Denial And Saying Goodbye: Two Difficult Aspects Of Grief To Navigate.

In learning to live with the loss of someone you love, two of the most difficult aspects of that loss are often the ones people get stuck in.

The first is being able to accept the reality of your loss. This is often referred to as Denial of the loss, but it is a misnomer.

The second is being able to reach a point of acceptance, often referred to as the Good Bye.


When I use the word denial, I am not referring to you refusing to accept your loved one is dead. Denial is referring to the sense of unreality around the death.

The death of anyone you love is incredibly hard to conceptualise. Your brain just can’t handle the enormity of what has happened.

Additionally, your brain is still hard wired to connection with the person who is dead. How can you comprehend that person’s death if your brain is still searching for that connection?

What Denial Feels Like

When you are trying to comprehend the death of someone you are quite likely to feel numb. You may be paralysed with shock.

You may feel the world has lost all meaning. You may feel overwhelmed. You may feel life is not making sense.

Earlier I talked about the enormity of what your brain has to take on. This protects you from overwhelming emotions and allows them to be titrated as you are able to cope with them.

A Personal Experience

I remember the unreality of my grandmother dying. It was the first time I had encountered death and I couldn’t get my 12 year old mind around it.

I remember asking myself what death meant. From my perspective it would mean she would never ring us again. There would never be the jokes about how loud she was on the phone (a result of a husband with very poor hearing). It would also mean I would never be able to visit her again, or hear her talk, or see her. It would no longer be Nanna and Pa. It would just be my grandfather on his own. I felt like a massive hole had opened in my life and I didn’t know how to fill it.

When You Aren’t There To Say Goodbye

When my grandfather died I was 19 and had seen a lot of death as a student nurse. I wasn’t there when he died and could only comprehend he was dead when I went to see his body. I just needed to see him.

Everyone has their way of comprehending the death of someone they love. It is a lot to get your head around.

Accepting Means Letting Go

In all my years as a nurse, and as a counsellor, I have never met anyone who didn’t want to believe. They struggled to comprehend, most definitely, but they never denied the loss.

However, some people struggle to let go of the one who has died. They hold on to the person’s possessions, they avoid places that remind them of the person who died, they refuse to visit the grave or release their ashes.

These can all be signs of being stuck in denial. This comes under the term Prolonged Grief. It is where the grief process gets stuck in one area. This is when professional grief counselling is important.

How To Look After Yourself

If you find yourself in the awful situation of losing someone you love, be gentle with yourself. Don’t rush to acknowledge the grief and run on as though nothing has happened.

Allow yourself time to sit with the reality of what has happened and let that reality slowly sink in.

Be ready to let go of their belongings at a time that is right for you. Some rush to do it, others hold on to them for a long time. Be okay with taking your time to attend to those tasks.

Be prepared for the fresh grief as you attend to the handing over of belongings, visiting the grave site, spreading the ashes and all the other tasks that need to be attended to when someone dies.

Be ready to open your connection to your loss and face your feelings about it. Don’t hesitate to seek help if you need someone with you at those stages.

Acceptance: The Act Of Saying Goodbye.

It can be very hard accepting the death of a loved one when their death was particularly traumatic for you.

I have seen many people stuck in the horror of the pain experienced by their love one. For others the stuckness comes at the speed with which the person went from living to dead.

Their age also is a factor and your relationship to them. I have spoken to many parents trying to comprehend the death of their child because that death is out of the natural order of things. You are supposed to bury your parents and your children are supposed to bury you. But when it happens out of order with you burying your child, that is so hard to comprehend.

If the one you love died a long way away and you weren’t able to see them before they died, or you couldn’t be at the funeral, then it is hard accepting the death. Not only that, it is hard to comprehend the fact of their death when all you have is words spoken over a telephone or contained in an email.

A Personal Experience

When my husband’s Aunt died we were living on the other side of the world. I found a days old email in an unused email account stating she had died. It was a shock to both of us. We never knew when she was buried. It took years to learn what caused her death. It was hard for my husband to understand she had died.

It wasn’t just this Aunt. When he was a child another Aunt died. His parents decided he was too young to see her before she died or attend her funeral. He was about 10 at the time. He grieved for the fact he never had the chance to say goodbye.

Many years later another Aunt died and he was in a position to go to the funeral. We decided he would go and grieve for the Aunt who died when he was a child, for the Aunt who died when we were living overseas and this Aunt who had just died. It was an important opportunity for him to accept and say goodbye to all these women who had meant so much to him in life.

When Death Is Difficult

Another way the good bye can be delayed can be when the person who dies has died a difficult death. I have worked with many people who are stuck in the pain their loved one suffered. Acceptance of the death can be hard because the one left behind finds their death too traumatic to accept.

When a death is traumatic like that it can be very hard to move past those painful last hours. I often find helping the person to switch their focus to their earlier life with the person can be really helpful. Remembering the happy times, before the trauma of their death, can switch the focus to the person and their life, rather than the moments of their death.

When someone dies, you are saying goodbye to every moment you had together, not just the moment of their death. When you are caught up in their death, it can be hard to remember that.

Can I Help?

If you would like to talk to me about how I can help you with any aspect of your grief, please contact me on 0409396608 or

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