What Is the Denial Stage of Grief?

November 27, 2023   •  Posted in: 

Denial is one of the five stages of grief. This model of grief was developed by the Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book, On Death and Dying[1].

Although the Kübler-Ross model (also known as the five stages of grief model) was developed as a way to support terminally ill people in facing their imminent death, other types of mental health practitioners found it so useful the model was adapted as a way of thinking about grief in general.

The five stages of grief, as outlined by Kübler-Ross, are:

This article focuses on the denial stage of grief – what it is, why it happens, and how to manage it. You can find articles on the other four stages of grief elsewhere on this site.

What is denial?

The word “denial” is defined as:

  1. The refusal to admit the truth or reality of something (such as a statement or charge)
  2. The assertion that an allegation is false
  3. The refusal to acknowledge a person or a thing
    Merriam-Webster dictionary

Being “in denial” refers to the refusal to admit the truth or reality of something unpleasant, such as a patient in denial about health problems.

In psychology, denial is a defense mechanism in which confrontation with a personal problem or with reality is avoided by denying the existence of the problem or reality.

What does denial have to do with grief?

According to leading grief psychotherapist Julia Samuel:

Denial of grief is a natural and important part of self-protection; knowing is incremental because, psychologically, we can’t cope with the full knowledge all at once. Denial over time is eroded by reality as we begin to adjust to this new reality.

Experiencing the death of a loved one is incredibly disorientating. The shock of bereavement is likely to cause feelings of numbness and denial, particularly when others around you carry on as if nothing has happened. This can make you feel very disconnected from the rest of the world as it is incredibly confusing to see life continuing around you while you feel as though your world has fallen apart.

In the aftermath of death, things can feel unreal, strange, and disorientating. As Julia Samuel says, while we might know intellectually that a death has happened, it takes some time for the reality to truly set in. The time it takes to process the loss of a loved one varies from person to person. However, this might affect individuals; there is typically a delay between learning the information about their passing and your brain beginning to acknowledge they are not coming back.

People in the denial stage of grief may experience distressing reminders frequently. Many people report a split second on waking in the morning when they have forgotten about the loss before remembering and feeling strong emotions wash over them. Others talk about wanting to contact someone who’s deceased or no longer a part of your life, perhaps prompted by something you think they’d enjoy before realizing you cannot share it with them anymore.

For those who’ve lost their spouse or partner, they may be preoccupied by ways to get back together or refuse to remove their wedding ring.

Many recently bereaved people are convinced they can hear their loved one’s voice, see them, or feel their presence. It’s as if the person was just with you, or they never left. This adds to the disorientation, and while some find it comforting, for others it can make the whole experience even more confusing and distressing.

Similarly, people often find themselves forgetting what’s happened. They may feel the pain of the way they found out repeatedly, as well as the emotions of realizing that person is not a part of your life anymore.

All of the above experiences are aspects of denial, and are all part of the normal spectrum of grieving, however individuals may process it. And it’s not just through death that we experience denial as part of grief – many people may notice the unreal feelings of denial after the loss of other significant aspects of life such as relationships, friendships, or work-related losses.

What is the denial stage of grief?

According to the American Psychological Association, the denial stage of grief is “characterized by a conscious or unconscious inability to acknowledge or accept one’s own or an important other’s impending or actual death or some other great loss or trauma.”

Grief experienced because of the death of a loved one, or the loss of something important to you, can impact every aspect of your life. Examples could be the loss of a family dog, which might impact your daily life and identity as you no longer go out for daily walks, missing out on the activity and social contact this might have brought. You may have to manage the grief of other members of the family, too. And your home will likely feel much quieter and emptier.

When we accept that significant loss causes us pain – emotional, physical and psychological – denial becomes more logical and understandable. It is typically experienced in the immediate aftermath of loss and is theorized to be our brain’s way of defending us against an extremely painful situation. Denial also buys our brain some time to adjust to the reality of a new way of being in the world without the person or thing we’ve lost.

Other emotions accompany denial. For many people, sadness, anger, guilt, or anxiety are typically experienced during this stage. They can emerge at different times as you come to terms with and accept the loss. Again, it’s worth saying that grief is a unique experience, even the same person is likely to experience different losses in different ways.

What does the denial stage of grief look and feel like?

According to the University of Washington, the denial stage of grief can look like:

  • Avoidance
  • Procrastination
  • Forgetting
  • Easily distracted
  • Mindless behaviors
  • Keeping busy all the time
  • Thinking/saying, “I’m fine” or “it’s fine”

It can feel like:

  • Shock
  • Numbness
  • Confusion
  • Shutting down

Other ways people in the denial stage of grief might act include avoiding reminders of the loss such as people, places or dates, and they might be noticeably focusing on the needs of others instead of their own.

Sleeping more than usual and/or using substances like alcohol or drugs to avoid facing reality are also ways in which people in the denial stage of grief might act. These can also be signs of underlying mental health issues that should be checked by a mental health or medical professional.

How to cope with the denial stage of grief

Although it’s a cliché to say, time really does act as a healer. For those in the initial stages of grief, there can be a desire to skip ahead to the future and bypass the most painful aspects of grieving.

There isn’t a way to avoid feeling strong emotions during grief, however. Trying to resist grief can actually cause it to feel stronger and more relentless, so there is an element of giving yourself over to grief. Allow yourself plenty of time to grieve, try to accept that whatever is happening for you is unfolding in exactly the way it has to, and know every day counts.

Grief has a very real way of keeping you in the present and the past. But looking ahead to the future can be a way to begin to accept what has happened and to move towards a new life without your loved one. Take it step by step so as not to overwhelm yourself.

Know that denial is a natural part of grieving. Once you begin to process your loss and come through the denial stage, you may begin to feel other emotions arising such as sadness, guilt, anger or something else. Again, this is to be expected.

Does everyone go through all five stages of grief?

No. Some people go through some but not all five stages. Some never get to a place of acceptance. Grief is a complicated, difficult, and unique experience, with everyone reacting to it in their own way.

There are other models of grief people find helpful – these are mentioned in the What are the 5 stages of grief after a significant loss article.

What should I do if I cannot cope with grief?

Help is out there for you if you feel you cannot cope with your grief or the ways in which you are coping are harmful. Equally, for some, grief can trigger a deep, entrenched depression.

Bereavement or grief counseling is available for those who need help in processing their loss. This type of therapy allows you to talk your feelings through with a professional who is experienced in this field – who can allow you the time and space to talk about your loved one and the emotions you’re experiencing. Don’t suffer alone.

The Center • A Place for HOPE is an award-winning treatment facility with over 37 years of leadership in mental and behavioral health. We are a top ten facility for depression treatment, meaning our caring and experienced staff are well placed to provide you with professional excellence in a range of different treatment options.

Please call us on 1-888-771-5166 during opening hours, Mon-Fri 8am-5pm PT, or complete the admissions form.

1. Kübler-Ross, E. (2002). On death and dying: questions and answers on death and dying: on Life after death. Quality Paperback Book Club.

Dr. Gregory Jantz

Pioneering Whole Person Care over thirty years ago, Dr. Gregory Jantz is an innovator in the treatment of mental health. He is a best-selling author of over 45 books, and a go-to media authority on behavioral health afflictions, appearing on CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox, and CNN. Dr. Jantz leads a team of world-class, licensed, and...

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