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Why We Deny

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By Jennifer DuBos, MA Licensed Professional Counselor
Stenzel Clinical Services

We’ve all heard the saying: “Denial isn’t just a river in Egypt”. And yet, the most common response to loss, trauma, or difficult news is to pretend that things are in fact just the same as they were. Many of us are also aware of the five stages of grief, which are lead out by, yet again, denial. This is the response that causes us to say things like “That cannot be true” or “I can’t believe it”, or simply “No, no, no.” While denial is a very natural initial response to the emotional shock of receiving life-altering news, it quickly becomes a negative coping mechanism when it overstays what should be a brief visitation.

The long-term effects of staying in the denial phase or “living in denial” are that one may lose touch with reality, begin to rewrite history, and can even block memories or alienate oneself in order to avoid reminders of the changing truth. These reactions are most often seen in our western, fast-paced world’s grieving process. It has become the socially acceptable response to actually stall-out in the denial phase. We see it as reverent to never speak of people we lost or scandals that harmed us. Mothers are expected to keep a dead child’s room exactly as it was the day a child passed on, like a shrine. It is seen as an honor if a husband or wife never remarries, if a child refuses to accept a stepparent, or if a boy never has another dog after losing his first and favorite loving friend. Similarly, it is considered a sign of the depth of our grief if we refuse to speak about a loss, or if we make others swear never to speak of a loved one again.

The problems with this “stall-out” approach to change or grief are numerous and significant. I believe this view to be the result of our pop culture movement overly romanticizing most of the deep emotional experiences of human existence. Our culture finds the mystery of the war veteran who never speaks of his losses, or the family who enshrines a child’s room, or the teenager who conceals her abortion, to be tragic and intriguing. But tragedy is the only true result in the romanticizing of denial in this way.

In my professional experience, the most prominent example of the damage denial can cause as a long-term coping mechanism is when a parent or spouse denies a child’s claim of maltreatment or abuse. Unfortunately, in these circumstances, it is often easier for the families of victims to pretend the events in question never took place. It is easier to simply believe that children will make up stories, or get confused about what they see on TV, than to believe that some horrid tragedy has befallen the ones we have been entrusted to protect. Yet as we know, the easy way is rarely ever the best way of approaching difficult life events. Furthermore, the harm done to the victim when their claims of injustice are denied can be catastrophic. When we go through trials and major life adjustments, the validation and support of those closest to us is the most healing balm available to a torn heart. Thus, though denial may aide those peripherally impacted by the trauma of another, it only serves to shield the self and harm the victim further. And as we know, the truth always prevails in the end anyway, so denial becomes a fruitless endeavor that lands us right back at square one when we finally give up and return to reality.

In addition to the negative impact denial can have on affiliated victims, it is actually a very destructive pattern that, when considered logically outside the boundaries of pop-culture’s standards, becomes a disrespect to the ones we have lost. Refusing to remember people or events because circumstances surrounding them are painful, effectively paints those we’ve lost out of history. In our world, the memories of our lives carried on by those we love us is all that remains when we pass on to the next. When we consider the word “Re-member”, we must consider it’s opposite: “dis-member”. When life-altering events come upon us, it is fair to say we feel shattered, broken, dismembered. The path to true healing is to put the pieces back together and this is best accomplished through remembering what we have lost. By telling the stories, even the hard ones, and by recalling the past, present, and future that we have lost through change, tragedy, trauma, or simply the passing of time, we truly honor what we have lost and begin to incorporate those losses into ourselves. In this way, we truly honor victims of tragedy, loved one’s sacrifices, and the parts of ourselves we find permanently altered. It is through acceptance, not denial, that we may truly find healing for our broken hearts, and are able to help heal the hearts of others.