Dealing with the loss of a loved one can sometimes feel surreal. It’s especially true when the person that’s dying is young or otherwise in good health. Denial is a typical response to death and dying. It can be a strong motivator to keep going in the face of tragedy when no one wants to talk about a death that’s looming.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- How to Help Someone in Denial About the Impending Death of a Loved One
- How to Help Someone in Denial After the Death of a Loved One
- What You Can Do One Year+ After the Sudden Death of Your Spouse
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross introduced denial as a normal response to death and dying in her book, On Death and Dying. Through her book, she’s helped countless people suffering the death of a loved one come to terms with the dying process and coping with their loss.
How to Help Someone in Denial About the Impending Death of a Loved One
Profound denial can be a complex challenge for anyone dealing with the impending death of someone they love and care for. When the end becomes apparent, it can be difficult to accept that they’re dying.
Many things will need to be discussed and put into place as a loved one faces death. Some people may be so fixated on denying what’s happening that it stands in their way of ensuring all the proper next steps are taken. The following are ways to help someone who’s in denial:
1. Explain what’s happening
Sometimes it seems as if your words are falling on the ears of someone who simply doesn’t want to know the truth. Being straightforward in explaining what’s happening is essential. Begin the conversation by asking questions to determine how much they know about what’s going on with their loved one.
Don’t be surprised to hear that they don’t know their loved one’s dying. And at the same time, don’t be surprised if they already know. In either case, this is a crucial conversation to ensure that they understand that their loved one’s time is coming to an end.
2. Encourage discussion
Knowing how to talk about death begins with finding an appropriate time to have this conversation. Allow others to speak without interruption and let them tell you about their fears. Always ask what’s on their mind and seek permission to probe more into their thoughts and feelings without forcing the conversation.
Over time, these conversations may become more comfortable to have. When giving a lot of information, take it as slow as possible so as not to create anxiety or overwhelm. Allow for the information to sink in before asking if they want to know more.
3. Offer support
Helping someone who’s in denial also includes offering your support wherever needed. Consider purchasing books to read on talking to someone about a loved one’s death to help you have these conversations. Reading about how and what to say will help make it easier to open up dialogue.
You can also support someone whose loved one is dying by talking to them about putting their own end-of-life planning documents in order. This planning type includes having advance directives in place, an updated will, and making funeral arrangements. Ask if there’s anything you can do to help with this process.
4. Listen to nonverbal cues
Death and dying affect everyone differently. Grief reactions can manifest in many ways that may not seem immediately recognizable. For example, your loved one may act out in ways that demonstrate anger, frustration, and sometimes even aggression. Many times these outright displays of emotion may be out of character for them.
Know and understand that how someone reacts to this type of news isn’t always rational or logical. Sometimes people say and do things that may seem aggressive or hurtful but are nothing more than an expression of their grief. Pay close attention to what they’re trying to tell you by how they’re reacting to the news and not necessarily to the things they’re saying or doing.
How to Help Someone in Denial After the Death of a Loved One
Losing someone you love and care about can be physically and emotionally trying. Denying their death is a way to help you cope with your grief and loss and is a normal part of the grieving process.
Often people won’t acknowledge that their loved one has died to protect themselves from the overwhelming grief of their loss. You can help someone who’s in denial after the death of a loved one in the following ways:
5. Allow time to mourn
After suffering a loved one’s death, a person will experience different stages of grief. One of these stages involves denial. Denial is sometimes useful as a coping mechanism. It allows you the needed time to process what’s happened at your own pace so that you don’t become overwhelmed with grief.
You can help someone who’s in denial by giving them the time necessary to come to terms with their loss. The time it takes will always be different for everyone. Listen to the hidden cues that they’re ready to accept the death of their loved one. One of the ways you’ll know is that they’ll want to talk more about what’s happened, or they’ll start asking questions and probing for more information.
6. Talk about what’s next
Many people don’t know what comes next after the death of a loved one. They may be trying to get over the initial shock and disbelief and may remain in the denial stage for days or weeks following the death. To help someone going through this, try to guide them in what comes next.
Maybe they didn’t make any pre-need funeral arrangements or don’t know who to call to advise of their loved one’s death. Regardless of how uncomfortable it is to have these conversations, talk to them about what needs to be done now that their loved one has died.
7. Help them cope
Making sense of their loss can be difficult for many people, especially if they’re in denial about their loved one’s death.
Denial is not always a bad thing in the early stages of mourning. It can help someone cope with their loss, shield them from overwhelming feelings and emotions, and work against anxiety and depression. Helping someone cope with the death of a loved one can be challenging.
Sometimes the best thing that you can do is listen to them and try and help them with day-to-day tasks wherever possible.
What You Can Do One Year+ After the Sudden Death of Your Spouse
Time has a way of sorting things out. In the beginning, shortly after losing your spouse to sudden death, it may have seemed impossible to survive through your loss. Now that a few months have passed, you may just now be getting to a place where you’re able to think more clearly.
Accepting your spouse’s sudden death may still be a difficult thing to do. Here are some ways which might help you as you cope with your loss.
8. Understand denial’s function
Denial of your spouse’s death is a very normal part of the grieving process. It can help you get through the death of your loved one, especially in the early stages of grief. Denial is a way for you to protect yourself from experiencing even more pain than what you may be prepared to handle.
Denial doesn’t always mean that you don’t or won’t accept your spouse’s loss. In your mind, your spouse is still very real and very much alive in your memories and the love you feel for them. Give it some time. It may take several months for you to come to terms with their death.
9. Don’t pretend that everything’s alright
Open up to people you love and trust and tell them what you’re experiencing and going through. Try not to place too much pressure on yourself to get through your grief just because a year or more has passed since your spouse’s death.
The grieving process may take several months to several years for you to get through. The goal should be to work through your grief at your own pace, not pretend that it isn’t happening. You don’t need to believe that everything’s okay when it’s not. In time you’ll come to acknowledge your loss and accept the reality that your spouse has died.
10. Seek outside help
Losing a spouse is not only emotionally traumatic. It can affect you in many other areas of your life that may not have been apparent at the time of their death. By this time, sufficient time has passed to experience losses in other areas of your life affected by your spouse’s death.
With your spouse’s loss comes the loss of their love and companionship and the loss of their emotional and financial support. You may have noticed that the friends you shared as a couple may have grown distant. Invitations from those in your social circle may have dried up.
All of these changes in your life can have a significant effect on your well-being. Consider getting grief counseling to help you sort through these changes in your life.
Denial is a Way of Dealing With Grief
Denial of your loved one’s death can create a safe space for you to transition through your grief.
In time, it’ll become easier to face the reality that your loved one has died, and you’ll get the opportunity to gain closure. In the meantime, face the truth of your loss, deal with the pain as best you can, and focus on healing from your grief.
- Kübler-Ross, E. (1970). On death and dying. Collier Books/Macmillan Publishing Co.