The First Stage of Grief: Denial

The first stage of grief is denial

They say that denial is the first stage of grief.

In the first days and weeks after mum died, I would find different ways to google “how to handle grief”, “stages of grief”. I was desperately trying to find that panacea, that silver bullet, which would instantly cure the intense frenetic emotional rollercoasters I was going through on a daily basis.

I wouldn’t have recognised I was actually in denial (surprise, surprise!). I just felt like I was suspended in an odd shadow of my old life – almost everything was the same, but nothing was. Now, I had to navigate this same old life without mum in it and, of course, I didn’t know how that would look or feel – and, to be honest, I didn’t really want to find out.

I now understand that denial isn’t saying “that didn’t happen” or “I’m fine, I’m happy this awful thing happened and my life has changed forever!”. Instead, denial is a defence mechanism at its very core; it kicks in to protect us when we need clarity and time to adjust to our new reality.

And, that makes perfect sense.

During mum’s battle with cancer, the focus was looking after mum. It was getting her a mini milk for breakfast, and washing her glasses. It was making her a tea, and tucking her in for a snooze. It was managing our care schedule with military precision, and ensuring mum always had batteries for her radio. But then, once she had died, we couldn’t focus on her care any more.

So, now what?

The morning mum died, it felt so surreal. I had spent so long wondering how that exact moment would feel, and now it had – and I was still here. As I’ve said before – I couldn’t fathom being alive if she wasn’t. But, at the same time, I was so relieved that she wasn’t in pain anymore and she was in a better place. I didn’t feel much beyond that, and thank god for that. What had just happened was too huge, an insurmountable and terrible milestone in our family.

And so, as always, we went to our usual and got a coffee, and I insisted we watched the US Office.

The problem with denying reality is that it doesn’t actually change what you don’t want to believe. When your mind hasn’t acknowledged the consequences of what’s happening, you find yourself acting and thinking in the ways you always have.

I would be walking to the shops, or home from work and would go to ring mum. I would see something she would like, or try and remember the name of my primary school teacher and think – “I’ll call mum”. But, I couldn’t. The thought to call her and the realisation that I couldn’t was just seconds apart, but it was like reliving that grief all over again.

Breaking the cycle of those ingrained reactions and habits took a long time, and I think required some acceptance or acknowledgement of what was going on. The denial had protected me at first but, to stop reliving the realisation of my grief, I needed to acknowledge what had happened.

Overcoming denial wasn’t a conscious decision or action. I don’t think I could have handled that first month any other way, to be honest. But, going through that first stage of denial gave me an opportunity to get my mental ducks in a row, and to find my path. It helped me adjust and adapt to my new life, and gave me the strength to acknowledge that mum wasn’t here any more.

Denial had protected me, like mum always had done before.

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