‘Denial’ writes David Whyte in his book Consolations, ‘is an underestimated state of being. Denial is an ever present and even splendid thing when seen in the light of its merciful and elemental powers to cradle and hold an identity until it is ready to move on.’
Reading these words gave me a different perspective on mum’s denial that her condition was terminal (as it is for us all, of course, but in this case the cancer was going to shorten her lifespan long before she was ready to let go of life). We heard at the first consultation, after all the scans, that it was only a matter of time. She heard that this was a blip, and she continued to make plans for ’after’ – a trip to Spain, visiting Colombia with her sister, moving house, starting a new life in a new community…
There were times when I wanted to shake her – didn’t she understand what we were all dealing with? That we were living through the last months of her life? How painful it was for us not to be able to talk about it with her? How painful it was full stop? And at the same time I also somehow felt that I didn’t have the right to take her denial away from her, however much it was costing us.
When she finally heard – exactly a month to the day before she died – that there was nothing more that could be done, that she wasn’t receiving more chemo not because she didn’t need it but because her body was failing and there would be no benefit, she was devastated. And then, accepting. And we were finally able to talk about ‘after’, update her will, make funeral arrangements together, what to do with her body. She even made the phone call to the friend she wanted to do the eulogy (turns out we would have asked the wrong person if she’d left it to us) and after she hung up, she said, ‘I think I’ve just ruined his evening!’ She asked us to record the funeral so she could watch it later, forgetting for a moment why she wasn’t going to be there.
As David Whyte writes: ‘Refusing to face what we are not yet ripe and ready to face can help us to live in the present.’ Looking back I can see the ways that mum’s denial helped her to cope with what was happening to her, helped her to carry on, because she didn’t see any reason not to. After she moved house she unpacked every box, hung all the pictures, bought some new furniture, planted up the garden – all things she might not have bothered to do had she known she wasn’t going to be there for the next twenty years but only for the next ten months. Her denial meant that she had a lovely garden and a comfortable home arranged to her liking in which to spend those last ten months.
‘Faced with the depth of loss and disappearance in the average life, a measure of denial is creative, necessary and self-compassionate.’ I had always thought of denial as something that was negative, unhelpful, even dangerous. Re-examining my experience of mum’s denial, I’m beginning to see that there are times when it can indeed be creative, necessary and self-compassionate.