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Sunday, August 2, 2015

Your DYing Spouse 38 - Stages of Grief - Denial

During this long goodbye, you're going to go through a prolonged grieving process. It's natural, and unavoidable...and necessary for what they call 'closure'.

Man, do I hate that word. It suits losing a girlfriend. It feels wildly inappropriate for losing a spouse, and losing the world and the life you knew. How do you get closure on that?

And should you?

But that is a topic for another day. let's talk about grieving.

Elisabeth K├╝bler-Ross, a Swiss psychiatrist, identified five stages of the grieving process, and everyone probably knows them...they're called the DABDA model...

  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Depression
  • Acceptance
While not everyone goes through all of the stages (and some psychologists have developed other, analogous models that they claim work better) it's likely that you'll experience some of them...and so will your dying mate, though in a different way.

Today let's talk about denial.

As in Cleopatra, get it? Queen of de Nile?

Ah, well...

Anyway, denial..."this can't be happening, so it isn't happening..." is almost a sure thing, if a fatal illness is caught early. Randy Pausch, in The Last Lecture, described how he was feeling just a bit down, and had some jaundice...and was told he had pancreatic cancer, which is (as I well know!) a stone-cold killer.

He couldn't believe it. The moment after he got the news was just like the moment before...the sun was still shining, the birds were still singing, and there was only that cloud way down o the horizon, no larger than a man's hand. This can't be real, because it doesn't fit what I feel and see...so it isn't real.

And you, as the caregiver, will feel something similar. Unless it's been perfectly obvious that things are going downhill fast, actually getting the news, as the result of a routine checkup or (as in Dr.Pausch's case) the investigation of a minor complaint is such a shock to life's paradigms that it simply can't be processed all at once.

And, you know what? That's actually OK. Don't process it all at once.

As long as you're not doing something that's preventing treatment or making it harder to alleviate symptoms (like pain and nausea), it's OK to believe...while you can...that things are really going to be OK, that this is some sort of horrible mistake.

It' called giving yourself a soft landing.

The Tough Guys of Psychology will say that "You haff to face ze fects!" (please imagine a corny Prussian accent).

Fine. Let them face them, and they'll be crying in the corner...just as you do, when you really think about it.

Denial, in the beginning, can also be called "being nice to yourself".

Cleopatra had a bad end, but it must be remembered that she had a nice time getting there.

So let yourself have that time of gentle, and intentional ignorance. The facts will come soon enough, and you will find that Cleopatra is fighting on your side.

When the time comes to face them, denial will have been your ally, for you will be ready.

What do you think? Do you think you'd rather take a harder-edged approach? Or is a gentler,more gradual coming-to-terms better for you, and for your spouse?

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  1. These words are revolutionary to me, Andrew! Thank you! (and also you caught me off guard with that really bad Nile joke - laughing out loud with surprise - nice one). Oh yes, revolutionary... For years I've been taking the razor-sharp edged approach in retrospect... 'why didn't I see it coming?' 'why was I so stupid' 'why didn't I face the facts' 'maybe we could have appreciated our last months more if I'd been more accepting of the prognosis'... etc etc. A (then) 21 year old hasn't the life experience to know that reality can be so harsh, nor the equipment to face it. And I speak even more grace to myself now: None of us can believe life/death can be so harsh, til we live through it. And through it we go.

    Nowadays I'm more of a believer in the gradual and gentle approach... You write, 'Don't process it all at once' - What kind words. What patient words.

    I exercise weekly, and my instructor gives us such a gentle warmup... the exercise sneaks up on you, and by the end of the class we've all had a good workout without realising it. If I started at a sprint, I'd be doubled-over and choking within 5 minutes. Put that way, my emotional capacity isn't much better than my fitness!

    Guess that's all about resistance - and I'm learning (still going with the DIY) that I just need to do the smallest thing to get on with it - peel the tiny corner of some wallpaper to sneak a look at the condition of walls beneath, rather than contemplate the enormity of the mess and work it will take to strip, make good, patch and repaint (not to mention glossing the woodwork), which only renders me incapable of starting the job. Perhaps there's a way to just 'peek under the paper' of a prognosis at first, rather than do the full QS of what it's going to look like to finish the job completely.

    Thanks again, for your gracious and courageous perspective on all this. It's priceless.
    Oh, and 'closure'? Agree - horrible word, and when the person we lost changed our world forever, whether family or intimate friend, it's hard to see how things can ever be the same again. Certainly, never forgotten.

    1. Ruth, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts on this - you got it absolutely right, and the DIY analogy is perfect.

      One thing I have always believed is that the round planet on which we live was made that way as a metaphor for life...our view is bounded by the horizon, and we can't see over it, to what lies ahead. (And we can't look too far back, for the same reason, and, I think, to the sme effect.)

      The emotional fitness to process a terrible prognosis all at once is very rare; the 'face your fears!' advice that so many want to give, and so many want to follow, is best reserved for jumping off a diving board or pillion-riding on a motorbike...not life and death.

      Well, riding on a motorbike I was driving WOULD be life and death. I abhor speed limits, and prefer to reach the scene of the inevitable accident as quickly as possible...but I digress.

      Thank you for your kind words and gracious praise - this last, best career would be far less without the thoughtful input that you and my other readers provide. It's a team effort; I am finding, late but not too late, that most of life is.

  2. Oh, DABDA. Nobody wants to go through it but it's part of life.
    The first stage could get really crazy sometimes. We need friends who will not judge us during this stage but at the same time would talk sense into us.

    1. You're absolutely right. Being judged during the first phase...or ANY of the phases...can be really counterproductive.

      Thank you for being here, and for contributing!

  3. I think I would rather take the slower approach; taking time to get used to the idea. I did not have that chance with my mother; she was sick and in pain...this I knew! But, she died before I could finish learning more about our heritage; the people and identifying those I could not remember. Our last visit was on Sunday - our day! We talked and shared a meal; yes! But, by Friday morning...she was gone!! Just like that!

    I appreciate your ideas on denial; even your sense of humor in the joke about Cleopatra...de Nile! Good to see you are keeping a sense of humor through all of this!

    Continuing prayers; and hugs coming your way!

    1. I'm so sorry you lost your Mom so quickly, Barbara. It's perhaps the hardest loss most people face, because it breaks a chain of continuity with the past...the earlies "remember when" is lost forever. My wife's Mom died in 2013, and she's still grieving.

      It's hard NOT to have a sense of humour, sometimes. Especially when the service dogs have learned to hide hand tools, and turn off my drill press. They can see the button, and correctly divined its purpose. If they think I'm not well enough, they'll just keep turning it off until I get the message.

      And I'm still short a file and a hacksaw.They are buried in the yard somewhere.

      Thank you so much for the prayers and hugs - they are very much appreciated!

    2. I totally understand how your wife feels in losing her mom. Mine died in June, 2012 - 3 years?! Seems like so long, yet, just yesterday! Hugs to you both!

      And, glad to hear you have awesome service dogs that can "hide the hand tools" from you!!

  4. So, three days ago I learned that a friend of mine is 'right there,' his wife is dying from a brain tumor, hospice has been called. She's been battling the big "C" for a couple of years, but now they realize this is it unless God should intervene. I sent him a short message. He wrote back that he can't imagine life without her or being alone. I thought of this blog and the understanding and empathy that is offered, written to all who struggle because of harsh realities and subsequently push to make it through another day. We are stronger than we think we are. Bless you.

    1. Oh, Norma, I am so sorry for your friend...in your words I can feel his anguish. My prayers are with him.

      We are indeed stronger than we think we are or can ever be...and stronger still when we realize we are not alone, and dare to reach out.

      Thank you for being here today, and for your comment. I appreciate you!

  5. Love this advice here, Andrew. Taking that big step into the unknown is always much harder than staying where we are. Grief is like this and it comes in waves, sometimes over years. I don't think there is a wrong answer in how one feels or how they process the stages. Just being there to help someone through when they need it would mean so much... and not being there to suffocate when they need time. Hope you are filled with Joy in the Holy Spirit, friend.

    1. That's an excellent point,Kim, that grief does come in waves. Just when we think we're over it, it can strike again, with all the piercing sharpness it had when first experienced.

      And yes, being there when needed...and knowing when to give space...that can be the best gift one can offer, because it means one is really listening.

      And yes, I am continuing this journey in Joy.

      Thank you for being here1

  6. I never really thought about the benefits of denial (chuckled at the D Nile joke . . . ). I like the way you put it—giving yourself a soft landing.

    Some people who discover they have the big "C" have longer to deal with the facts. Others, have only weeks to a few months to prepare for what's coming. I've known people in both camps. If it was me, I think I would probably face the facts—with a lot of tears—and begin to make plans for dealing with it. I tend to want the details rather than to want to not think about it, even for a little while. I think each person comes at a life-changing reality in their own way, yes?

    Now as for my husband? I'm not sure. I haven't thought about that. Maybe I won't need to . . .

    1. You're absolutely right - everyone comes at this in their own way. Like you, many want to face it immediately, while others would like to postpone it - to the last possible minute. The important thing is not to imprint our preferences on another, nor to try to adopt another's paradigm. (That isn't always possible, though...sometimes we have to, to give the needed support.)

      Thanks so much for being here today!

  7. Your description of the day being the same both before and after "diagnosis" is so right on. I've never thought of denial being a soft place to land and I like that. We shouldn't have to apologize for going through what we need to go through. Reality hits soon enough. Thanks, Andrew, and may God continue to bless!

    1. "We shouldn't have to apologize for going through what we need to go through.." Perfect! I really like the way you put that, and agree completely.

      Thank you for being here, and commenting.

  8. Honestly, for me, a period of denial is critical. It provides protection from an otherwise overwhelming reality. You are correct that the truth will set in as time passes, but I welcome this period of denial first.

    1. I think most people are like you; they need that time spent in denial to subconsciously build their strength. Taking the full measure of one's position all at once can be shattering, and it may not be possible to copletely recover from the despair that can ensue.

      Thank you for stopping by today.

  9. This reminds me of Valerie Harper and her diagnosis of some type of terminal brain cancer. If you're not familiar, she was told she only had 6 months to live about two years ago. Her tenacious spirit and indomitable optimism--most likely due to "denial"--has served her well. I really believe it is what has given her that longer and more pleasant descent down the path of dying. I think it is part of what is keeping her alive and enjoying every minute of that life. So here's to letting that denial buoy you and others with terminal illnesses!

    Of course, I'm also praying and hoping that God is giving you the comfort and grace to make it through each day as well, Andrew. I'm so very glad that God has provided these coping mechanisms too. There's so much that He weaves into each day that is redemptive and I want to continually look for those threads--as I hope you do too, my friend!

    1. It can be an interesing dichotomy to live; I know that my situation is grim, but I'm still working on things that can only bear fruit in the long term, just in case I'm around for the long term.

      Sometimes that's quite hard to do, and the process has to be very intentional. There are days when I would rather not take the trouble...I mean, why bother? But if I discipline my actions to continue work, my thoughts will fall into line again.

      Those golden threads are here, Beth, and I trace each one out through the days. They're worth their weight in...well, gold.