The denial stage of grief is the first stage in Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ five-stage model of grief.1 Denial allows a person time to process new and frightening information and is typically used to cope with emotional and physical pain stemming from a loss. Not everyone experiences this stage of grief, but if it becomes overwhelming, there are treatment options available to help you heal.
What Is the Denial Stage of Grief?
Grief experts suggest that denial during grief is one’s way of coping with severe and overpowering feelings that come from the shock of a loss.2 There is no right or wrong way to grieve and each person grieves in their own unique way. There is no specific time frame associated with denial or other stages of grief. Many significant losses can cause grief including divorce, such as ending a significant relationship, the death of a pet, job loss, and the loss of a child or other close relative.
What Are the Stages of Grief?
Dr. Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief model includes denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. She believed that people do not necessarily go through all stages and these stages are not linear. A person might visit one stage more than once depending on the way their grief progresses. In recent years a model for seven stages of grief was developed expanding the original five stage model. These stages include shock and denial, pain and guilt, anger and bargaining, depression, and the upward turn.
Common Emotions During the Denial Stage of Grief
When someone initially experiences the death of a loved one or another significant loss, the initial feelings may include shock and numbness. However, should these emotions persist, they may indicate the possibility of traumatic grief or pathological grief, as well as a prolonged grief disorder.3
Feelings during the denial stage of grief can include:
- Emotional numbness
Common Thoughts During the Denial Stage of Grief
In the denial stage of grief, people may create mental scenarios to offset their life-changing loss. A person thinks about their loss as something that was a mistake, isn’t real, or can be reversed.4
Common thoughts during the denial stage of grief include:
- I will be fine. Everything will be OK.
- He is the only person I ever loved. I will try to call him again.
- I am sure the doctors are wrong. We just need to get a second opinion.
- When she thinks about how long we were together, she will come back to me.
- I worked at that company for 20 years. They can’t possibly be firing me now.
- I got my dog when she was a puppy, and we’ve been together for 12 years. She will beat cancer.
- We were best friends for so long. I know she won’t stay mad even though I should never have said that.
- When will I wake up from this nightmare?
Examples of Denial in Grief
Denial allows you time to adjust to who you are, where you are, and what your next step will be following a loss. You may avoid, ignore, or block out certain memories in various ways to hold back the dam of emotions and pain.
Examples of denial during grief include:
- Avoiding reminders of the loss.
- Staying busy to avoid thinking about your loss.
- Escaping pain from a significant loss by using alcohol or drugs.
- Taking care of other people instead of taking care of yourself.
- Picking up the telephone to call someone who has died.
- Waking up and looking for the person who has died.
- Returning to work immediately so you won’t have to be home alone.
Why Does Denial Happen in Grief?
Denial can be a person’s conscious or unconscious action that allows them to come to terms with the reality of life after a death or other significant loss. It helps temporarily numb the emotional pain associated with overwhelming grief. Furthermore, it helps a person process information related to a loss so they can start moving forward.5
Many may isolate themselves from others while struggling in the denial stage. Other signs of denial include avoidant behaviors, inability to make decisions, and procrastination, as it may be difficult to focus or concentrate. People often describe this time as “going through the motions” of living. When individuals begin to move out of denial and the complicated emotions from the loss emerge, healing will slowly begin. Denial should begin to lessen in intensity and frequency over time.
How Long Does the Denial Stage of Grief Last?
It’s hard to anticipate how long the denial stage of grief will last. It is influenced by the nature of the loss. The denial stage can be longer for those suffering a loss related to a traumatic event. Some people start to feel better in weeks or months, while the grief process can take years for others. The denial stage has no designated time frame. It varies between individuals and their ability to adapt and cope.
How Hard Is the Denial Stage of Grief to Go Through?
Denial is a challenging stage of grief because it occurs early in the grief process. Entrenched in denial is the belief that if you don’t accept this reality, it may go away.
People often ask themselves how and why they should continue to move forward. Just managing to get out of bed and make it through the day can feel overwhelming and at times impossible. This is because the reality of the loss is not acceptable and it takes energy to continue to suppress strong emotions. As acceptance begins to grow, the denial ebbs.
How Can I Move Past the Denial Stage of Grief?
The best way to move beyond the denial stage of grief is to begin to acknowledge the loss and allow yourself to feel the emotions attached to it. When you begin to experience the pain associated with the loss, it forces you to move out of the denial stage. The reality of the loss becomes undeniable with time as your brain begins to process and recognize it. If people are unable to do this, they may remain stuck in the denial phase longer. Some people may revisit denial as the stages of grief are not linear. A person can skip a stage or return to a stage as they grieve.
When Does Denial in Grief Become a Problem?
Sometimes problematic behaviors during the denial stage persist or get worse. They can limit your ability to function and engage in self-care activities and negatively impact your relationships. These scenarios signal that you may need additional help to cope with your grief. There may be anxiety about unwanted questions or comments from others or a reluctance to let people see you at a time of vulnerability. It can be hard to move forward with these behavioral barriers in place.
How to Cope With the Denial Stage of Grief
Just as people grieve in different ways, their path toward healing and coping can involve different strategies. Some may be more effective than others depending on each individual. Using healthy coping skills can help you manage your grief, create a new “normal,” and gain a greater understanding of the ramifications of your loss.
These strategies can help you to cope with the denial stage of grief:
- Share your feelings: You can share your sadness and tears with others. It gives the message that it is OK to feel sorrow when something sad happens to someone you love and care about. However, children should not be burdened with the feeling that an adult is leaning on them for comfort and support.
- Drop the expectations: Do not impose a time frame or self-expectations regarding right or wrong ways to grieve. Avoid self-criticism and self-judgment in the midst of your grieving. Just allow yourself to acknowledge and feel whatever emotions develop.
- Socialize and stay connected: It is challenging to overcome the isolation that can accompany grief and denial. Try to spend time with people you trust who can offer the comfort and support you need to begin to heal.
- Use a journal: Journaling for mental health can help you understand your thoughts and feelings. Sometimes putting them on paper can help to reduce the intensity of emotions and clarify them. Journaling is also a way of documenting and reviewing your experiences as you grieve.
- Step back into your life: Take small steps in terms of moving forward with your healing and your life. For example, try returning to a restaurant or a place you went with your deceased loved one. Go with someone you trust and feel comfortable with.
Professional Help for Grief
If your grief persists or seems to get worse, you may benefit from professional therapy. Support groups, grief therapy, and individual counseling can provide support if your grief and loss symptoms do not improve over time or interfere with daily functioning. The most effective choice for you may depend on your needs.
People frequently seek treatment when struggling with grief. It is not unusual. It may be a new and overwhelming experience for many. It can be difficult for people who are grieving to be aware of how debilitated they are. They may not understand the nature and magnitude of their symptoms.
If you frequently isolate yourself, have difficulty with relationships, and feel depressed or hopeless, you may benefit from grief therapy. Therapy can also help you begin sleeping, eating, and functioning normally as you work through your grief.
Professional help and support options for grief include:
- Grief support groups: Being around other people who have experienced similar losses can be comforting. Sharing feelings, tips, and resources can help each group member feel less isolated and alone. This can be done in person or through an online support group.
- Grief therapy: Grief counseling is a type of therapy focused on supporting and guiding individuals through their grief journey, especially if it has become overwhelming or slow to resolve.
- Faith-based counseling: Many people turn to their faith as a way of coping with grief. Faith-based counseling draws from scripture and behavioral science. This type of counseling is done by priests, faith-based professional counselors, psychologists, psychotherapists, and biblical counselors or pastors.
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT can be helpful when grief is an issue. CBT helps you become aware of your thought processes and how they can negatively impact your behaviors, relationships, and feelings.
It is important to understand that denial is a normal reaction to grief. The way it manifests is unique and personal for each individual depending on their personality, previous experience with loss, and prior mental health. It also depends on the nature of the loss. If grief becomes destabilizing, there are options available to get the help you need to begin to move forward and create a new normal in your life.