Good Grieving Part 2: Denial

Good Grieving Part 2 by Jay Feld“Good grieving” is the process of responding and adjusting to change and loss while learning how to keep your heart open to hope. The “good” in “good grieving” is not about “good vs. bad,” but about “more healthy vs. less healthy.” There is certainly a wide range of healthy responses to change and loss and learning the practice of “good grieving” helps us move into the “more healthy” zone.

In her 1969 book On Death and Dying, Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross identified five stages that terminally-ill people typically pass through in the course of coming to terms with their mortality:

  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Depression
  • Acceptance

Following Dr. Kübler-Ross, others have adapted the idea of “stages of grieving,” and made it useful for understanding the progress of our journey through many different types of loss.

The first stage, denial, is the natural mechanism of our mind/body that protects us from being overwhelmed by change or loss. Denial works by putting us into survival mode by depressing or shutting down other internal processes that we can afford to put on hold. We hear ourselves saying things like:

  • “I don’t believe it.”
  • “This can’t be true.”
  • “This isn’t happening.”
  • “This can’t be happening to me.”

When a loss or trauma is too painful for our conscious mind to absorb, we might transfer the pain to another part of our mind/body and deny the reality of the loss in some way. This protective mechanism of denial helps us maintain our sanity, and allows us to attend to urgent matters like funeral arrangements or childcare. (In its extreme and sometimes long-lasting form, denial can become dissociation, in which some parts of our personality are split off from our conscious mind. If the denial and splitting go on for too long, our ability to re-enter the flow of life can become seriously impaired.)

Some of us grew up in environments which discouraged the expression of grieving. Men have often been at a disadvantage (relative to women) with respect to not having cultural permission to express grief — how often have we heard (or said), “Boys don’t cry”?

Sometimes we use denial to maintain a certain appearance — to others or even to ourselves — that we are “mature,” “spiritual,” “together,” “unflappable” or “okay,” and this over-concern for appearances might keep us from grieving well.

Denial can become harmful:

  • If it leads to avoidance, withdrawal or isolation.
  • If fantasy or “magical thinking” becomes habitual.
  • When it contributes to poor problem-solving and decision-making.
  • When it prevents us from taking appropriate and timely actions.

Since the effects of denial can be subtle and can sneak up on us, we need trusted and capable people around us whom we can rely upon to interpret reality for us, and sometimes we need professional help in breaking through the barrier of denial. If you’re feeling stuck in denial and need some extra help, please reach out to me and we can break through this barrier together.

Jay R. Feld HeadshotDr. Jay R. Feld
Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
(917) 572-4068

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