Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Coping with the Stages of Grief: Denial

The stages of grief come and go with me.  They appear, disappear, and reappear in no particular order.  As this blog progresses, I’d like to share how I have (and in some cases still am) personally experiencing each stage and share the tools I used/am using to cope with it.  BEAR IN MIND: These points of view will be constantly evolving.  It is my journal after all.

So let’s start with denial. 

My experience with Denial

[Edit: I deleted the first part of this section simply because I felt the overall entry was too damn long and the story wasn't totally necessary to what I actually want to say on this particular topic.  I'll very likely bring it up in a future entry. Till then, you're not missing much.  Promise.]

Denial hits me these days in a way that’s far more passive than what they show in the movies.  I don’t deny Jenna is gone, but because we were at a point in our lives where we didn’t see each other every day and we only talked on the phone every week or every other week, it’s strange.  Everything around me feels so normal.  It’s tempting to just sort of ride that wave sometimes, but part of me is constantly working to keep reminding myself that she’s not there so I don’t forget—Because with every moment of forgetting, there’s a moment of remembering.  And those are the WORST.  

What’s more prevalent is the surreal nature of it all.  This isn’t the kind of thing that’s supposed to happen.  Jenna was such a practical person and the kind of person that did stupid things, but never THAT stupid (though whenever she crossed the line, she would ALWAYS get caught).

One night several years ago, Jenna was home alone and wanted some Chinese food.  Now for anyone who knew Jenna, you know that food was a very high priority.  Cravings bore supernatural powers.
The house we lived in through most of high school was beautiful, but it was just outside of the delivery range of any food place other than Dominos and Pizza Hut.  So if Chinese food was to be had, someone was going to have to go pick it up.  Unfortunately, Jenna only had her driver’s permit and no one else was home – My parents were out and I was at my high school prom.  So Jenna made the only decision she could have: Steal her sister’s car and go pick up the food herself.
The drive was successful.  Jenna made it to the Chinese place and back without destroying my car or anyone around her.  My parents came home and asked where she got the Chinese food; Jenna shrugged and said she found a place that delivered.  My parents thought nothing of it.  Anyone else would have been able to consider this just something silly they did when they were fifteen and got away with it.  BUT THIS… WAS JENNA. 
When I was in high school I had this purple PT Cruiser with the very distinct license plate, “GIRLS PT” (we got it when they were still cool…).  Needless to say, this was a very  recognizable car.  The next day, my mom was talking to her friend who off-handedly mentioned that she saw ME driving around last night.  This gave my mother pause… Amanda was at her prom… How could she have been driving around?
“Are you sure it was Amanda?”
“Yeah! I recognized the license plate.  Why?”
The Chinese food!
Of course, my parents couldn’t confront Jenna in the normal way.  They had to screw with her a bit first.  They basically asked her to explain the Chinese food (my dad pretended he wanted to order from there) and watched her pile one feeble lie on top of the other until she cracked.  
So… Let’s take a moment here to reflect.  Only Jenna had this kind of luck.  Only Jenna would commit such a STUPID infraction and only Jenna would FAIL at it so epically.  I have so many more stories precisely like this that I can’t wait to share with you.  This one just happens to be one of my favorites.

Anyway, back to our previously scheduled program…

So yeah.  The surreal nature of it is definitely a thing.  It’s a big thing.  Talking about Jenna in the past tense feels so uncomfortable, but talking about her in the present feels like I’m kidding myself.  Most of the time, the idea that this is real gives me the same feeling I get when I think about the size of the universe.  Everything just starts feeling… wibbly wobbly. The whole thing is wrong.  The usual comforting thoughts that the person we’ve lost lived a full life or they were in pain and now in a better place... They don't work here.  It’s like she was struck by lightning.

So How Do You Deal?

So here we are in Denial.  We want this to have never happened.  We don’t want to believe Jenna can’t be with us in the way that we’re used to.  That’s denial in its classic form.  It's easy to recognize and it's something that affects us far more obviously right after the fact than in the weeks/months/years to follow.

The other side of denial that I think is far more prevalent and likely to affect us long after we've stopped looking for it is that in our attempts to avoid denial, we often deprive ourselves of things we don’t have to.

The trick is recognizing the difference between these compulsions to hide from this terrible circumstance and finding the real pieces you’re ALLOWED to keep and may not even realize it.

So here are some things that you can do when that moment of realization hits you again, and you find yourself missing her more than you can bear:

Have a conversation

This isn't just about talking to Jenna.  That's praying.  That's wonderful, but I like this better.  I mean talking to her and listening to what she has to say in return.

Okay so the first thing I want to say is that at first glance, this may sound a little "Gollum talking to himself in LOTR."  But it's not.  This is not developing a split personality.  It's simply helping yourself access that part of you that holds someone you love, and it gives you the opportunity to get the comfort and advice you've been missing.

Here’s how you do it.  First, you pick a place and you picture her.  I usually like to imagine her in her long sleeved t-shirt and sweats, with her hair pulled back in a high ponytail and that elastic thing she always wore around her wispies.  The visualization is important.  Often I imagine her sitting on the edge of my bed, sometimes she’ll be walking next to me, sometimes she’ll be in the passenger seat of my car.  Acknowledging that she does take up space really adds to this.  The more you can make yourself feel like she’s really there with you, the easier it is to feel like you’re really talking to her.  If you accidentally knock into her “space” while you’re walking, interrupt your train of thought with an “Oop!  Sorry!”  Now, she always responds to me with an, “I’m not really here you weirdo…” but I like it.  It adds a lot for me.

So talking to her.  I always make sure I say what I want to say out loud, even if it’s just a whisper, then hear her responses in my head.  It makes it feel less like you’re just having a conversation with yourself.  The final step is the trickiest one.  You have to relax your mind and sort of turn yourself into a human Ouija board.  JENNA is talking to you.  Not you.  So she wouldn’t respond the way you would.  I get myself to those places in a couple different ways.  Sometimes it takes me a few seconds of conversation to feel like I’m really there.  Think about the words she uses that are different from yours.  Think about the speed that she speaks.  It usually helps me if I make sure I don’t forget to tease her and make sure she takes shots at me.  Because that’s the way she talked.  Let her get frustrated or bored with you if necessary.  Anything else is just a prayer.

I do this whenever I’m lonely.  But this is also what I do whenever I fall into holes.  Sometimes I get into spirals that I can’t come out of.  I start getting hysterical about the injustice of it all or over the horrible aspects of this loss that will never go away.  

The most powerful time this helped me was a few weeks ago.  Something set me off and all of a sudden, I couldn’t stop thinking about how Jenna died – How it must have felt, what thoughts may have been in her head, and of course the worst possible scenarios that I knew weren’t even true.  I started panicking.  So my boyfriend reminded me to do the only thing that ever works in situations like this: Talk to Jenna.  I took a deep breath, I visualized her sitting on the edge of my bed the way she would when we were catching up at home, looking at me with the facial expression she wore when I was really upset about something: The “I’m concerned that you are this worked up, but calm the fuck down because you are making me seriously uncomfortable” face.  I relaxed my brain and did what I do.

She asked me what was wrong and I told her.  I told her how much I missed her and she responded the way she always does: “I know.”  I told her that I got caught in a panic spiral about the way she died and I just couldn’t shake it.  In my minds eye, she sighed, and her expression changed to the one she always wore when she was getting ready to tell me something that simply wouldn’t stick if it were coming from someone else.  That look that told me I was probably going to respond with a lot of “buts”, but she was right and I was going to know it.  And this is what I heard in my head:

“Look, I know you’re all super in touch with your feelings and you’re all about making sure you acknowledge them at all costs.  And normally that’s a good thing.  In a lot of ways that makes you healthier than the rest of us.  But for this one particular thing, you’re going to have to act like a normal person.  You need to just shut this one out.  You’ve already thought about this enough.  You figured out how things actually happened and that’s great!  But now the only thing left that thinking about this will do is hurt you.  You’re just torturing yourself and you need to just STOP.”

“But how can I just…?”

“Upbupbup!  Gih!  Just stop.  Suppressing isn’t always a bad thing.  No more good can come of thinking about it so what’s the point?  There’s NO POINT.”

“Yeah… I know you’re right.”


“It’s just so hard.”

“Well not for most people.  Suppressing is actually way easier than the shit you do.  You’re just an emotionally healthy freak.”

The thing about “talking to Jenna” like this is that, even though I know it’s in my mind (Ha… that got very Les Mis “On My Own for a second didn’t it?), it lets me get to places that I probably wouldn’t have if I just let myself stay in my own mindset.  And that is something very special and extremely important.

Let her be around you when you’re doing things

You don’t always have to talk.  Sometimes just knowing that she’s with you to see certain things can be all you need at the moment.  My dad told me a while back how much he just wanted to be able to hug her.  I get that.  But Jenna was never a very physical person with her family (she did not enjoy hugs from us – It was amusing).

I reminded my dad that when it came to the exchange of affection between Jenna and us, it was less about being able to touch her and more about the feeling of her on the couch next to you, watching one of our shows.  Even with the people she was affectionate with, so much more of Jenna’s power was in her presence.  I was talking to Emily, one of Jenna’s friends – our neighbor growing up, went to the same school as Jenna from preschool to high school, and even when they went off to college was a constant in her life – and we agreed that it was soothing just be in a room with her.

And lucky us, this is something that is easier to tap into and still get access to than possibly anything else we’ve lost.  If we let ourselves stop being distracted by what we’re missing and simply open our hearts, you can definitely still feel that same presence during key moments.  I don’t always feel her, but when I do, there’s no doubt in my mind she’s there.  For example: It’s especially prevalent during movies whenever a trailer comes on for something she and I would’ve loved.

I also felt her the other day in the gym.  Jenna always made fun of my lack of athleticism while simultaneously attempting to harass me into cultivating more.  I was on the elliptical for the first time in a long time, listening to her iPod.  I was about to get off when my lungs started burning around the usual mark, then suddenly… 99 Red Balloons by Goldfinger came on.  That was one of our songs that we always rocked out to in the car.  As soon as that first chord hit me, I looked up and saw her in front of me, raising her eyebrows in a “Don’t you dare get off that thing sort of way”, so I took a deep breath and pushed through.  I imagined her dancing in front of me the way we always used to when we would close the office door, blast a song, and take a break from doing homework in high school, mouthing the words all the while with a blatant “You’re a terrible athlete and you suck but I will kill you if you give up now” subtext.

So it’s stuff like that.  Let yourself feel her.  If you need her, let her be there.  But don’t let it be in that clichéd way you see on TV.  It’s just like the conversations.  Jenna had a very specific way that made her special.  Don’t deny yourself that.

Love Your Dreams

I plan on writing an entire entry about the nature of my dreams in particular, but this is already getting long so I’ll keep things general.  Not being afraid to dream about Jenna is a huge part of healing.  Sometimes just seeing her in a dream can ease the pain of missing her, and sometimes I have lucid dreams – A dream where we both know she’s gone and we both know that this is a dream.  Those are actually my favorite.  I actually feel like I'm with her rather than just thinking about her.  Again, I’ll go into my dreams a bit more some other day.  For you, if you feel like you’re missing Jenna particularly hard, think about your best memories before you go to sleep.  Imagine her waiting for you there.  And if you want to lucid dream, here’s how to start practicing: When you wake up from any dream, close your eyes and add on to the ending.  Bring closure to whatever scene you were in.  Don’t describe it in your head, SEE IT.  Hear it.  Use your imagination.  This is particularly useful with bad dreams.

I would like to take a moment to remind those reading this (in case they don’t already know) that these strategies may not be for everyone.  They are just tools in my toolbox that have worked for me.  If you can’t take your mind certain places, don’t force yourself.  Do whatever comforts you. 

What do these things have to do with Denial again?

I have many other coping mechanisms but these are the ones I use for denial.  These might seem like strange ways to deal with denial, but like I said, being hyper aware of accepting what's happened can often make you blind to things that can offer real and healthy comfort.  Yes, we have lost.  We must accept that.  However, we haven’t lost as much as we think, and that can be even harder to accept with all the sadness making us question everything that might really comfort us.  It’s my belief that these acts of exploring the new things you DO have can also help you come to terms with and accept the old things that you don’t anymore.


COMMENTS: I have changed my blog settings so anyone can post.  Please share what Jenna looks like in your mind's eye (hairstyle, clothes, expression), any conversations you've had with her, or simply any stories you remember.


  1. When I think of Jenna I see her coming up the stairs, (or down depending on which house I'm remembering) dressed to the nine's in something new, hair all straightened and beautified, eyelashes long and curled, and smelling of some delicious perfume. She's saying, "doesn't this outfit look cute", and I, of course, agree, then she flits off for the evening. But only after I make her hug me. Mom

  2. I had the opportunity to get to know Jenna during our VIDA trip to Guatemala. We were roommates for a few nights which gave me the chance to get to know her and share our amazing VIDA experience. I always remember Jenna when she was watching the final Packers game of the season. It was a very cheap hotel with a tiny tv that got awful reception. Jenna was glued to the tv intently watching the game. When the Packers lost I was actually concerned she might start crying. She could hardly look at the tv. Jenna's spirit was something I will never forget. I went on my trip not knowing anyone, but quickly became friends with her. I am so thankful for the opportunity to get to know her, even if it was for a short time. Her memory will be forever with me, especially on my next VIDA trip.