The Psych Writer: Grief – Phase One: Shock & Disbelief

On August 18, I posted a bit about the seven stages, or phases, of grief as part of an ongoing series of writing from a psychological point of view. So this week, I begin with what is referred to as the first phase or stage: shock and disbelief.

Note that these phases are organized for the benefit of the clinician. They are not set in stone and the patient will likely not feel these things in order, or one at a time. They might, but they might not. Grief is individualized.

This phase is typically considered first because many people have this reaction upon hearing bad news. This can be the death of a loved one, loss of a job, the end of a relationship, a rape, assault, etc. Sometimes it comes back later. Sometimes it doesn’t show up at first and another phase takes its place. Sometimes, it happens at exactly the same time (concurrent to) as another phase.

Shock & Disbelief from the Patient’s POV
The patient, upon hearing the bad news, may experience shock and disbelief immediately. they “go numb” and don’t feel anything at all. They express that they “don’t know what to feel,” or “this can’t be happening.” They feel dazed. “It was like I was punched in the gut. It took my breath away.”

Shock and disbelief are your mind’s immediate defense mechanism in most situations. This phase can last for weeks and lead to denial (remember the caveat that these can also happen concurrently). “I don’t know what to think.” That is shock and disbelief. “It can’t be true.”

Shock & Disbelief from the Therapist’s POV
When a therapist who specializes in trauma is with a patient in this phase, there is a lot of work to be done in terms of assessment. How is the patient’s affect? Usually in shock and disbelief, the therapist will see that the patient reports the trauma the same way they’d read a weather report. There is often flat affect (they don’t emote on any level and it shows in their faces), and it is up to the therapist to help the patient manage the trauma so that it doesn’t get worse or so overwhelming that they turn to damaging coping mechanisms.

The work done in this phase is especially important for those with PTSD so that the counselor avoids retraumatizing the patient. There is a lot of work to be done in terms of containing the shock and making sure the patient doesn’t turn to previous addictions or self-harm.

As the counselor you must also be culturally aware of this phase and how it affects a person inside of their culture. Someone who comes from Northern European descent and is active in that culture may not actually be in shock and be in depression, but their affect seems to reflect shock and disbelief. Avoid stereotyping and be aware of cultural cues.

What this Means for You, the Writer
As you write, be aware of the character’s mind protecting him or her from devastation. If you wish to build a character who is going to develop PTSD, make sure that the trauma is fresh in the character’s mind and during their shock and disbelief phase, the character has severe reliving experiences of the moment that put him or her in shock, and that they keep “re-shocking” themselves. The shock and disbelief may even go so far as to interfere with functioning, or, conversely, the character may throw himself/herself into work or school.

If you came here looking for psychological assistance, please contact your local crisis line. Dial 2-1-1 in the US for the United Way, or contact the Samaritans in the UK. For a list of international crisis lines, click here.

Shock and disbelief is the first phase on the journey of grief. It is not fun, it is not pleasant, and in some cases, it is soul-crushing. It is your brain’s way of saving you from pain. When you write it, think of a time that you were shocked, and go beyond that to put yourself in your character’s shoes. Remember, writing isn’t just about you, it’s about stretching yourself.

Be well and get writing.

Well that was a heavy topic, I know. For some lighthearted things, check out my Facebook and Twitter. Or for some entertaining fiction, grab a copy of Exit 1042.



The Psych Writer: Seven Stages of Grief

By popular demand (with only one detractor and over 50 votes total), and a burning desire to put my graduate studies to good use, I’ve decided to combine two things I love and am good at by starting something that may help other writers. I’m putting together a series called The Psych Writer.

This series will consist of different psychological problems and mental illnesses. I will explore them with some level of depth for the following purposes:

  • To give readers and writers a clearer understanding of the psychopathology behind particular mental illnesses and life problems.
  • To give writers who are writing from a therapist’s perspective a better understanding of how a trained therapist would work with such psychopathology.

Granted, you will want to take poetic license at some point to make your work fit your world. The purpose is not so that you write a counselor, therapist, or psychologist perfectly, but that you have a better understanding of how they’ve been trained. That way, you might avoid writing some cringe-worthy material for the in-the-know audience, and make it far more believable and less distracting when read.

This installment deals with the seven stages (or phases) of grief. It’s a brief overview, as I intend to go in-depth on each phase in the following seven installments of The Psych Writer.

Grief is not a mental illness unless it becomes complicated (and even then it’s not truly a mental disorder yet according to the DSM-V, but we’ll discuss that in a later installment), but it is considered a life problem that can interfere with functioning. This is normal and it happens to virtually everyone.

Because we’ll be exploring these seven stages in-depth, I will refrain from delving into the writer’s and therapist’s perspectives. For this installment, we’ll go over a quick outlook at the stages.

Bear in mind that these phases are put in order for the convenience of the therapist, and that real human beings do not experience these stages in a nice, neat manner. Instead, they may experience them in order, out of order, or concurrently. All of that is considered normal and expected.

Additionally, these seven phases do not belong solely in the realm of death of a loved one. They can mark any kind of loss or end of most anything. Divorce, loss of a limb, end of a relationship, etc.

Phase One: Shock/Disbelief
“I can’t believe s/he’s gone.” This is probably the most uttered expression of disbelief and is the most well-known. The person in bereavement often describes feeling numb or nothing. No tears come even though they want them to or believe they should. They are so in shock sometimes that they faint upon hearing the news of a loss. Some feel like they’re on automatic pilot. This stage may last a few days, or a few weeks.

Phase Two: Denial
This used to be a part of shock and disbelief, but therapists tend to agree denial is a phase all of its own. Denial mimics shock at times in its lack of feelings, but it goes deeper than the initial shock of the news. It’s a full setting aside of one’s emotions so that they can carry on, which sounds great, right? Except inside, there’s an ugly storm brewing. Getting stuck in this phase can lead to substance abuse and other types of self-harm. This phase can go so far as the person pretending their loved one isn’t dead. They want to pretend it never happened or that there was some reversible mistake and any moment now, their loved one or whatever was lost will walk through the door or spontaneously regenerate. More on that later.

Phase Three: Bargaining
Some people plead to have their loved one back, even when they know it’s not possible. It’s been 20 years since my father died, and there are moments when I still hit that bargaining phase (I’d give away all my possessions to hear his voice again, or some variation of that phrase). This is something a therapist will hear in many terminally ill patients, but it happens to almost everyone. They want their losses returned. They may pray or bargain with God if they believe in the concept. They may just engage in wishful thinking.

Phase Four: Guilt
This phase comes in a variety of forms. A person feels guilty because they didn’t spend enough time with a loved one. They feel guilty because they had to make an end-of-life decision on the person’s behalf, and they question it–what if it was a mistake? They beat themselves up over having to make the decision, even though it was likely the best choice given their ugly situation. They are wracked with guilt about so many things they may not be able to put their finger on it.

Phase Five: Anger
“How dare he leave me?” “I hate him for dying!” This phase is self-explanatory, almost (but not quite). A person in bereavement is often furious at the loss, at the person, or the entity. They get angry with themselves, the person who ’caused’ the loss, the loss itself, and lash out at everyone in their way. I’ve noticed that with job loss, this phase tends to come earlier for people than it does in the case of death of a loved one. But it’s still there, and it’s still potent.

Phase Six: Depression
Here come the tears. In this phase (again, these phases are fluid and not concrete in any manner), the person is often crying and sad about the situation. They sleep too much or have difficulty sleeping. They don’t eat, or they overeat. It is what most people ‘see’ as being grief. Often, laypeople don’t realize that depression isn’t the only phase of grief and think that this is the only expression of the bereavement process. It isn’t, of course, but it’s usually the one that’s considered the most acceptable, or at least expected (depending upon cultural relevance).

Phase Seven: Acceptance
Oh, how some people think this is a happy time. It isn’t. Oh sure, in the case of job loss when you accept it and start pounding the pavement looking for something new, it brings peace that enables you to move on, but with death and dying? NO. This is not a happy time in the slightest. Acceptance can bring peace with the fact that you’re going to die, a loved one is going to die, or they have died, but by no means is this a cause for celebration.

I had a friend who was dying over a short period of time due to a rapidly developing terminal illness. We were sitting together on one of her final days and I asked, “are  you ready to die?” She turned her big blue-green eyes to me and gave me a small smile. “Sure. I mean, it’s not like there’s anything good on TV.” That was one of the best expressions of acceptance I’d ever heard. But it wasn’t happy for either of us. Humorous, yes, but not happy. She accepted her fate and died about a week later. This, my loving readers, is acceptance.

While I can hardly believe I got through that entire post without a single swear word, I can’t promise that for future posts. I hope that this series will prove to be fruitful for you as the reader or the writer.

If you came here to read and are in need of assistance getting through grief, please click this link to find hotlines in the US and Canada, and click here for a list of international hotlines. You can also search for local hospices, as they have a number of grief counseling resources.

Anne Hogue-Boucher isn’t always a horrible person who writes horror stories, but it’s fun when she does. You can follow her for more fun and entertaining content on Twitter and Facebook. Also, don’t put pennies on train tracks. It’s a waste of pennies.

Anne L. Hogue-Boucher’s answer to Are horror writers less easily scared than normal people? – Quora

I’m sharing this via (5) Anne L. Hogue-Boucher’s answer to Are horror writers less easily scared than normal people? – Quora because I love to answer anything and everything at this site.

I’m considering doing an in-depth look at writing mentally ill characters. Far too many people overuse terms like “psychopath” and have no idea what they’re talking about. A famous example of this is Steven Moffat. He honestly has no clue, and I’m puzzled as to why he’s so interested in making psychopaths out of people who just aren’t.

Possibly because he’s a complete buffoon. Possibly because he is willfully ignorant.

Anyway, I tire of the trend of idiots who think they know psychology because they read that pop-culture magazine all about psychology … who shall remain unnamed.

Still toying with the idea, and not sure I’m sold on it. Let me know your thoughts by hitting me up on Twitter or Facebook.

In the meantime, happy writing!

Facing the Blank Page

For some novice writers (and, on occasion, seasoned writers), that blank page is the ultimate enemy. The white screen stares you in the face, and you’re lost for something to put on it.

Sure, it’s easy for me to say “just put your fingers on the keys and start writing.” It’s easy for me because that’s what I do. But I didn’t get to this point all at once. No, I was trained to do it–and you can train yourself to do it, too.

See, for me, I’m a writer for a living. If I don’t write, I don’t eat. That’s not a great plan for effective weight loss, by the way. I don’t recommend it.

In order to keep my stellar figure, that means I have to put words on the page so I can get paid for them. So the blank page has to be eliminated.

Now, for creative writers, especially those starting out, may need a little nudge to get training. One tool that can provide the nudge is using writing prompts. Once you’re trained, you might discover that you even like using them now and then.

These prompts may vary. They can be vague, such as “rain pattering,” or specific, such as “your character discovers an ancient coin on the beach.” No matter what, though, it can be enough to get your brain juiced (yum?).

One of the more valuable tools I found is here at 365 Creative Writing Prompts – ThinkWritten. You can train yourself for a year with these prompts. Agree to a daily word count (start with 500 if you’re a new writer and build your muscles by adding 25 words to that count each day till you’re somewhere between 1500-3000), and use each of these prompts to tell yourself a story. Who knows? Some of these might turn into short stories, and others, a novel.

As always, the advice is: just write. This is one tool that will help you defeat the blank page.

Happy writing.

I write, and I edit like a fiend. You can follow me on Twitter for semi-frequent weirdness, or on Facebook for kicks (not literal kicks).