Navigating Denial

When diagnosed with a chronic illness or disorder, many complex things happen in your life. There is the moment when you have to decide who you disclose the diagnosis to and who you keep it from. This is a very personal and often complex decision filled with emotional landmines. So, what do you do when faced with denial after the disclosure?

It is important to expect denial. It is a likely response. There are many factors that drive denial, all emotionally charged and difficult to process. But by considering why people respond with denial, we can be better prepared to accept that denial with patience and compassion.

Denial is a part of the normal grieving process. Feeling grief is a normal response to be told that someone you love has an illness or disorder with no cure. Denial gives us emotional distance from an idea which is often needed at the beginning of the grieving process. It gives us a chance to intellectualize the information while separating it from the person we love. This is often essential as high emotional states make processing information impossible.

In the case of parents, there is also the difficult emotion of guilt to deal with which can lead into denial. They inevitably ask themselves: is this my fault? It’s what we do as parents when something happens with our children. Medical problems and genetics are connected which leads many parents to feel guilty about “giving” their children an illness or disorder. This sense of guilt can be compounded by a late diagnosis of a life long problem. This adds the guilt of not having gotten that diagnosis for your child while they were young. Denial of the diagnosis allievates that sense of guilt. Often easing that guilt is the only bearable way to continue with the relationship.

Then there is fear. When a family member is diagnosed with something, it makes it more likely you will also have this problem. It is normal to feel fear in response to that possibility. It demands the person face their own mortality and fragility. There is also the fear of future loss or poor outcomes that a diagnosis can mean. Denial relieves this fear. Like with guilt, fear is often an unbearable emotion that people struggle to properly process.

So, please, be patient with them when they respond to your diagnosis with denial. You have given them big news and comes with many big feelings that are complex and messy to process. It is understandable to want to hide for a time in denial.

For denial to move into acceptance, much work must be done to address the underlying feelings driving the denial. No amount of medical evidence or education material is likely to move someone from a denial state. This state is not about failing to intellectually understand. It is about being overwhelmed by emotions that they are not able or willing to process.

And also keep in mind that you don’t need them to move through their grief into acceptance in order to still have a good relationship with them. You need good boundaries and respect, which can still happen while they are in denial. You do not need to convince them of anything to prove your case. Their denial is theirs to work through and you cannot do that for them. Offer them space for any emotions that arise and encourage discussion. But leave the journey to acceptance in their hands.

And be patient with yourself. It’s normal for you to also have a grief response to your diagnosis. It’s also normal to have an emotional response as you reflect upon your past with this new diagnosis. It is also completely normal to want to share this transition with your loved ones, so any frustration you’re feeling is completely normal and understandable.

Be patient. Give space for everyone’s feelings and know that you all will come through this alright.

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