What Happens During the Denial Stage of Grief? Meaning + Examples

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You’ve just heard the devastating news of your family member’s death. You don’t want to believe it and it doesn’t even feel real. Suddenly you feel caught in a tangle of emotions and everything else seems unimportant. You feel lost, bewildered, and want to curl up in a ball.

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If you recall any kind of major loss in your life, this reaction probably seems familiar. Reality seems fuzzy and hard to accept, even if the truth is obvious. And if you linger in denial for too long, you might find it hard to move forward and cope. 

Denial is a normal part of grief, but its benefits can easily be overlooked or misunderstood. In this guide, you’ll learn more about the denial stage of grief, how it can help you, and some tips for moving through it if you feel stuck. 

What’s the Denial Stage of Grief?

Denial and shock are common first reactions to a death or other significant loss. While it may seem like denial would make it more difficult to accept reality, it can protect you in the early moments of coping with loss. However, if some form of denial goes on for too long, your overall grief process can become a long-term struggle. 

Emotion is a mental and physical experience, and deep loss is often more than people can handle right away. The initial shock puts you in a temporary cocoon, shielding you from the brunt of the pain. As the fuzziness slowly fades and your senses awaken, you’ll gradually comprehend how the loss has affected you. You also have a chance to pull in your support as you learn to cope. 

What Are Some Examples of the Denial Stage of Grief? 

The following scenarios show how different forms of denial can look. No matter how it works for each person, denial is a normal part of the grief process.

Confusion or numbness

Mark dies in a plane crash with no survivors, and his wife, Maggie, struggles with denial after hearing the news.

She walks around in a fog, mindlessly doing her daily routine as if things are normal. She thinks she had a bad dream about his trip and that she’ll see him back at home in a few days. 

Avoiding emotional pain

Sarah doesn’t let too many things faze her, a trait her father admires. After her father passes from a long battle with cancer, Sarah throws herself into funeral details. She prefers to stay busy and leaves little time for emotions or sentimental thoughts. 

Believing the loss was a mistake

Jason feels like he finally has some security in his life, especially with his recent promotion at work. When Jason’s boss surprises him and his team with layoff notices, he believes it must be a mistake.

The company hit hard times financially this year, but things have been getting better. Jason thinks that in a few weeks, his boss will realize the mistake and call about coming back to work.

Tips For Getting Through the Denial Stage of Grief If You’re Stuck

These tips can help you learn more about how you experience denial, how to embrace it, and how to move through it when it’s time.

1. Facing emotional pain is a necessary part of grief

Nobody enjoys facing overwhelming emotional pain. It’s messy and can make you feel vulnerable. Denial can be a short-term buffer as you cope with a significant loss. But at some point, your emotions will be hanging out waiting for you. Facing your emotional pain can feel scary, so the instinct to push it away is normal. 

If you know it’s time to deal with your emotions, think about how you usually cope with stress and loss. 

  • Do you sometimes cope with loss in unhealthy ways like using substances or overworking yourself? Spend time with a trusted friend or family when you feel like running away from your emotions. 
  • Use other positive coping methods like taking walks, writing in a journal, or listening to music. These activities may trigger some emotions, but can also be a soothing or cathartic way to let them go.
  • Remember that feelings often come in waves and don’t stick around forever. Pain can sometimes feel intense and unrelenting, but it eventually softens.

2. Get emotional support and reach out often  

Grief can be an isolating experience, and it’s tempting to keep to yourself when you’re overwhelmed. Maybe you don’t want to overburden someone or perhaps you aren’t even sure what you need. So instead of getting ongoing support and care from others, you may feel stuck and alone.

Resist the urge to go into your cave and tell someone you need support. Reach out to someone you trust so you can feel relaxed and safe as you let down your guard. Coping with grief can be a difficult and vulnerable experience, so don’t go it alone. We humans are meant to connect with one another, especially when we suffer through loss. No matter how independent you may be, allow yourself to connect during this process to make it easier on yourself.

3. Avoid putting pressure on yourself to heal or recover from grief

Grief often lasts longer than people want to believe. It’s painful and emotional, so it’s tempting to believe that you should try to heal or recover quickly, or even skip over it. This belief can make you feel like you’re broken or “less than” if your emotions affect you. But grief isn’t a disease or a disorder. It’s simply a normal human experience with a lot of change, much like other life-changing events you have been through. 

You’ll always carry the impact of the loss with you and it may take a while to feel like you’ve returned to some kind of normalcy. And even then, you may still find yourself coping with moments of grief and pain over time. The most intense effects of grief often happen early in the process, but the impact of grief can last years.

4. It may feel hard now, but it will get easier 

You may not believe it at first, but it will get easier to cope with your grief. One morning you’ll wake up and your loss will seem just a bit more normal. You won’t be as surprised and you’ll start to understand how it affects your daily life. At some point, you’ll be able to live more comfortably with the knot of pain that represents your loss. 

After some time has passed and you’ve found ways to honor or recognize your loss, the emotional intensity will soften. The uncomfortable emotional bumps in the road will become less frequent. You may always feel the sting of separation in some way, but eventually, you’ll understand how to live with those moments and carry on.

5. Get a fresh perspective on your grief   

People often spend a lot of time and energy resisting change, and that’s human nature. We are creatures of comfort and habit, and sometimes we avoid what we need because it makes us uncomfortable. But staying in denial doesn’t change anything about your situation. Your loss is real no matter how much you want to look away. You might trick your mind for a while, but it doesn’t reverse your loss. 

If you feel like you’ve stayed in denial for too long, you may need a shift in mindset to help you open up. Find a therapist or counselor, or consider reading some books on grief to spark a fresh perspective.

6. Understand how short-term denial can be helpful  

When you have to face a major change like death or the loss of a job, it’s easy and natural to deny it at first. Change takes work and can be painful, so denial can feel like a safe harbor in the beginning. This is completely normal and the temporary resistance can help you absorb the change slowly. But it’s meant to be a temporary part of the process, not a long-term landing spot.

Take it slow and don’t worry about feeling out of it or confused for a while. You may feel like you can face things one moment but fall back into a fog for a while. You might find yourself yearning for that safe harbor sometimes, even after you’ve been living with the loss for some time. That’s normal, so just stay honest with yourself and see it as a temporary resting spot.

Denial and Grief — Facing Your Loss and Moving forward

If you keep yourself tucked into a bubble of denial for a long time, your grief will still wait for you. Pushing off reality doesn’t help you skip past the pain. However, short-term denial can help you from feeling completely overwhelmed at first.

Just remember that you’ll learn to live with your loss when you face it, and that long-term denial can make grieving more difficult over time. Reach out to others and consider working with a counseling professional if you need more help moving forward with your grief.     


Sources

  1. “Stages of Grief.” University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Student Affairs, sa.uncg.edu/dean/wp-content/uploads/Stages-of-Grief.pdf
  2. Stanaway, Caitlin, Psy.D. “The Stages of Grief: Accepting the Unacceptable.” University of Washington Counseling Center, June 8, 2020, www.washington.edu/counseling/2020/06/08/the-stages-of-grief-accepting-the-unacceptable/

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