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Five stages of grief: stage one – denial

Five stages of grief diagram

Doctors and therapists may refer to the ‘five stages of grief’ when talking about how grief is likely to affect you. Developed by Dr Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, these stages are a framework that outlines the types of emotions felt by those who are grieving. They are:

  1. Denial
  2. Anger
  3. Bargaining
  4. Depression
  5. Acceptance

These five stages are just a basic outline of what emotions are common after a loss – they are by no means a ‘fail-safe’ guide to exactly how grief happens. Getting over grief is often more complicated than just working through these stages. You may experience them in a different order, or not notice experiencing certain stages at all.

What is denial?

The first stage of Kubler-Ross’s five stages is denial. Put simply, denial is not being able to accept that your loss is real. When you first heard of your loss, you may have said or thought things like “This can’t be happening”, “I don’t believe it”, or “This must be a mistake.”

It can also be accompanied by feelings of numbness and shock; a person who is grieving may not seem to be very sad if they are experiencing denial.

Denial is listed as the first stage because it is quite often a person’s initial reaction to a loss, especially if it was unexpected.

Why does it happen?

Denial occurs because we are unable to process the information that someone we love has gone. When we know that the loss will change everything, that our lives will never be the same, we can struggle to understand what is happening.

In some ways, denial is a natural defence mechanism to help you cope with the extreme emotions of grief. Denial is our mind’s way of ‘softening the blow’, of stopping us from feeling too much at once.

When is it a problem?

Denial is a normal part of grieving and it can be a helpful emotional response, because it lets you function in the days and weeks following the loss of a loved one. There is no right amount of time to experience this stage of grief, and you should not feel rushed to make important steps such as moving a love one's things or re-decorating their room.

Importantly, if you are supporting someone who is grieving, try not to rush them to overcome denial. While you may feel they are slow to accept the loss, they must process their grief at a pace that is right for them. Do not pressure them to throw away their loved one's belongings or make other big decisions.

That said, denial can become problematic if it prevents you from finding ways of coping with grief, or if your behaviour becomes self-destructive. Although denial may show itself differently in different people, you may be struggling to overcome denial if you are doing the following things, especially a long time after the funeral:

  • Claiming not to be affected by the loss
  • Refusing to talk about the person or their passing
  • Pretending that they are on holiday and will be returning soon
  • Drinking alcohol or using drugs much more frequently than you would have before the loss
  • Keeping yourself busy, with work or chores, to the point where you never stop working

If you are experiencing some of these symptoms, you may want to consider talking to a bereavement specialist or bereavement counsellor about seeking help with your grief.

How do you move past it?

Moving past denial is, for the most part, a matter of time. As you gradually become more emotionally ‘aware’ of what has happened, the denial will start to wear away. There is no set time for moving past denial, and you may still have moments months and years after the loss when you think, “It can’t be true.” The important thing is recognising your loss enough to learn to cope with it.

There are things you can do to help you move through denial, but do not feel pressured to rush yourself; the five stages are not a ‘timetable’ to be hurried through.

In some senses, the entire funeral process - the ceremony, the burial or cremation, the wake - is a way for you to overcome denial. By coming together with close friends and family to say goodbye to your loved one, you may find that you are more able to understand that your loss is real.

If you were not present during or shortly after their passing, you may want to view your loved one before the funeral. Many funeral directors have a chapel of rest where you will be able to see them in a peaceful setting with support there if you need it. This may help you to overcome denial to a certain extent. However, whether or not you view your loved one is a very personal decision and there is no right or wrong answer. It will always be an upsetting experience and you may decide that it is better for you to remember them as they were. If you do choose to view them, you should be aware that they may look different and it can be helpful to discuss your expectations with the funeral director beforehand.

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