“D” is for Denial

Happy February! This month we celebrate many things: Ground Hog Day, Super Bowl, Mardi Gras, Valentine’s Day, Presidents Day; the month honors Black History and is the 56th Heart Month meaning it’s time to do heart supportive activities like reducing stress with meditation or yoga, eating healthy, getting your steps in, and practicing random acts of kindness from your heart to others all month long! This is the month for reaching out to share our hearts with others.

So many things to share in celebration and yet, we are still in a precarious COVID-19 situation. It has been a year and the virus is taking a toll on our hearts and on our courageous frontline workers who must pick up the pieces when virus denial leads to hospital overwhelm. Arizona is still struggling with community spread, mitigation compliance issues, and vaccine distribution. So, this month for multiple reasons, “D” is for Denial. . . wait, what; denial is our topic in the month dedicated to LOVE!? Take a breath, grab a cup of your favorite hot beverage, and read on while I attempt to stitch together the threads what inspired “D” is for Denial.

Denial is the first letter in the acronym “DABDA” referencing the five stages of grief made famous by the renowned Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. She authored the 1969 book, On Death and Dying and introduced us to a theory suggesting that terminally ill patients experience a series of emotions that include denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance (DABDA). The various stages reflect the grief that these patients feel, and coping strategies they might use when faced with pending death. Once the stages “went public” they were often thought to be about the grief and coping strategies that survivors of loss might experience. She agreed with that assessment and later wrote that the stages can be applicable to personal loss of any kind including things like divorce, physical abilities, job or career, friendships, etc. including perhaps the life we said goodbye to because of a global pandemic.

Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross

Dr. Kübler-Ross’s work took many twists and turns in the worlds of psychology and popular culture and it has evolved over time. It was noted by some of her peers that there was not enough empirical research or evidence to back up the DABDA model, and it was roundly criticized for being too rigid and/or a flawed explanation about the grieving process. The five stages became so familiar to the grieving public that mental health professionals found themselves needing to assure loss survivors that the stages did not represent the proper or expected way to grieve. Dr. Kübler-Ross later wrote that the stages are more about how people cope with illness and pending death, not how people might or should grieve. She also clarified that the stages are not meant as a linear or predictable progression; in fact, they are very unpredictable and unique to each situation. Although she expressed regret for having written about the stages in the way that she did originally, this model has been a comfort and a roadmap for many a grieving heart. Simple reflection on each of the stages can offer a deeper understanding of our needs when faced with grief. DABDA has helped to catalyze and evolve research, theories, and treatment options for those who are terminally ill or living with grief.

It takes a lot of courage to let go of denial and accept limitations, the ultimate limit being bodily mortality. Feeling infallible or invincible is generally preferable to facing the unknown that lies beyond the last breath. In workshops about the five stages of grief, I usually include the letter “F” just ahead of DABDA because “Fear” is “Denial’s” steady companion. If beauty and grace are helpful twin allies, fear and denial are their exact opposites. They can keep the acute pain of grief in check, but at what price? Speaking from my own experience, when fear is present or I am floating around in denial, it is hard to feel lightness and peace. The feeling of fear and the practice of denial lock us out of possibilities for joy, wellness, and forward life-affirming action. These states of being distract us from being present, proactive, and living well.

Why did Dr. Kübler-Ross list “denial” first in the list of stages? It’s likely that she noticed denial as a coping mechanism. There are many defense mechanisms to use when faced with a painful reality, or a truth that seems impossible to accept, like our own mortality or a pandemic that changes everything familiar. Denial gives us time to adjust to possibilities that initially feel terrifying or unacceptable. Denial is a way of protecting ourselves from whatever pain, discomfort, or disruption of reality we dearly want to avoid. There is certain grace in the practice of denial; we often don’t realize it is happening until things spin out of control. Coming out of denial may be like waking up after dreaming.

According to counselors at the online platform, Better Help, denial can be a helpful short-term coping strategy for traumatic situations because we can turn our attention to other, more manageable things; to breathe, stabilize and gain strength to face the painful situation. The key words “short-term” are important because remaining in denial long-term can be harmful for our mental, emotional, and physical wellbeing. Some examples include when a person is short of breath with chest pain delays medical tests, risking a life-threatening cardiac event; receiving a terminal diagnosis and refusing to believe it or to complete advance directives that outline important healthcare preferences; or imagining that the novel coronavirus is not “real” and/or that it is not lethal for some people.

Not me, not my closet but you get the picture!

Recognizing our denial is hard to do when we don’t even know that we’re in it. It is like chasing a ghost in the fog. I discovered this recently when tackling a long-avoided home project. I didn’t know I would uncover denial when I decided to face a “messy closet” fear. I have a collection of stuff that I never look at or touch. It just sits upstairs in our loft out of sight, out of mind. It’s the kind of stuff that brings back both joyful and traumatic memories, many of them harbingers of grief. I was reluctant to tend to this area, just dreading potential traumatic triggers, fearful of feeling my heart break again over events long past or unrealized dreams. I knew I needed help to get started so I asked Robert if he was willing to participate in sorting through the stuff. Despite having similar trepidation to the project, he said yes. His support increased my courage to open that first box. It was not easy but once I got started it was clear that denial had become a long-time strategy and that needed to stop! While this is a definitely a work in progress and not even close to being complete, I am so relieved to be moving forward! I am finding meaningful ways to ceremonially bid farewell to a lot of old stuff. How freeing!

Self awareness about denial or avoidance behavior as a strategy to move through grief is important. Becoming aware of our limits can be incredibly liberating and empowering. Remember Memento Mori! Fortunately, my denial wasn’t life-threatening, although during the cleanup process dust and pollen kicked up the allergies. My initial embarrassment about the mess in the loft has shifted into acceptance that for me, avoidance was needed; and now it is not. Grief, our emotional response to loss, and the coping strategies we engage to navigate grief are not things to be ashamed of. These are natural reactions to loss that we experience and process in our own time and in our own unique ways.

It is almost always easier to face daunting projects or to explore the unknown with a trusted companion. I am immeasurably grateful that Robert was willing to travel the messy closet path with me. He offered no judgment on my long-term avoidance behavior. His steady witnessing presence inspired me to keep going. Cleaning up the closet mess is also tending to my emotional health. Given that the pandemic is still here, taking care of our emotional and social health has never been more important.

Since February is about heart wellbeing, you might want to reach out to a trusted partner, friend, or family member to share heart to heart about how life is going for you both, and maybe even to explore some of your “messy closet” topics. A few conversation starters: Are you aware of using denial as a coping strategy? If so, what is the circumstance; what does that feel like; how has it been helpful; does it have something to do with grief or fear? Has denial become a long-term coping strategy? If so, is it putting your health at risk? What other coping strategies might serve you better? What does your heart need to feel more free, present, and peaceful? What action steps are needed to clear the way for a lighter heart? Who are your companions along the way? How would it feel to reach out to someone today?

Happy exploring everyone! Feel free to share your comments below. I am wishing peace, love, lightness of heart, and a Happy Valentine’s Day to all.

2 thoughts on ““D” is for Denial”

  1. This one really hit home for me and will require some reflecting. It’s a scary topic for me as I’m quite proficient at denial. And I too have some messy closets to address. Thanks for the general boost to get going. I know I will be relieved and lighter and can maybe end some needless denial. Always insightful and directly applicable to my life, thanks for feeding my soul.

    • Thank you, Kat. This one was actually difficult for me to write. I started out wanting to write about dignity, but denial kept nagging at me to stop denying it! This is such an important aspect of our individual and collective grief; seemed like the right time to pull the covers off. I will be holding space with love for your courage to kick in as you approach those messy closets.


Leave a Reply