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.