Grief Professionals Blog:
How Denial May Help

  • Rev. Dr. Peter Barnes
October 18, 2017

A referral was made for bereavement counselling by a local family doctor. The referral indicated that a mother, Elizabeth, had recently experienced the death of her adult son who had been ill, but who was not expected to die. At the first counselling session, the mother didn’t show any emotion. She agreed to the counselling, but it was questionable if she really understood what was happening as she seemed to be in shock. In the next session she talked about her son and how much he relied on her for support. He had had problems but she was always there for him and she didn’t expect him to die before her. She was constantly upset and seemed to feel better when she spoke to him and verbalized her feelings. A few months later she identified that it felt like he had only just died when in fact it had been much longer.

Question: Is it possible that Elizabeth’s denial of her son’s death could be helpful to her grief process?

Answer: The reality is that the son’s death was an extreme shock to Elizabeth’s nervous system. She lived in a daze for months and was helped to accept the new reality by talking about him in counselling, holding of rituals such as placing fresh flowers on his grave, and talking to her son throughout the day, and especially at night when she seemed to miss him the most. After about a year she experienced an emotional shift and acknowledged her heartache, which seemed to indicate a change from the head to the heart awareness. She began to acknowledge her extreme emotional pain in her own good time, indicating that the apparent denial served the purpose of cushioning her heartache until after she had become more comfortable with the emotional supports to her grief process. It’s like it took over a year for Elizabeth to begin to trust life again as she had experienced a shock that had shaken the foundations of her life.

Resources: “Denying the Reality of a Death: Florence’s Lesson.,” by Alan Wolfelt, Frontline, Winter 2016. Download here

Theory Snapshot: “…mourning creates tasks that need to be accomplished, and although this may seem overwhelming to the person in the throes of acute grief, it can, with the facilitation of a counselor, offer hope that something can be done and that there is a way through it. This can be a powerful antidote to the feelings of helplessness that most mourners experience.”

Tasks of Mourning:
Task I: To Accept the Reality of the Loss
Tasks II: To Process the Pain of Grief
Task III: To Adjust to the World Without the Deceased
Task: IV: To Find an Enduring Connection with the Deceased in the Midst of Embarking on a New Life

Worden, William J. (2009). Grief Counselling and Grief Therapy: A Handbook for the Mental Health Practitioner, 4th Edition. New York: Springer Publishing Company. p. 39-53.



  • Rev. Dr. Peter Barnes Coordinator of Bereavement Services
    Palliative Care Leadership Team w/Rehab. Continuing Care and Palliative Care Program, Eastern Health