Grief Stage One - Denial

Stages of Grief | Detailing Stage One

Understanding the Stages of Grief Better: Denial

After a loved one dies, we are immediately tossed into a swirl of overwhelming emotions we cannot manage or explain. To some, these different emotions and symptoms are known as the stages of grief. However, even though most people experience the stages of grief differently, most of them always experience the first stage of grief – denial.

As the first stage of grief, denial is the most common symptom after losing a loved one. Most people find themselves saying things like:

“This can’t be happening.”

“She/he can’t be dead.”

“I can’t believe she/he is gone.”

Let’s take a more in-depth look at the first stage of grief, what it means, and how you can help a friend or family member after the loss of a loved one.

What Are the Stages of Grief?

Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross first introduced the concept of the stages of grief. The idea first explained in her book On Death, and Dying published back in 1969, talks about how terminally ill patients go through these five stages of emotions and grief when faced with their imminent death – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

Although Kübler-Ross’s work initially studied these stages as experienced by a terminally ill patient, in 2005, she later published a book On Grief and Grieving. Here she took the same concept and applied it to someone who recently lost a loved one.

The input of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross on near-death experiences and our ability to cope with these emotions changed the way we look at death and grief forever. Ever since her first attempt to explain these emotions, after the death of a loved one we instantly think of the five stages of grief.

First Stage of Grief: Denial

Immediately after a shocking experience, our instant reaction is to deny it. The feelings in the first stage of grief are often accompanied by denial; this is our mind’s way of protecting us from feeling too much at once. During the first stage, denial gives you some time to adjust to this new reality without your loved one present.

It is common during the denial stage to relive memories, pleasant times, and other precious moments with the departed loved one. Some people find themselves replaying these scenes over and over again. The feeling of denial solely characterizes this first stage; some people describe it as an after-shock effect, which is partly true. Denial is a self-defense mechanism to help you cope with the situation so your body can slowly adjust to this new reality, instead of crumbling with emotions.

Fortunately, denial is also the shortest stage of grief. Denial is a temporary response that helps with the first wave of sorrow and pain after losing a loved one.

5 Tips to Overcome the Denial Stage of Grief

If you are experiencing denial, there are some things you can do to overcome this stage. First of all, understand that denial is normal. Denial is a self-defense mechanism, a protective function of our bodies if you will, to protect ourselves from experiencing too much pain at once.

Everyone experiencing denial after the loss of a loved one can find comfort by:

Accepting Denial: Even though denial is triggered by our bodies to protect us, allow yourself to understand that you are in denial about the death of a loved one.

Being Present: While you might try to stay away from the situation, being present might help with denial. View your loved one’s body, attend the funeral, visit their grave site, look at photographs, smell their perfume, and so on. All these things will help you face the fact that your loved one has passed.

Being Honest: Denial not only involves the denial of the death of a loved one, but it also consists of the denial of your grief. Be honest and open about your feelings to yourself and others. Allow yourself to say you’re in denial of the death of a loved one, or in denial of wanting to feel pain, and so on.

Avoid Keeping Time: Some people believe the stages of grief can be timed. It is essential to understand that there is no time frame for denial or any other stage of grief. While your long-term goal is to accept reality, you can experience denial for as long as your body needs to process the loss of a loved one.

Seeking Help: While there is no specific time frame for the stages of grief, if you feel you cannot move past denial, you might want to seek professional help. The grieving stage of denial can interfere with your everyday life. Seeking assistance can help you to continue moving through the grief process to process the loss of a loved one finally.

How to Help a Grieving Friend?

One thing is to experience denial as a grieving parent, spouse, sibling, or friend. Another very different thing is being a supportive friend of someone suffering denial. Helping a grieving friend can be challenging; trying to find the right words to say, the best way to approach a subject, and so on can be intimidating to most people.

If you have a grieving friend experiencing denial, you can help them by:

  • Being their support network Check in with them daily to see how they are doing. There is no need to push them to talk about their feelings, a simple “I am okay” will do. This is just to let them know that they can count on you whenever they are ready.
  • Listening – Often after the loss of a loved one, grieving friends might want to tell stories about their loved ones. These are not about denial, but more a symptom of processing what happened. They might not want your feedback. But being there and listening to their stories will mean the world to them as you are showing them your support.
  • Talking – A grieving friend might need your help to move on to the next stages of grief. Talking to them about other family members, their dependents, and so on, will help them realize that there is a purpose to their life beyond their departed loved one.

In the end, everyone experiences grief differently. As friends or family members, we can only be present to support them and listen to them. It is not our place to tell someone how to grieve; we are just there to be supportive and point out when it is time – if there is the need – to seek professional help.

For more information about the stages of grief, visit our guide to understanding the stages of grief.