grief week: it starts with denial

denial chalkboard

well, exactly a year ago i said i was going to do a one week series called “grief week”, centered on the 5 stages of grief that can be part of church and life losses alike. then a friend from the refuge died suddenly in a tragic accident and i decided to start my summer blog-break early.  it’s been quite a year since then. the refuge moved into our new home (it’s been amazing, exactly what we had hoped and are in the process of raising our year 2 rent right now, fun fun, i’m a terrible fundraiser), i finished the manuscript for faith shift: finding your way forward when everything you believe comes apart, and graduated a son from college and another from high school. with my big kids already gone and another leaving for college next week, jose and i will be down to 2 kids in the house, for the first time in over 18 years. it’s really freaky!

the weeping has started for us, the reality that we will now have launched 3 of our children with only two more to go, and the hole my #3 is going to leave around here is a big one (he’s just so fun). we are starting to grieve. plus, i am ready for my annual summer blog break, a time when i just don’t think in blog and spend a lot less time online (i’ll be off all of july and august, there’s plenty to read around here already and always good to take a breath).

all that to say–i thought this would be a perfect week to finish up what i never really started.

so every day this week we’ll be walking through a different stage of grief, using elizabeth kubler-ross’s 5 stages (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance).

just a little summer fun, eh?

honestly, though, grief is the weirdest thing and most of us are always grieving something.

loss through death, loss of relationships we may or may not have wanted to end, loss of dreams, loss of our health or the health of someone close to us, loss of church or a once-certain faith, loss of jobs or security. 

it’s good to respect grief as a natural part of life.

to own its realities.

to feel what needs to be felt.

to keep moving through our losses and finding hope and relief and new life in different ways.

many of us have been told a message from our churches, our families, or own-internal-i-shouldn’t-feel-this-way-messages that grief is not okay–that we should be stronger, better, happier, more grateful and not focus on the negative.

but the truth is that avoiding grief only makes it worse.

and pretending we don’t hurt when we do only increases the likelihood of more pain later.

i will never be able to cover all of the bases on grief, but what i’ll try to share is some of what we have used during our walking wounded weekend experience, our walking wounded class, and at a grief night we hosted at the refuge as well as a night-for-those-caught-in-the-middle-of-a-horrible-church-breakdown.

so here goes, the first step of grief and one a lot of us are pretty good at–denial.

there are a lot of forms of denial–minimizing, justifying, rationalizing, rejecting, ignoring, pretending. 

but when it comes down to it, denial often helps us initially cope with the reality of whatever loss we are experiencing. it can be a healthy protection mechanism at first. i always say “denial has its place, and then it usually outlasts its usefulness.”

denial can be a way to cope with our traumas initially. but often we can keep thinking we are “okay” when we’re really  not.  it makes me think of this silly monty python clip that we showed at our walking wounded gathering a few years ago:

this is so me! i am a master at pushing through losses and struggles, getting back up and minimizing the reality of my experience because i need to “press on and keep on trucking.”  i can’t tell you the number of times i’ve exclaimed “it’s just a flesh wound” when so much more was going on underneath.

the result of remaining in denial: we will never get to the other side of our pain. 

a good way to begin to address our denial is to consider ways we might be minimizing, justifying, rationalizing, rejecting, ignoring, or pretending we don’t hurt when we really do.

here’s a few prompts we used at a denial station.  ours was centered on church loss but i added a few other options here.

take a few minutes and reflect on ways you used denial to cope with whatever your loss is (a person, church, faith, relationship, dream, job, health).  

how did you (or are you) minimize the pain, stuff the pain, find ways to cope?

some possibilities to get you going might include:

    • “itʼs not that bad”
    • “i should get over it”
    • “i drank a lot”
    • “i told everyone i was okay when i wasn’t”
    • “i worked harder”

we had a chalkboard to write on in real life, but since we’re not all together, maybe we can share in the comments. what are yours? 

please, be kind to yourself. denial is a way of coping with the reality of the pain.

tomorrow we’ll look at the next stage, anger. 

i’ll end with this reminder, from elizabeth kubler-ross: “the most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. these persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. beautiful people do not just happen.” 

i know so many of you have been or are in the midst of some really weird & hard & painful losses.

you are all really beautiful.

Kathy Escobar

Kathy Escobar is dedicated to creating safe and brave spaces for transformation and healing in real life, online, and outside. She co-pastors at The Refuge, a hub for healing community, social action, and creative collaboration in North Denver, co-directs #communityheals, a non-profit organization dedicated to making spaces for transformation accessible for all, and is the author of Practicing: Changing Yourself to Change the World, Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart and several other books.


  • In a cultish church experience (… for 5 years … where we were leaders … oh my!), I kept saying that the pastor had ‘a good heart’ and ‘needs our prayers for his blind spots that we all have.’ After sleeping 2-3 hours a night for several of those years, crying for 427 days straight, throwing up 4-6 days a week (whenever I thought of church), I finally moved past ‘denial.’ Truly, it’s only the grace of God that I healed and continue to love Him and His people!

    • oh i know that feeling, how easy it is to minimize and justify….i was a master at it, too! really glad to connect with you out here.

  • Thanks for this series, Kathy. I seem to have lived a lifetime working through grief — which I don’t think is totally unusual. There is so much loss in this world.. Sometimes denial seems the only way. Some spend more time at this stage, some less. Sometimes we even come back to it… But what peace we find when we come to terms with Truth.

    • somehow my comment to you didn’t post, sorry. i just noticed it when i was writing another new one. thanks for sharing and yeah, it is a lifetime of grief isn’t that real life somehow and part of what makes it hard, and good. xoxo

  • Love this…been cycling through the first four stages for the past five years — and just hit “acceptance” this month. I thought once I got to acceptance I wouldn’t cycle back through the earlier ones. Nope. Sigh…it is just a long process and goes until it is finished. Initially, five years ago, I went into shock…disbelief that had me crying myself to sleep every night, turning silent and inward, and stumbling in an emotional numbness. Just couldn’t believe it was happening…. Looking forward to the rest of this series, friend. And hang in there with us…we’re all walking through it together!

    • thanks for sharing, as always. yes, the cycling through is such a part of life, a natural evolution that continues and continues. peace from here to there.

  • Not long ago I learned the classic five stages of grief. I quickly learned thereafter that these stages are not progressive. When I was in the depths of depression it did not mean that I was done with the anger or the bargaining or the sweet “I’m fine! How are you?” denial of what was churning in my soul. All five stages arrive whenever they feel like it and sometimes all within the same five minutes. I am learning that grief is not an orderly march from one stage to the next. It is more like a dance where I am handed from one random whirling partner to the next with no idea when the music is going to stop.

    But I know the music will stop.


    As long as I continue to listen and respond to it.

  • In this sermon by Daniel Harrell, in the second to the last paragraph, Daniel sharpened my aim at grief. As the cross of Jesus teaches me, as Good Friday teaches me, I must sit with my darkness rather than try to outrun it. I must yield to this emptiness in order for it to transform me. But rather than passing through it in order to emerge a whole person on the other side, to yield to loss is to absorb it into my soul—like the dirt that absorbs death and decay—and from that rich soil to then emerge as a new person, a new creation. Somehow deeper. Somehow fuller. Somehow larger. Somehow like Christ, because of the cross. Somehow I must allow my grief to be planted deep within my soul sprouting forth into new life and my rebirth.

    • “like the dirt that absorbs death and decay–and from that rich soul to then emerge as a new person, a new creation..” beauty.

  • I am hardly reading any blog posts at all these days since Jeremy’s diagnosis in February. Grief has been a constant companion on this difficult path. But I will read this grief series of yours knowing that you will add insight to the growing understanding I am gaining about the process of grief and the kinds of grief we endure through loss and disappointment.

    Denial and numbing out from painful feelings are my default setting when faced with unbearable sorrow. I know this about myself. The same time Jeremy was being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma I took my first ever online art course from the artist admire the most… you know her work too …Kelly Rae Roberts. It has proved to be the best decision to help me embrace the hard, scary feelings in the dark places. Art has been the most powerful ally in helping me own my pain and then express it through collage art and painting. It has been powerful, so much so that my first art show is next month at Arbor Lodge Coffee House (where you spoke about your book a couple years back). SO honored that by allowing the sadness and weepings to spill out there has been life-giving art born in those tears.

    Love your voice Kathy and love you. Wish we lived closer! And a huge mama hug to you as you navigate your family through transitions!

    • love you lady. thank you for taking time to share. we are all praying our little guts out over here and your creativity and courage and strength and honesty is a beautiful gift to many. i wish we lived closer, too, oh man we could have some fun together. big hugs as you walk through all of this with your baby. xoxo

  • Thank you for writing about this. I realized recently that I am grieving the loss of a few things. Because none of them is the death of a friend or loved one it’s been hard for me to see and/or admit that’s what it is. And it’s hard for me to allow myself to accept the grief because it’s not as bad as someone else’s (Black Knight Syndome!). I use busyness to deal with it. If I’m busy enough then I don’t have to think about it. But that busyness and denial is catching up with me. This series of posts couldn’t have come at a better time.

    • thanks so much for sharing, april, and i’m glad the time is right for this….i can totally relate to trying to outrun it through busyness. peace and hope to you…

  • Hello Kathy,

    I’m a videographer intern for Cornerstone of Hope in Canada. We are a non profit organization that helps teens and children travel through difficult times. Those being divorces, lost of a loved one, depression and anxiety. I can across your work for the chalkboard with the different messages. We are currently working on an educational lesson that we teach our teens who come to join us. We would not sell your work for a profit or claim that it is ours. We would only be using it as part of your educational lesson. I’m asking for your permission to use your work in that way. I would love to tell you more about Cornerstone of Hope but perhaps it would be better to show you. If you would like to learn more about us, I would be happy to give you a link to our website. Peace be with you, always.


    Keegan McDougall

    • hi keegan, sorry, i missed some comments and just saw this. if it’s still needed, feel free to email me from my site and glad to support the beautiful work you all are doing! peace, kathy


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