I Don’t Believe It! – Denial!

roller coaster


There are a number of posts about the so-called Emotional Roller Coaster of Cancer. Over the next few weeks, we’re going to take a closer look at these emotions. Why are they important? Why are they harmful? What can we do with them? Today, we’re looking at denial.

Denial is one of our basic psychological defence mechanisms. As such, it can work well for those in need of defence. When you realise you have a disease that may take your life, possibly quite soon, it is a terrifying moment. That’s the time we need a healthy dose of denial.

A short period of denial is not only usual, it is important. It gives the patient (and loved ones) a chance to come to grips with the challenges ahead. A wise man once said, “Acceptance is hope co-existing with reality. Denial is hope masquerading as reality.” There’s a time when denial can be helpful. Why can some people accept the reality of a life-threatening disease easier than others? There are many factors, including age.

  • Younger patients may feel they’re being robbed of their life and of all the experiences they were looking forward to.
  • People with great plans for a new venture, or a new marriage or relationship, may battle more than those who have a sense of achievement in regards to the life they have already left.
  • Those with a deep faith, and an assurance of a right relationship with God, may also work through the stage of denial quicker. Yet even then, sometimes I think “denial” may masquerade as “faith”.

I wonder why we, as family, friends, medical people, or even as patients, feel it is so important for those with cancer, or any other life-threatening disease, to work through their denial? Who stands to gain by the patient accepting they only have a few weeks or days to live? Most of the time it isn’t the patient. It could be that the patient has such painful issues they really can’t face having to work through them. Surely, in a case like this, the grief and emotional upheaval they face is bad enough. If a degree of denial helps, does that really matter? Sometimes it does.

  • It matters if it interferes with them accepting treatment, or going for further tests.
  • It matters if it prevents them telling others how serious their disease is, thus preventing loved ones from experiencing a closure. “I never knew how bad it was,” is a common cry.
  • It matters if, by being in denial, they are ignoring something that they need to pay attention to—such as a broken relationship which needs to be addressed, for the sake of the one who be left behind if for no other reason.
  • It matters if issues are not addressed, such as financial or where things are kept.

Denial is an unconscious process. People don’t usually decide to be in denial. Although sometimes the patent needs to be able to say, “I can’t cope with this right now,” and give themselves space to work through the news. But it won’t change the situation, and if it goes on too long, it may need to be addressed. I talked to a woman recently who is beside herself with worry. Her husband is only likely to live another few months, but he is firmly in denial. He will not tell her where he has put any of their legal documents, including her security papers and passport. She doesn’t know where the bank card is, or what the number is. When she tries to speak to him, he grows angry and says, “I’ll tell you sometime. There’s no hurry.” This is adding to the stress and panic of an elderly lady who is soon going to lose her spouse. It’s not fair. Here are some tips on how to work through a period of denial:

  • Ask what you really fear.
  • See if any of these fears are irrational and unfounded.
  • Speak to someone you trust, and express your fears and emotions.
  • Journal about your feelings. (More about this here.)
  • Write a letter to your cancer, or other disease).
  • Write down any possible negative consequences of you ignoring your diagnosis.

So if you or a loved one is going through a period of denial, take a hard look at the emotion and ask yourself, “Is this healthy for me right now? Or is it time to move on?” Then make the wise decision, and share it with others so they understand.  

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