Loss and Grief - Denial of Dying

Family Caregiving September 23, 2015 Print Friendly and PDF

Dying is a complex psychological experience. It’s very difficult to think about losing a person you care about. The dying person’s sense of loss is even greater; he faces losing not one special person, but everyone he cares about. He also feels the loss of opportunity, favorite activities, familiar places, and valued possessions. The thoughts and feelings of dying people probably differ widely. For most people, the thought of death and dying can be very frightening as they think of:

  • Giving up family, cherished friends and a familiar lifestyle;
  • Giving up jobs they identify with;
  • Being unable to complete tasks or tie up loose ends;
  • Losing independence;
  • Feeling pain;
  • Not knowing what comes next, what else will be endured, or what death is like.

Years ago, Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross outlined five emotions many people go through after learning they will die. They are:

  • Denial. Refusing to believe the news. Thinking, “no, not me.”
  • Anger. Resenting what is happening. Thinking, “why me?”
  • Bargaining. Attempting to postpone death. Thinking, “yes, me, but first I need to …”
  • Depression. Realizing all the losses s/he will face. Thinking, “what’s the use.”
  • Acceptance. Coming to terms with the reality of death. Thinking, “I’m ready now.”

A dying person might not experience all these emotions, might combine some, or might move in and out of them. When someone denies his eventual death, allow him time to experience the different emotions. Let her know, through your actions and words, that you’re willing to talk with her about her illness. Some people may remain in the denial stage until death, as that may be their way of coping. They may also, in some way, be trying to protect you by acting as if everything is fine. By showing that he can be open with you, you’ll give him permission to talk when he’s ready.

For more information see:

  • On Death and Dying (1969, revised in 1997) by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross
  • Living Fully in the Shadow of Death (2004) by Susan Zonnebelt-Smeenge and Robert C. De Vries
  • Talking About Death (2001) by Virginia Morris

Adapted with permission from GriefWorks, Sam Quick, Professor Emeritus, Human Development and Family Relations Specialist, Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service.



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This work is supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, New Technologies for Ag Extension project.