What to Know About the Denial Stage of Grief

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If you’ve recently lost a loved one, you may have difficulty processing and accepting the loss. You may sometimes forget that the person is not around, or that they’re not a part of your life anymore. These are characteristics of denial, which is a normal part of the grieving process.

“Denial is when a loss doesn't feel real yet. You know that the loss happened but it doesn't feel like it,” says Aimee Daramus, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist and author of “Understanding Bipolar Disorder."

You may also experience grief and denial after the loss of other things that are important to you, such as a job, a business, a friendship, or a relationship.

This article discusses denial as one of the five stages of grief, explores the characteristics of denial, and suggests some coping strategies that may be helpful.

What Are the Five Stages of Grief?

The concept of the stages of grief was first introduced by the psychiatrist Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. In her book “On Death and Dying,” which was published in 1969, Dr. Kübler-Ross proposed the theory that people experience grief in five stages, which are:

  1. Denial
  2. Anger
  3. Bargaining
  4. Depression
  5. Acceptance

The U.S. National Library of Medicine considers Dr. Kübler-Ross to be one of the physicians who changed the face of medicine, because her work became a standard text for professionals dealing with terminally ill patients, as well as their families. Apart from academic circles, the theory she proposed is also fairly well known in popular culture.

However, there has been more research on the grieving process since, and the current understanding is that people don’t necessarily grieve in stages, and may or may not experience all of these emotions. While the theory neatly categorizes the experiences of grief, grief can be a messy process in reality and everyone reacts to it differently.

Nevertheless, the theory helps us understand the common ways in which people may experience grief, one of which is through denial, says Dr. Daramus. 

What Is the Denial Stage of Grief?

In the denial stage of grief, you may struggle to consciously or unconsciously acknowledge the loss, according to the American Psychological Association.

When you experience a loss, particularly if it’s sudden, you may feel like your world has turned upside down. Loss can affect your daily life or even your identity. For instance, if you’ve lost a spouse, your daily routine, your home, and even your identity as a husband/wife/partner may be affected. 

Denial is a defense mechanism that helps minimize the pain of the loss. It’s your brain’s way of protecting you from the pain, so you have some time to adjust to your new reality. Denial is typically experienced immediately after a loss, as your brain works to process it.

You may also experience other emotions like sadness, anger, guilt, or anxiety while you're in this stage, as you start to confront the loss.

Aimee Daramus, PsyD

Denial is a stage when the loss feels unreal. It can be healthy if it gives you time to slowly ease into the next part of your life.

— Aimee Daramus, PsyD

Characteristics of the Denial Stage of Grief

The denial stage of grief is characterized by the following experiences:

  • Feeling numb or shocked
  • Being confused and disoriented
  • Shutting down and being unable to process emotions
  • Forgetting about the loss
  • Avoiding reminders of the the loss
  • Sleeping more than usual
  • Procrastinating dealing with the loss and its consequences
  • Staying busy all the time to avoid thinking about the loss
  • Engaging in mindless behaviors and being easily distracted
  • Focusing on the needs of others instead of your own
  • Thinking or saying “I’m fine” or “Everything’s fine”
  • Using substances like alcohol or drugs to avoid facing reality

According to Dr. Daramus, these are some examples of what denial can feel like when you’re grieving a loss such as a breakup or the death of a loved one:

  • Having frequent urges to contact someone who's deceased or no longer a part of your life
  • Thinking of a joke they'd enjoy, then realizing you won't get to share it with the person
  • Waking up in the morning and then remembering that the person isn’t there anymore
  • Having the feeling that the person was just with you, or that they never left
  • Looking forward to seeing the person and then realizing that it’s not going to happen
  • Not wanting to take off your wedding ring after your marriage has ended or your partner has passed away
  • Trying to think of ways to get back together with your former partner even if you know that's not a great idea

Coping With the Denial Stage of Grief

Dr. Daramus shares some steps that can help you cope with the denial stage of grief:

  • Give it time: Time is the most important healer of grief. Everyone heals on their own timeline and some people take longer than others to cope. Healing often occurs in small increments every day rather than all at once.
  • Start looking toward the future: In the wake of a loss, it can sometimes be difficult to picture what your life will look like afterward. However, as you feel ready, you may find that you’re able to start thinking of the future again. You can start with small steps or plans that feel manageable.
  • Maintain a journal: Some people find journaling helpful, but be careful not to use journaling in a way that keeps you stuck in the past. 
  • Seek help if you’re unable to cope: Grief is normal as long as you don't become depressed to the point that you can't function for a long time, or in a way that's harmful to you. Grief counseling can help you process your loss and accept it.

A Word From Verywell

If you have recently experienced a loss, you may experience grief and denial. As you start to process the loss, you may start to experience other emotions such as anger, sorrow, regret, or guilt as well.

Though devastating, grieving is a normal process that’s a part of life. Over time, as you process the loss and cope with it, you will be able to accept it and start to move on.

9 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Grief.

  3. American Psychological Association. Stages of grief. Dictionary of Psychology.

  4. U.S. National Library of Medicine. Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross.

  5. Corr CA. Should we incorporate the work of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in our current teaching and practice and, if so, how? Omega (Westport). 2021;83(4):706-728. doi:10.1177/0030222819865397

  6. Stroebe M, Schut H, Boerner K. Cautioning healthcare professionals. Omega (Westport). 2017;74(4):455-473. doi:10.1177/0030222817691870

  7. O’Connor MF. Grief: A brief history of research on how the body, mind, and brain adapt. Psychosom Med. 2019;81(8):731-738. doi:10.1097/PSY.0000000000000717

  8. American Psychological Association. Denial stage. Dictionary of Psychology.

  9. Counseling Center, University of Washington. The stages of grief.

By Sanjana Gupta
Sanjana is a health writer and editor. Her work spans various health-related topics, including mental health, fitness, nutrition, and wellness.