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Dealing with Grief: Denial

It has been far too long since I began the Grief Series, and denial is probably a big part of that! And by “probably,” I mean “definitely.”

In January, my maternal grandfather passed away. Although our extended family has largely stayed connected through its matriarchs, this came as a major blow to us all. Dente (one of those weird nicknames given to him by a beloved granddaughter – cough – that just stuck over the years), had been in and out of rehab centers after a stroke last July. When the call came that he was gone, it wasn’t a surprise, but it wasn’t altogether expected at the time, either.

It hit me harder than I’d thought it would. This amazing, dependable, kind man had been very much a second father to me. Yet It wasn’t until last night, as I was finally setting up my dry erase board in the dining room/office of my new apartment (I moved two months ago) that it really hit me. I looked down and, sitting on the hope chest lovingly crafted for me by my uncle (Dente’s son who also bears an infant-Alex bestowed nickname, Beezer) was a vintage telephone.

My grandfather was in telecommunications. As a young man, he lay cable lines across the southeast, working his way up the corporate ladder in Southern Bell, which would become Bellsouth and AT&T. He spent his entire career with the company and was proud of the work he did. One of the pieces of memorabilia he held onto for decades was an old rotary dial phone with a standing receiver and separate earpiece that answers the call as you lift it from its cradle. We’re talking, this thing is probably a century old. And there it sat, casually, in the dining room – my teeny cell phone only a few feet away. Looking at that beloved relic, six months after we held the memorial service for Franklin H. Lisle, my denial broke and I wept.

The Science

“… denial gives your mind the opportunity to unconsciously absorb shocking or distressing information at a pace that won’t send you into a psychological tailspin.” – The Mayo Clinic

Denial is one of the primary defense mechanisms outlined by Sigmund and, later, his daughter Anna Freud. Defense mechanisms are created by our minds usually as a means of protection: from anxiety, fear, guilt, and other intense emotions that may overwhelm the conscious mind at a crucial point in time. In the terms defined by Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, defense mechanisms are a means of protecting the ego (conscious self and mediator) from an imbalance created by an overly demanding id (instinctual desires) or superego (societal demands).

Denial itself is defined by Dorland’s Medical Dictionary for Health Consumers as “a defense mechanism in which the existence of unpleasant internal or external realities is kept out of conscious awareness.”

In other words, when the conscious mind is threatened by intense emotions or demands made upon it by internal anxieties or external events, it might simply block that emotion. And this can be extremely helpful.

How Denial Helps

As the Mayo Clinic points out, “denial gives your mind the opportunity to unconsciously absorb shocking or distressing information at a pace that won’t send you into a psychological tailspin.” By blocking the neuropathways that would otherwise send you straight into depression or anger – which have their own helpful and unhelpful roles – denial allows you to hold difficult emotions at bay until you are able to deal with them. For example, it helps you keep getting out of bed and going to work until a major project is finished and you have more time available to spend grieving.

Personally, denial has been most helpful surrounding my eye surgeries. Instead of getting worked up over my next procedure or check-up, I tend to put it on my calendar and forget it exists. Or, when I get bad news during an appointment, this handy defense mechanism lets me box away the fear and anxiety until I have the time and emotional capacity to deal with it.

For example, I had eye surgery six weeks ago at the Bascom Palmer Eye Institute in Miami, and this past Wednesday I had to fly back down for a follow-up visit with the surgeon. The whole day was a calamity. First, there was a plumbing leak in my apartment in the wee hours of that morning, so when I should have been sleeping I was instead tightening the connections to my toilet and cleaning up the water in the bathroom and surrounding carpet. Second, although I woke up on-time, I misjudged the probability of a long security line at Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson and arrived at my gate five minutes before the scheduled departure time – but also five minutes after the plane had actually departed (early). I flew standby for the next flight and made it to Bascom Palmer by noon.

Brown, furry dog.

Fluffmonster, a.k.a. Teddy

Although the appointment itself took less than 20 minutes, I was shuffled through crowded waiting rooms for nearly five hours. When I finally made it back to Miami International, I got a text message that my flight was delayed an hour. This wasn’t terrible news, as it gave me time to go to the food court. Unfortunately, I found out an hour later that the plane was not in fact delayed, and I had missed my second flight of the day. The Delta gate agent was gracious and understanding, and I am so grateful for the kindness he showed me by booking me on the next flight out. However, that plane was then held on the tarmac for an hour prior to takeoff due to weather and again once we landed because we didn’t have a gate. I’d left my home at 6:00 am and finally made it back around midnight, exhausted and with way too many feelings about both the travel mishaps and the doctor’s appointment itself.

Without the ability to compartmentalize and deny my feelings of anxiety, I have no idea how I would have dealt with my travel follies. After years of experience, I simply blocked out my anxiety and disappointment until I was home and could crawl into bed with the fluffmonster.

The Not-so-helpful Side

On the other hand, denial can keep us from working through intense feelings and moving on from them. As mentioned in the introductory post to this series, grief is experienced in diverse ways. The original Kübler-Ross Model (DABDA) was created to understand how people grieve when they know their own lives are coming to an end. Denial in this case can be dangerous because it may keep people from saying their goodbyes or otherwise finding closure in various aspects of their lives.

Similarly, denial in other types of grief can keep us from finding closure and moving on. For example, the successful surgery I had six week ago should have happened a year ago. However, my denial over needing another eye surgery kept me from scheduling it. I just put it off and put it off until finally a friendly voice of reason (voices, in this case, of my therapists, family, and friends) broke through my denial and convinced me to schedule the surgery. So instead of starting the process of gaining sight back in my right eye an entire year ago, I am beginning that process now.

A few other examples of detrimental denial provided by the Mayo Clinic include:

  • A couple are ringing up so much credit card debt that they toss the bills aside because they can’t bear to open them.
  • The parents of a teen with drug addiction keep giving their child “clothing” money.
  • A person with chest pain and shortness of breath doesn’t believe those symptoms signal a heart attack and delays getting help.

1920s style rotary telephoneDenying my grief over my grandfather’s death for the past six months has kept me moving forward in my life – going to work, defending my dissertation proposal, writing and producing a play – but it hasn’t allowed me to move on. My individual therapist has been subtly pressing me to confront this every so often, but it wasn’t until yesterday when the floodgates opened and I found myself talking into a century-old telephone receiver about how much I missed my Dente, that I realized just how much grief I’ve been denying myself. I realized that it’s time to start opening that door and letting myself feel the other, often more difficult emotions associated with the grieving process.

So hey… Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Confusion, and Acceptance: Here I come!

XO, A.C.

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