I was in denial from the first moment. And for a while thereafter.
On a sunny Saturday in June, I had just finished a mud run with my son, and we were walking back to our car in late morning, covered with mud and laughing. My husband called my cell, from our home phone, I assumed, since as far as I knew, he was home with our other two children. I answered, and he said, “Where are you?” When I told him I was heading to the car, he said no, he needed to know exactly where I was located at that moment. Confused, I gave him a description of where I was on the sidewalk.
The next thing I knew, he was running across the street to me. He told my son and his friend to walk ahead. He grabbed me by the shoulders and looked me in the eyes and somehow choked out the words: There was a car accident, he told me, and my sister-in-law and niece were in critical condition, and my brother did not make it.
I don’t recall all the details of how I reacted. What I do remember is crying, screaming, “No, NO, NO, not Frank, NO, NOT FRANK…” The only thought in my mind was that this had not happened. It was not possible. I denied it totally, utterly, completely. Denial was not something I chose; it was something that instantaneously ignited inside me and radiated out like a force.
I soon found that my experience had little to do with what I understood as the “stages” of grieving, because for whatever reason, perhaps due to the particular set of circumstances of my loss, denial dominated my every thought. I hadn’t been given a chance to bargain. I had no time to be angry, not then anyway, occupied as I was with a flood of tasks.
But amazingly, in my heart I could continue to deny that this had happened, even as I sat at a funeral home, handled auto insurance claims, received condolences, wrote an obituary, gave a eulogy at a funeral service, and was basically deluged with every possible proof that my brother was no longer physically present on this earth.
Then several weeks ago, about six months after the accident, I realized that denial had changed into something different. As I listened to myself in various conversations with friends and family, I noticed I was saying over and over again: “I don’t believe it, still.” “I still can’t believe it.” “It doesn’t make sense.”Somehow the roaring fire of denial had transformed into the embers of disbelief, which to me feels quite different. I understand what happened in a way that I could not when in denial, and yet I am baffled by it. In denial, I rejected the truth. In disbelief, the truth is accessible to me, but I can find no logic to support it.
With their more tolerable yet still insistent heat, the embers of disbelief stay close. It is as if I carry them in my hand. I set them down just before I fall asleep. Then when I wake up each morning, wondering for a moment why something doesn’t feel quite right, I notice them by my bedside and remember. I pick them up and go about my day. I’m not sure how long they will burn.
Sarah Lyman Kravits