First Stage of Grief: Denial

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, in her ground-breaking book, On Death and Dying, presented the hypothesis that all of us, when faced with death, loss or some other terrible fate, experience a series of stages as a response. While the stages should be interpreted loosely, and individual responses may vary, the stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance provide a general framework to heighten our understanding of those experiencing grief.

In almost every model presented, the first stage of grief is often demonstrated through denial. It is usually used as a defense that a person builds to cope with extreme loss. “This cannot be happening to me.” It is usually quickly accompanied by “I feel fine – leave me alone.”

Denial is the refusal to accept the facts of the loss, either consciously or unconsciously. If dealing with death is personal, there is a refusal to take necessary steps to prepare for death, such as a will. If the grief is for someone else, the denial is prolonged by refusing to deal with the consequences of the death: visiting the gravesite, getting rid of personal belongings, or even filing necessary paperwork.

A Purpose in Denying: Time to Adjust

The feelings in this stage of denial often protect and help the individual from feeling too many emotions at one time. This stage gives the person a little time to adjust to the way things are now going to be. The person is likely to “relive” memories and pleasant times experienced with the departed loved one. They will soon begin to focus on the events surrounding the loss, replaying again and again the story. This is one of the best ways to make those events real.

If you are experiencing the grief yourself, the best thing you can do is allow yourself time. Understand that the purpose of denial is to protect yourself and shield the harshness of the loss. As time passes, you will adjust to your circumstances at your own pace.

A Plan to Encourage: Be Present

Are there things that you can do to assist someone in the denial stage? Here are three ideas to encourage the person to implement:

First, make sure that the person has a support network. Because the person is in denial, they may not have the perspective to build this on their own. With a group of friends, make sure that the grieving person is contacted daily. With your presence, you will assure your friend that they will not go through grief alone.

Second, listen to the stories about the departed loved one that will be told. The stories are actually not denial, but processing.

Finally, as you begin to talk, help the friend determine the things that are important in life. The immediate reaction may be to site the lost loved one. But by mentioning family, children, and others who are dependent, the friend will see a purpose beyond the departed. It is at this point that a religious person will begin to look for answers that are in line with their spiritual beliefs.

As a person begins to wrestle with how and why the loss happened, they are beginning to move from the denial stage and are mostly likely to experience the second stage: anger.