Coping with Disbelief and Denial in Grief

We are often faced with “disbelieving aftershocks” in the aftermath of the loss of a child. The gradual process of wrapping one’s head around the idea of loss can take weeks, months or even years to fully absorb. Each time a momentary lapse in memory occurs, and one actually forgets what has happened, the brutal reality comes back, and the permanency of death is once again realized.  Denial  is an attempt to defend against this reality, a temporary respite from overwhelming feelings. On one hand is the realization that death is permanent, yet on the other it is too difficult to grasp the unwelcome reality.

Denial is a problem only if it keeps us from avoiding the reality of death or if it is an escape from the emotions resulting from a loss. Please consider talking to a counselor or a friend or contacting COPE if you:

  • Continue to speak of your loved one in the present tense
  • Refuse to believe your loved one had died
  • Pretend your loved one is away on a trip
  • Dispose of anything and everything that serves as a reminder of the deceased
  • Neither talk of the deceased nor speak your loved one’s name
  • Downplay your relationship with the deceased
  • Stay so busy with work or travel that you are running away from your grief.
  • Resort to drugs, alcohol to block out the pain of loss

Suggestions for Coping with Denial:

  • Understand that denial serves a normal function, especially in the beginning. It is your mind’s way of protecting you from more pain. Besides, your brain doesn’t “get it” because it is loaded with memories of your loved one. Although the person has died, the one you love continues to exist in you memory and in the memory of others.
  • Your goal is to acknowledge the truth and accept the reality that your loved one is dead
  • Denial must be dissolved eventually, but there’s no specific time frame. It becomes a concern only if it interferes with your ability to function normally.
  • Don’t pretend that things are all right when they are not. Be honest with yourself and others. Distractions may keep you occupied but don’t help you move toward resolution.
  • Face up to the truth of your pain; open up the protective shell you’ve built around yourself
  • Take a hard look at what is gone and what remains. Take stock, count, recite and recount what’s been lost.
  • Let others (especially children) see your tears and participate in your sorrow; it lets them know how much you care and assures them that it’s alright to feel sadness when you lose someone you love

Michelle Graff, LCSW
COPE Foundation Clinical Director
(p) 516-274-0540
(e) michelle@copefoundation.org