The following series of posts outline the traditional “stages” of grief as presented in Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s On Death and Dying (1969). The stages are: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. This post addresses denial.
Please see my Grief 101 post called “The Five Stages of Grief” for a brief discussion of the five-stages.
The stage of denial is not one in which a bereaved person refuses to acknowledge the reality of loss. “Denial” refers more to a mechanism of (usually) healthy distance between the event and the bereaved person’s emotions. The shock of loss needs to be processed, and rather than process the meaning of the lifechanging event all at once, the brain slows down the impact of loss so the bereaved can cope. This allows the mind time to adjust to the new reality of post-loss life. Denial helps minimize the overwhelming pain that comes with loss, it does not seek to avoid recognizing the loss altogether. (If you do find that you cannot accept the loss at any point, and adjust proves difficult to impossible, please contact your healthcare provider for assistance.)
During denial, the bereaved may live with pleasant memories of the lost loved one and replay the story of loss repeatedly as a means of processing the reality of loss. At first, the bereaved may feel numb and have difficulty finding meaning in life. But, as they move forward into their grief, the bereaved will find that emotions held back by denial become stronger and more prominent in their emotional life. When this occurs, the bereaved can begin addressing post-loss changes and start to heal.
Although traditionally depicted as the first stage of grief, denial can happen anytime during the grief process. It has no time frame or expiration date, and thus can last as long as the bereaved needs.
In short, denial (no matter when it happens during grief) has an important job to do: it prevents the shock and sadness of loss from emotionally overloading the bereaved. In so doing, denial allows for adjustment to the new post-loss reality at a measured pace.