Denial is more than A River in Egypt
One of the most difficult things to listen to as a bereavement counselor is the absolute devastation of a person who is filled with regrets and guilt because they avoided having conversations or doing things with their loved one because they thought they had more time. Sometimes this occurs because no one wishes to dispel any thoughts or feelings about hope, not wanting to dash any chances of beating the odds and emerging victorious from a terminal illness diagnosis. There is talk of miracles and prayer, new treatments and ongoing research that is certain to come through in time, and yet, in most instances, it doesn’t, leaving many left behind to gather up their disappointment and begin walking their grief journey.
However, there are other situations in which the denial comes from the patient themselves, refusing to believe that they will succumb to their illness and absolutely flat-out deflecting conversations with their loved ones about the “What ifs.” Maybe this is denial or perhaps it is a coping mechanism used to not only protect themselves from the fear of approaching death but also the need to make sure their loved ones are going to be ok. I have had many people share with me how they attempted numerous times to talk with their loved one about making arrangements, whether they would like to be buried or cremated, what funeral home to use, etc., and were rebuffed, the subject changing immediately to the weather or the ballgame on TV. The hard truth is that having these conversations is difficult, whether you are the one who is fighting the terminal illness battle or the one who is envisioning being left behind. But, they absolutely have to happen and here is the argument.
Denial is normal. It is almost always our initial reaction to news that is terrifying or difficult to embrace. We run, we hide, we desperately seek answers that will erase the inevitable, and yet there comes a time when the denial starts to slip away and we are faced with the harsh reality that it is our truth. Attempting to protect or shield our loved ones from the hurt that is certain to come can often do the exact opposite, creating more pain and confusion in the aftermath due to feeling cheated of having those intimate conversations, of knowing what last wishes are and being confident that they are honoring their loved ones. Those regrets tend to impact the grief journey in ways that are heart breaking because honestly, if given the opportunity of time to have those discussions and choosing to dance around or avoid them altogether, it leaves the one left behind filled with remorse.
So with gentle encouragement, I implore all of us, when given the opportunity, to have the conversations. To look at denial as part of the journey, but then take ownership of it and address the things that need to be said, no matter how difficult. These are gifts that we give not only to those that love us but to ourselves as well. It is certainly appropriate to hold onto hope and wish for healing, but it is also to our advantage to look at all of the scenarios, both good and bad, and attempt to prepare ourselves as much as possible for what may be coming. The evidence of how healing this can be to those left behind is telling, and the impact of having those conversations ahead of time can be seen in the grief journey that unfolds.