This is the second of six blogs dealing with the concept of the "The Stages Of Grief." In this one we will be discussing denial.
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross identified denial as the first phase of grief that people experience when they are diagnosed with a terminal illness. This is very understandable. When your physician tells you that you are suffering from a condition that has no cure and that you are doing to die, it is normal to question the diagnosis. It is normal and natural to think that there might have been an error. A common first reaction to this type of news is to seek a second opinion, because we simply cannot believe it! The Yale study renamed this phase as “disbelief,” which is a better description of what these people are experiencing.
Does telling a griever that they are in denial help them on any level?
As was pointed out in the previous blog, telling people who are dealing with the grief of any other personal loss that they are “in denial” really serves no purpose. Certainly, when they are dealing with the death of someone they care for, it is hardly the case. After spending more than 40 years in funeral service, I can assure you that one of the first calls that is made, following a death, it to a funeral home. That is hardly denial! If you were not with the person when they died, or they were killed in an accident, you may suffer moments of disbelief on receiving the news, but this is not denial. That disbelief is simply a response to news that shocks you on some emotional level.
Telling people that they are in denial does nothing to help them deal with the emotional pain that they are experiencing. Hearing those words can be very confusing to the griever. The griever is dealing with something that truly hurts them emotionally. They are overwhelmed with feelings they have never experienced concerning this relationship. To be told that these feelings have anything to do with denial mislabels this experience for them and sends them the signal that these feelings are wrong on some level. Grief is normal and natural, but very scary, since it is something that can’t be controlled. To give people any sense that these feelings are wrong encourages them to bury those feelings, which is the first step to impeding their recovery. If anything, to tell people that they are in denial encourages them to deny their feelings.
Grief comes in lots of packages.
We experience grief with every major change in our lives. Grief is commonly associated with a death, but we also experience grief over many other things. Divorce, the end of a relationship, moving, graduation, the death of a pet, and job loss are but a few of the more than 40 different experiences in life that can lead to grief. One of the problems grievers face is that they are taught how to get things, but not how to deal with losing them. When we suggest on any level that they are in denial about their loss, they can feel that their emotional pain is being discounted and does not really matter. It is far better that they be encouraged to express the pain in their heart.
What we say to grievers and what they hear are two different things.
Grievers often hear their friends tell them that they “need to be strong,” to get through this experience. What the griever takes from this is that they need to hide their feelings on some level. It is not that their friends necessarily mean for them to do this. They are simply passing on the same useless information that they heard when they were dealing with a personal loss in their lives. The problem is that hearing these words encourages grievers to stuff their feelings.
As professionals, we just want to help them!
Sadly, most grievers do not talk to a grief professional until long after they have experienced their grief causing event.
No caregiver ever intentionally wishes to hurt a griever. Our goal is to help them through this confusing and painful experience. If, somewhere in our education, we were told that all grievers must go through “the stages of grief,” no matter the loss, it is vitally important that we remember that the source of this information, Kübler-Ross’s book “On Death and Dying”, dealt with the phases of grief experienced by those diagnosed with a terminal illness. It was not about the other grief experiences in our lives.
If anything, as caring professionals, we might be concerned that our clients are “denying” the level to which this loss has emotionally impacted them. The problem happens when a griever hears you use this term and how they internalize it. Keep in mind that they may have heard well-meaning friends tell them they were in denial long before they spoke with you. Given that they have heard others use this term in that different context, they may miss the important distinction between the two uses. It would be far more helpful to avoid this term, which can lead to confusion on their part, and simply encourage them to put voice to their emotional pain.
The lack of proper information is a major problem for grievers.
Long before a griever speaks with anyone on a professional level about the pain in their heart, they have received endless, and often useless, advice from friends and family. Many of those people have heard about the stages of grief. Since these friends do not understand where and how these stages were first defined, related to the grief of someone diagnosed with a terminal illness, they do not realize that applying them for every loss is not helpful to the griever. They simply know that in the stages of grief, denial is the first stop. As a result, this is what they have told the griever.
Grievers really could care less about these stages, until someone told them that they must go through them. They know that they are hurting and just want to feel better.
Rather than telling them that they must go through these arbitrary steps, which may have no relationship to their particular loss, it makes far more sense to offer them the opportunity to express their feelings without analysis, criticism, or judgment. Most of their well-intentioned friends and family have already given them enough of this when they tried to express these feelings before. Having listened to them put voice to their pain, offering them the option of taking action to move through and beyond where they are with those feeling is exactly what they are seeking. The Grief Recovery Method is a step-by-step process for doing just that.
Telling a griever that he or she is in denial does not help. If anything, this tells them that they are powerless. Showing them that there is a path to recovery gives them hope for a better tomorrow, rather than denying it.