What You Need To Know About Grief: First-Denial


Stage One of Grief is Denial

Denial is a Buffer We Need

“Denial functions as a buffer after unexpected, shocking news and allows the patient to collect himself, and with time, mobilize other, less radical defenses,” according to Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ ground-breaking work, On Death and Dying. Denial is a defense mechanism to give you a chance to understand and take in the news.  During this buffer time, we think about the times we shared with a loved one and think about how we will move forward in a world that doesn’t include them.  The buffer slows this process down a little. 

What You Need To Know About Grief: First-Denial

We’ve all seen it on TV or experienced it in real life.  The news delivered of sudden death and the first thing the recipient of the information experiences is denial, “No, no.  It can’t be true.  I just saw him last week.” But of course, it can be true, and sometimes it happens that way.  During these times of COVID, death can happen unexpectedly, especially now.

The strange part of processing grief is when one knows someone is at the end of their life, yet you are still shocked. “What!” You exclaim. “My mother was only 86!” Even with the facts staring us in the face, it’s often difficult to accept the reality of the situation.

Grieving Comes in Many Forms

This first stage of grief applies to dying patients as in her study, and certainly among the surviving family and friends.  However, there are many other losses we all go through that also fit this pattern.  For example, the loss of an older person’s independence when they first learn they are moving in with their children. Or, when we are first diagnosed with a life-changing illness, such as diabetes. The length we experience the stage will vary based on the perceived loss.

In Kubler-Ross’s research study, they offered a new perspective on the terminally ill by interviewing over 200 dying patients and their attitudes about the final stages of life.  This work has gone on to define the dying experience and what defines the path of grief.  This path is not straight, but one that can take detours, round-a-bouts, and u-turns.  We all traverse this path in our way.  But the five points along the route are often seen in the grieving pattern, which Kubler Ross identified as the Five Stages of Grief.

Isolation occurs when a person needs to support the denial yet does not know if others will support this view.  When challenged, they isolate and cling to their worldview as long as it serves them.

Denial as a defense is temporary. Usually, this is replaced by partial acceptance.  However, the need for denial seems to exist in every patient (or grieving individual) at times.  More often at the beginning of a severe illness or grieving period rather than later.  Later, the need for denial can come and go, and a few will hang on to denial as long as possible.

Denial is Temporary, and We all Have to Go Through It

This denial is as true for the person who is told about a diagnosis right away and seems to accept it, as it is for the person who shops around for a second opinion, hoping to get a different outcome.  True, one person may have moved through this stage faster; however, denial, or at least partial, seems to be one stage that we all have to go through.  Some people revisit the welcoming island of denial.  After facing death or grief non-stop, sometimes people need to take a break and head back into denial.

It’s our body’s way of taking a step back to let reality sink in. It’s a buffer after the unexpected, shocking news or event that allows you to collect yourself.  Then you can mobilize other defenses (like the other Stages of Grief).

Your first reaction to a death, or if you are the patient, the bad news, may be a temporary state of shock from which you recuperate gradually.  When the feeling of numbness begins to disappear, you can collect yourself again, and you will slowly drop the denial and use less radical defense mechanisms.

We seek isolation to further our denial.

What Can You do to Work through This Stage of Grief?

The first stage of grief: Denial, happens to our bodies for self-protection.  As stated above, it’s a buffer in place until we can begin to rely on other measures.  Be patient with yourself and try to be in the moment.  Awareness of your circumstances will come. 

When the initial state of numbness begins to disappear, people start to use other defense mechanisms.  This is what begins stage two of the five stages.

If you would like to receive more information on processing the impending death of a loved one, please contact the Bluebird Hospice program. The program helps both the patient and family prepare for the ending stage of life. Both Social workers and Chaplains help counsel the bereaved. The Full Circle After Care Program assists families with details after the death of a loved one.

Next week we will examine the Second Stage of Grief.

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