What do denial, shock, bargaining, and dissociation all have in common? They are all in that beginning stage of grief. Traumatic grief throws in a few unexpected things like shock and dissociation- when you cannot process suffering grief, the loss, or the tragic event, your mind helps us cope. Some of the coping strategies are flat-out denial. Some people can stay in this stage for a long time- what does long mean? Well, that depends on the situation and person.
Scott went through the first year of his mother’s death in a dissociative state; he went through life in a fog, where he was not really there or present. This was when he would run off, blank out, or dissociate. He went through the motions but was not actually with us. I also see these same symptoms and actions in clients who are experiencing domestic violence. It takes them a while to realize they are in this situation, and their minds can not comprehend how or why it happened.
For Scoot, Christmas was difficult, and he hated everything; nothing was what he called “right” he would say this is ‘just wrong’ or “it is not right.”
Memory and loss or traumatic events play a hand in the ‘blanking out’ as the shock will take us to a simpler time, memories we want to live in, or denial. Scott would see his mother in every woman who walked like her, stood as she did, or had her hair color. He would smile and begin to talk, but quickly, with tears in the back of his eyes, look away and became quiet.
My DV clients struggle with holidays and how to act, react, keep secrets, and be ‘normal’. They are torn between what is reality and what is pretend for the rest of the family.
While stuck in bargaining, a client would say, “If I knew this would happen, I would have…, or I can’t believe it.” My client struggled with his emotions and the idea of the finality of his partner’s death. He refused to get the death certificate or apply for survivor benefits for his children. He would make appointments for things like the survivers benefits but not make the appointment, forget the needed documents, or ignore the phone calls. These small steps and simple appointments were giant in his mind to admitting she is gone, and her death is actual, and I have to try to move on. It also makes him a new category or status- widower, deceased spouse, single.
As the family struggled and did not move past this stage, it reminded me of how Scott also struggled to move past this stage. He began to dissociate, ignore it, and say things like, “I don’t have a mom.”
Often I hear, “but I know she is gone, I know he is dead, I know it happened, so I have accepted it, and I am on the last stage.
I strongly disagree; we can know something has happened, but we have not handled it or moved past it until we can move on with our lives in a new ‘normal’ without that person. Our hearts will still hurt when we think of them, but we are no longer devastated or paralyzed by the loss.
Dissociation in Scott looked like mental fog, and he would literally leave his mind. He would shake his head and say, “what did you say?” He would stop all thoughts, and you could see he was gone mentally- he would dissociate. He was not ready to be in a classroom, so he continued homeschooling./virtual.
We took a vacation to his dream state Utah. On our vacation to Moab, UT I was frightened to the core. He went to take pictures, and I told him to stay where I could see him. I looked up, and he was gone. I walked up to the arches, and he was nowhere in sight. It was getting dark, and I was panicking, yelling frantically. I asked others coming down the hill if they saw him; however, no one had. Finally finding him, I asked if he heard me yelling, and he said he had not heard anything. He was trying to stop thinking and just be. He was chasing the sunset, only the sunset did not happen as it was raining.
During his dissociation, we traveled; Scott saw a license plate and asked, “did mom and me really go to that state for vacation, or is it something I made up?” I assured him it was an actual event that happened. He was stuck between reality, PTSD, and imagined events- the if only.
The shock of traumatic grief can turn your world upside down, making your emotions feel like a whirlwind. What you knew was true, and the plans you made are all gone in seconds. Your life is now changed forever, and you had no way to plan for it. You begin to question God, the Universe, higher powers, the law, and people.
In our situation, it was no different. We asked a lot of ‘why’ questions. We went on to the “how and what” quickly. As we received each response, we had more questions. We did not get past the shock or bargaining as promptly as some of our questions had no answers.
Each person responded differently in their initial stage of grief. My grandson’s sister struggled to stay focused on her life and needs. She used substances to handle things she could not deal with emotionally. She had questions, which sounded like bargaining, ” if I would have known, why did not I do this..” and blame. She could not process the situation or the events. She also disconnected and ran. Flight, fight and freeze kicked in for all of us, but the only person fighting was Rose’s father.
Shock did a number on all of us. His grief stage of shock led to the questioning he needed answers to, and he wanted to ‘fix’ things and make them right. This can be denial and bargaining; if he fixed this, it would be ok. But, it was not ok. Rose is dead, and we must move through the grief stages.
I tried to wrap my head around why she was at Paul’s house. Did she tell me she was with him? Did I not pay attention to the signs? I did the ‘what ifs also. I would see her face in the face of others, I would get ready for our supervised visits, and I would find little things she loved and hold back the tears from rushing down. My dissociation was more in the realm of, “I can’t grieve because they are all grieving.” So I worked a lot, buried the pain, and denied that her death affected me.
No one is beyond the grieving process, not even a therapist. You can’t rush the process as it is a process. It is fluid, so it continues to move. The stages are liquid, so it may be hard to determine what stage you are in; however, this initial stage is something we all go through.
The shock continued to hit us in waves, the shock she did not show up for her supervised visit, the shock she did not call after missing the visit, the shock she was missing. Bargaining when she missed the second visit, the shock at the response from our Facebook blast trying to find her, and the final shock when we found her.
Why does this happen to us-shock, denial, dissociation, and bargaining?
As children, we learn and understand what disappointment is and its consequences on our emotions. We know denial, shock, and bargaining as a part of life and growing pains as we grow. Somewhere in our lives, we experience death and loss; however, we try to make sense of it when we do. We process it the best we can to work it out in our heads, trying to make it more normal to us.
Traumatic grief is not in our sight. We did not see this happening, so we can not plan for it. Our plans, hopes, and dreams have shattered, and now we must try and move forward.
One hurdle is wrapping the event around our minds. When the event is so hard to understand, we dissociate, block it out, and act like it did not happen (even though we know it did- we sat in the service, went to the hospital, saw the grave, experienced the court battles) yet, we can’t process it.
We may demand something else happen- the judge does something, the doctor fixes it, the police make it right. We may say the event did not occur as it did, or the person was not involved like they were; we tend to set up the halo effect.
For us adults in this situation, we waited within watching distance to see the body being taken out of the backyard, the swat storm the house, and fires shot. Denial that her body was in the backyard until we saw them bring her out, bargaining with ourselves of all the things we could do differently if we found her alive, now bargaining with what our lives were together. Shock, it happened in our backyards with a man we all knew—Dissociation to save ourselves so we could make it through the next few days and months.
These emotions and coping skills are a way for our minds to handle the loss without breaking down. Some people can’t handle it and still break down; they need medical help to overcome the trauma. Our emotions can only take so much. Our hearts are broken, our dreams are shattered, and our lives are changed forever. The healing process is long, painful, and unfair, but we can make it through- the plan is to go through. Through each stage to come out the other side- a new life with sweet memories and no bitterness or rage keeping us stuck in our grief.
Scott has not entirely gotten to acceptance or reentry into the life stage yet. He is learning to move forward. However, he has anger and fear he is dealing with right now.
If you need help to handle this stage to be with the process of attending the service or events that take place after your loss, please find help.