Shock. Numbness. Denial.

For the first two years of my PhD I lived in an undergraduate hall as a ‘responsible adult’. The friends I made during those two years are the people I love best in this city. Without them, I doubt I’d have made it to the end of my first year. Many have moved on: I haven’t seen several in months. I tell myself that we’ll see each other when we have time.

At the weekend one of those friends passed away, following a cycling accident. I heard on Monday morning. And I am numb.

I’ve spent the last couple of days sitting at my desk. I’ve been writing a lot (I have a handful of draft posts as well as the two from yesterday, plus bits of my thesis) because I don’t trust myself to concentrate in the lab. I am living in a dream world. Every time somebody notices that I am quiet and withdrawn and despondent I tell them, even though they don’t want to know. Perhaps if I say it out loud it will be true. I am waiting for it to be real. I am waiting for me to believe it.

Because I don’t. Not yet. It has been over 48 hours since I heard the news and two of my very best friends are falling apart. And I still don’t believe it’s true. I am still waiting for the phone call to tell me it was all a mistake. It was a different Alex. They just got the name wrong.

Even in the dark nights of my soul I remain a scientist. I am curious about the macabre. My heart looks for answers even when my brain can’t find the words.  After I had read everything about my PhD for today, and all the science news for today, I read about grief instead. We’ve all heard of the Kübler-Ross five stages of grief. Denial (or denial-dissociation-isolation). Anger. Bargaining. Depression. Acceptance.

In 1989 a group actually wrote a paper examining whether grief really does follow this formula. Wortman and Silver (1989) examined whether individuals actually need to go through all five stages. They concluded that depression was not inevitable. Some people never experience this stage. They also said that it wasn’t necessary to undergo distress in order to “work through” a traumatic event such as bereavement or bad news. Frighteningly, they include a section on the significant minority of people who do not recover from grief.

Another study by Paul K. Maciejewski et al examined Acceptance, Yearning, Depression, Anger and Disbelief as stages of grief in 233 bereaved individuals, where relatives had died by natural not traumatic causes.

They primarily concentrated on the fact that the majority of negative feelings were in decline by the 6 month mark, but their research also found a much higher incidence of Acceptance at an early stage than expected.

This is really a pseudo-science post. Maybe I’ll come back and write it later. Maybe I’ll feel something later.


Paul K. Maciejewski et al (2007) An Empirical Examination of the Stage Theory of Grief
JAMA. 297(7):716-723. doi:10.1001/jama.297.7.716

Wortman CB, Silver RC. (1989) The myths of coping with loss.  J Consult Clin Psychol. 57349-357

2 responses to “Shock. Numbness. Denial.

  1. Really sorry to hear about your friend Boo. I hope you’re OK. I imagine that a death like your friend’s is much harder to accept than the death of someone elderly, or who has been ill for a long time – there isn’t as much shock, you may feel that the person led a very full life, you may even have had time to explicitly say goodbye. When it’s a shock, when the person is young (or relatively so) the experience isn’t going to be the same. I know that when a tutor of our mutual acquaintance died, I spent months and months walking around Oxford “spotting” him, thinking “he’s blanked me, as usual” – and then you get that punch-in-the-stomach feeling.

  2. Hey wadhamite,

    Thanks hun. Yeah, that’s exactly it. I think I still don’t believe it, because it seems so… illogical? I know Belle didn’t really fall apart until she saw a local newspaper piece with photos and comments from his parents and girlfriend. Tbh a big part of why I’m going to the Dark Side on Monday for the funeral is just because I think that might finally bring it home. Young people shouldn’t die :-S

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