate in your sorrow. It shows them how much you care and assures them that it's all right to feel sadness when you lose someone you love.

Your goal is to acknowledge the truth of this death and to accommodate the reality that your father is dead. Your denial must be dissolved eventually, but there is no specific time frame. Be concerned only if it interferes with your ability to function normally, in which case it can be very helpful to meet with someone in person for individual grief counseling.

You say that you're already planning to find “a counselor that fits you” as soon as you can. Good for you. May I make a suggestion? Please make sure that the therapist or counselor you see is trained and experienced in working with grief. Not all mental health practitioners specialize in grief and loss, and it's important that you work with someone who understands the normal grief process. 

As grief expert Alan Wolfelt explains in his book Living In the Shadow of The Ghosts of Grief, you should feel free to ask about the counselor’s education, training and certification. Does he or she seem like someone you’d be able to work with effectively – someone who’d make you feel safe, respected and genuinely cared for? Dr. Wolfelt writes,
Finding a counselor or therapist who can help you with your grief takes some work, and then deciding if it is a good match takes even more. 
In selecting a therapist, you have the right to shop around and ask questions. To do this you may need to overcome some of the passivity that sometimes is part and parcel of carried pain. However, it is critical to convince yourself that you deserve a therapist or group experience that is best matched to your needs.

. . . A very wise person once said, "It is possible to listen a person's soul into existence." In my experience, effective grief counseling can be the soul's bridge back from living in the shadow of ghosts to living a life in the light. With this little bit of information and the desire to find the right match for yourself, counseling can be a vital ingredient of your own healing journey
(pp. 112‑114). 
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