Chapter 1: Exploring feelings while living with a serious diagnosis

Disbelief and denial

I’ve been there
Catherine and Joel share about the importance of communicating and speaking open and honestly about the good and the bad and about living with a terminal illness(3:22)Video transcript

She felt a lot of doubt about the medical system. She thought maybe they were wrong.

Receiving bad news about the health of a family member (or your own) often leads to a sense of shock or disbelief, like living a bad dream. Absorbing information becomes difficult. It’s as if our whole system blocks things out. Sometimes disbelief can lead to denial.

What is denial?

Denial is a human way of protecting ourselves from an attack on our reality. It’s like wrapping ourselves up in bubble wrap in order to absorb the blows. As we become more able to face what we are experiencing, we are able to peel away the layers and rely less on denial.

Denial sometimes requires a bit of a balancing act within families and with caregivers. Never acknowledging that things are getting worse might lead to missed opportunities for important meaningful conversations or access to helpful care.

Since denial serves a purpose, it’s not always helpful to try to “take away” someone’s denial. Instead, families might consider trying to develop an understanding of each other and respecting differences in how each person responds emotionally.


If you’re not sure whether denial is becoming harmful, you may want to connect with a healthcare provider. This person can help you gain a perspective on your own emotional process and perhaps facilitate communication within your family or with the healthcare team.