Perilous Denial

Artwork by Isabella Bannerman.

Artwork by Isabella Bannerman.

Denial…spend any time talking to a former Christian Scientist and you’ll get an earful on the subject–I’ve interwoven the subject throughout many posts on this blog. If you talk to a practicing Christian Scientist, you’ll find that denial is a perfectly legitimate way to address almost any problem. Christian Science denies problems, it denies grief, denies anything “bad”, and therefore claims that by this process, the problem (which they claim never existed anyway) is solved. Confused yet? If you are, I don’t blame you. Explaining Christian Science and the requisite mental gymnastics required to practice it to someone who knows little or nothing about it, is like describing colour to someone who has been blind from birth.

I have already delved into the disastrous effects of denial when it comes to physical issues in a previous series of posts; so today, my focus is on the effects of denial on one’s mental health, specifically in dealing with grief and trauma–subjects I have become quite familiar with on a personal as well as professional level. Denial of these often invisible and intangible issues is done at one’s own peril.

“Grief needs to be talked about. When it is held too privately it tends to eat away at its own support.” 1

Recently, a friend posted an article from the New York Times in a Facebook group I am a member of. Written by a psychiatrist, it delves into grief and trauma in a direct way, and puts forth the best ways of dealing with it–none of which is denial. Denial, in fact, is the worst thing you can do in response to a traumatic and/or grief inducing event. An instructor of a trauma training course I took a few years ago had a favourite line: “do you want to keep standing in your shit, or do you want to do something about it?” Denial is one of many ways to keep standing in one’s own ‘shit’, as I see it.

The article goes on to discuss grief and trauma and how the best way to handle it is to “lean into it”–as I see it, to embrace it and experience it. In the First Nations spirituality I now follow, we are taught that the Creator gave us tears for a reason–to cleanse us. There is absolutely nothing wrong with crying. It was a difficult lesson for me to learn–to just embrace my grief, to experience it, and to simply cry. All of my life, I had been taught to deny it, to suppress it. Death was an illusion, after all, so why cry over ‘nothing’?

Early on in the article, the author cites his own experiences with his mother, who was dealing with grief and trauma connected with the death of her second husband (the author’s father). What he told her was such a simple, but amazing truth: “‘Trauma never goes away completely,’ I responded. ‘It changes perhaps, softens some with time, but never completely goes away. What makes you think you should be completely over it? I don’t think it works that way.'” 2 He spoke of the relief she felt at hearing him say that. He validated her feelings, he validated what she was going through, and that helped her move forward.

Facing grief and trauma head-on, dealing directly with it, and validating it is the only way through it. The first step is to acknowledge it. Christian Science fails dramatically on this point. It denies not only the grief and trauma as fictions of “mortal mind” if you will, but also the underlying cause. I can only think of the visceral reaction a client of mine might have, if after sharing their story of being abused at the hands of another person, I were to tell them, “it’s all just an illusory manifestation of mortal mind; it’s not real.” They would probably slug me! I am grateful that shortly after my own Dad’s death I completely left Christian Science, and learned to embrace my grief, and acknowledge it as a natural part of my experience. Years ago, when my younger brother died, I did not do that. I did the Christian Science thing and denied, denied, denied. What I thought had been healed was merely suppressed for 25 years. Trauma circle training and my commensurate experience sharing in the circle re-opened that 25 year-old experience and forced me to “lean into it” and process it. Christian Science, at least for me, did not do that. It patched it over. It was like dealing with black mould by just painting over it so you couldn’t see it, but the mould is still there, ready to pop out again and mess you up.

In 1969, Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross famously outlined a five-stage model for grief: denial, anger, depression, bargaining, and acceptance in her work, On Death and Dying.3 This work was groundbreaking at the time, but these ideas began to liberate, if you will, the experience of grief. The experience of grief and trauma is different for every person, and people will experience these five stages in differing orders, and may not necessarily experience all five. A friend of mine who is a trained therapist told me once that there are three types of grievers: (1) those who grieve for a short time–like a few weeks or months, (2) those who grieve for a longer time–like several months or a year or more, and (3) those who never really stop grieving. Myself, I have found that I largely fall into the second category. I grieved over my parents’ deaths for approximately one and a half years. I did not realize when I had largely stopped grieving until a First Nations ceremony known as a Vision Quest I first participated in over a year ago. During this four day ceremony, I realized my grieving had passed when I finally had, earlier that year, liquidated the last major asset my parents had left me. I had to let go of that one last thing.

I am firmly of the belief that while grieving is a process that eventually runs its course in most cases, trauma–the initial trigger of grief–never goes away. As the author of the article I have been discussing here mentions, it may change over time, soften over time, but it never completely goes away. In my case, I still deal with the after-effects of the circumstances especially of my Dad’s death, which I was a close witness to–the trauma usually manifests itself in intense anger over how he suffered, and how I was demonized by some Christian Scientists when I took him to the hospital. I suspect this anger may always be with me, hopefully softening over time. I also never stop missing them.

Bottom line for me, I have learned to embrace and experience this human experience. I no longer deny or suppress my feelings, my anger, my sadness. I lean into it, I experience it, and see it through. I realize it to be what it is: a natural part of my life, and something I suppress and/or deny at my own peril. Christian Scientists will claim that their denial is some sort of “active” process, it is denying the unreal and affirming the “real”. But, what exactly is that “reality”? If I have to perform mental gymnastics the likes of which would put an Olympic gold medalist into conniptions, am I acknowledging reality, or trying to connect with a wild and intricate fantasy concocted by a 19th century woman who very likely suffered from serious mental illness? You be the judge. I for one, accept the reality that is present before me, the one that evidence supports, and I deal with it. I no longer deny it.

____________________

1 Epstein, Mark. “The Trauma of Being Alive”. The New York Times. 3 August 2013. Web. 5 August 2013. <http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/04/opinion/sunday/the-trauma-of-being-alive.html?_r=0&gt;

2 Ibid.

3 “Kübler-Ross Model.” Wikipedia. 29 July 2013. Web. 5 August 2013 from Wikipedia: <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kübler-Ross_model&gt;

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2 thoughts on “Perilous Denial

    • True that. While from what I understand, the stages can be experienced in different ways, and in different order, denial is usually the first stage. Remaining stuck there, you do not make progress, of course. I think with my brother, I started with denial, and skipped to some form of acceptance, without really dealing with it. Re-opening it a few years back helped me to heal in ways I didn’t realize I needed to, and also to move forward in dealing with my parents’ more recent deaths.

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