Life Family

Monday 18 February 2019

Dr Ciara Kelly: 'Denial isn't all bad - it helps you to function and get through grief'

General practitioner Dr Ciara Kelly
General practitioner Dr Ciara Kelly
Sometimes denial helps you to function and get through what you couldn’t get through without it.

Ciara Kelly

People mostly talk about denial - the second stage of grief that comes after shock and before anger - like it's a bad thing. "Oh, he's in denial about it," they'll say of someone who isn't dealing with their problems and is generally held to be avoiding, ignoring or running away from or not facing up to whatever it is they're going through.

But that doesn't take into account the fact that denial is a protective method the brain uses to cope with something that is difficult or very painful. When you're dealing with something particularly hard, the brain cleverly lets only a small bit of the pain through at a time. So you can cope with it and process it in a way that you simply can't if you're overwhelmed by the size of the problem or the severity of the emotional pain.

I read back recently on the piece I wrote after my mum died - people very kindly post it occasionally on things like Twitter, so it pops up in my feed - and it's clear to me from the numbness in it and the flatness of the tone that I was still in shock at that stage, but I think I'm proceeding right on track straight through to denial now.

But how do you know you are in denial - if you are in denial? I hear you ask cleverly. Well, you get teeny, tiny glimpses of it.

Like when I was on air with George Hook recently, dealing with a listener's query about having chest pain after the recent death of their father. "Of course, you're having chest pain and worrying about your own health," George and I agreed. "You've just lost your parent, that's huge! You must be very kind to yourself, you're going through a lot, it's really difficult," I said blithely without any insight about the fact that my own mother had died four weeks earlier.

But then I kinda stopped and felt myself flush and I looked at George a bit bewildered as I realised I was in that same boat myself. He saw it and very kindly saved me from embarrassing myself by bursting into tears on air by changing the subject.

A similar thing happened in my surgery recently when I spent a consultation consoling someone struggling badly with the death of their mum. I listened and comforted them as best I could. And after about 20 minutes, when they were leaving, I said: "Look, I do know how you feel - my own mum died last month." And I could see them look at me slightly oddly - I was clearly so emotionally detached saying it.

But the penny really started to drop last weekend when I was remembering an incident last year when my mum had fallen and hit her head and I was talking about how scared we were she might have died at the time - but then thankfully she didn't. Except it dawned on me then that she subsequently had, which meant I found myself crying over coffee in a restaurant - much to the confusion of my waitress.

And again two days later when I heard that a pal of mine's mum had become quite unwell and I was thinking "Oh God, that's just awful for them all", and some little voice in my head said "Like it's awful for you?" And this time I found myself driving my car with tears streaming down my cheeks from nowhere.

The point is denial - which I now recognise I'm probably in - isn't all bad. Sometimes it helps you to function and get through what you couldn't get through without it.

But it also isn't impenetrable. And little by little, the wall of denial that you use to hold back the weight of grief you're experiencing develops cracks and bits start to filter through and be felt.

I guess the main thing is allowing yourself to start to feel them in your own good time - and not suppressing them until they build up and the whole wall comes crashing down at once and you get drowned in a flood of grief.

I've no idea really how I'm doing on that score - but I'm hoping it's going to be like a controllable trickle rather than some emotional tsunami.

Anyway, I think there may be some use in discussing grief in real time as I proceed through the stages. There's so many people in this same crappy club and it doesn't get discussed enough.

Next stop, of course, is anger… Don't say I didn't warn you.

@ciarakellydoc

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