During my period of grief, 2 of the 4 “stages/phases” have stuck out bold and clear as I’ve bounced between them both, bargaining and anger.
One that seemed noticeably absent was denial. I began to wonder if this was something so universal in grief, and if so why wasn’t I experiencing it?
But then it hit me: I’ve been going through denial all along, and still am.
Denial isn’t just when you consciously and overtly believe and express how the one you love can’t possibly be dead, as it’s always portrayed in films and tv shows.
Everyone goes through it, but for most of us it is something so subtle we might not recognise it for what it is.
Ever since I lost my pup, I’ve had moments where I wake up and think the blurry mound of clothes on the floor in the dim morning light is her – sometimes my mind even thinks it sees a tail wagging for a moment.
I quickly come to and realise it’s not, but what my brain is doing is going through that denial stage.
It’s the moments when I’m finishing work and half wait around to find her so we can go home.
It’s the times I don’t want to go home because she won’t be there, as if that will stop it being true – or when I don’t want to leave work without her even when I know that’s impossible now.
It’s the moments I’m walking along and look down to my side expecting to see her, even though I know she’s not going to be there.
It’s the times I fall on my knees by my bed crying uncontrollably and hug my duvet because I just want to hug her.
It’s why I haven’t cleaned my room for a month because I get to come home and still smell something of her, and I have nothing else but that smell – fittingly the scent that meant so much to her – to remember her by.
It’s why even as my home life is collapsing and I need to find somewhere new to live tomorrow, I can’t leave, precisely because that room is the only place I still smell her.
It’s the times I ask the wind “why aren’t you here, my sweetheart?”
It’s also the times I’m putting off dealing with the trauma of her death. Dealing with losing her is taking all my energy, and in response I’m often putting off going through that moment she died in my arms so unexpectedly.
It’s part of her death that my mind is trying to deny at times because dealing with the loss is hard enough, but going back through that one moment will just destroy me.
You may think you’re not experiencing denial while you grieve because you know they’re gone and you’re not pretending they’ll come back.
But you are going through it, every time your brain thinks you see them out of the corner of your eye, or when you’re doing something you used to do together and for just a moment you stop to wait for them.
Denial comes in many different forms. It’s not just someone disbelieving their loved one is dead, or continuing their daily routine as if they’re still alive. It’s often more subtle than that Hollywood trope.
It also underpins a lot of your bargaining and anger, which is why when the “stages” of grief were incorrectly categorised as actual “stages” through a linear process that you go through, it was the first stage.
We now know better about how all those “stages” occur sometimes simultaneously, sometimes out of the original sequence, but that they are features of grief rather than the structure of grief.
We know now that you don’t begin by denying the loss, then bargaining for it not happen, then be angry that it did, and then accepting it. Rather, you do actually go through all of those processes, but in no general order and you don’t magically finish with one “stage” and get to the other.
But back to denial:
You may consciously know they’re gone, but your subconscious hasn’t yet accepted it.
You still want them to be around, and you’ve loved and been with them for so long that your brain isn’t yet able to process the world for you without them being there – it’s why your brain keeps
inserting them in your vision, desperately trying to form them out of abstract images and movements in your periphery.
Your brain is trying to cope with rewriting the inputs from the world around it in which they no longer physically exist.
Even if you think you aren’t living through the denial stage, because it’s not what you were taught it to be, you are. When you lose someone you love it takes time for you to mentally live in a world where they are no longer physically here.
It doesn’t look like what you’re told, but it is something you will go through in some form.
Just remember that denial isn’t always what you think it is, but it’s healthy. It’s part of your brain coming to terms with everything and with the loss.