Róisín Ingle: I’m in denial about something distressing. Perhaps you are too

As a strategy to avoid potentially distressing feelings, denial can come in handy

Years and years ago I wrote a not-very-good short story called Texting Tara. It was about the aftermath of the death of a young woman called, spoiler alert, Tara. I no longer have a copy of the story and my memory is vague, but I recall that one of the overarching themes was denial.

Denial is used as a defence mechanism. One that allows us to ignore the reality of a situation for self-protection purposes. As a strategy to avoid potentially distressing feelings, denial can come in handy. I’m in denial about something distressing as I am typing this. Perhaps you are too.

In my awful short story, this dead Tara character had been buried with her mobile phone. It was back in the olden times when phones were used only for communication purposes and playing a game called Snake. In my mediocre story, Tara’s friend, unable to accept her death, had continued Texting Tara long after she’d been put in the coffin alongside her beloved Nokia 3310.

The story was inspired by a slot on RTÉ's Liveline where I’d heard a man talking about the fact that he had continued to text a loved one after she’d died. It gave him comfort to think that he was still communicating with her. It meant he didn’t have to fully accept the reality and finality of his relative’s death. Instead, he could exist in a sort of liminal space where the terrible truth could be held at bay.


I’m quite good at denial. There has to be some pay-off for losing a parent at an early age. When I remember walking myself to school at the age of eight, having just heard the news of my father’s sudden death, I can almost feel the compartmentalisation taking place, the walls going up, the gates clanging closed. I walked to school as though the death of my father had not occurred. It was only standing in the school hall, an assembly having been called, that my denial was rudely interrupted. The assembly had been called to mark the death of my father. It’s hard to be in denial when the whole school is looking at you with pitying eyes, but I managed.

Of course, denial is not a viable long-term strategy, but it can be useful. Doing a bit of research on it recently, I read how the brain is wired for survival and if a distressing situation has the potential to cause pain, the brain will find creative ways to keep the experiences at a distance. Wanting to compartmentalise or shut things out shows a desire for self-preservation. “It’s a superpower,” a friend texted recently when we were discussing our talent for temporarily avoiding things for our own mental health.

I do have a particular talent for denial in difficult times and I trace it back to that childhood experience. It’s not always a superpower. In therapy on and off over the years, I learnt a lot about myself and the eight-year-old I still carry around inside me. In times of distress, she can often seize control, like I’m a puppet and she’s pulling the strings. The best therapist I ever had gave me a good analogy for this. She said to think of life like a motorway on which we all drive a car. In challenging times, it was like I was letting the eight-year-old drive the car, not the best strategy considering she doesn’t know how to drive. Inevitably she’d end up causing havoc and veering wildly off course or crashing. My therapist suggested in those moments when my inner eight-year-old had jumped in the driver’s seat, I needed to gently, kindly, put her on the passenger side, making sure to fasten her seatbelt, before taking the wheel myself. (The only thing wrong with this analogy is that “adult me” does not know how to drive a car either. Otherwise, it’s perfect.)

Denial is primitive and powerful. I hadn’t thought about the Texting Tara story in years, but recently, in a hairdresser’s salon, I heard a story that reminded me of it. The woman telling the story was doing the hair of a woman next to me. I was hanging on her every word. The hairdresser was talking about a friend of hers who had a warped sense of humour and a strange way of dealing with difficult things. When she was 18, this friend’s mother had died. Her mother had been buried with her “beloved” mobile phone. “She loved that phone,” her husband, the hairdresser’s friend’s father, said at the time.

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A few months after the funeral, sitting upstairs in the home she shared with her widowed dad, the hairdresser’s friend changed her phone number to her dead mother’s number. Then she texted her father as though from her dead mother’s phone: “Get me out of this hole!” she wrote.

The hairdresser’s friend went downstairs then and her agitated father, his own mobile phone in hand, told her what had just happened. He was, not surprisingly, distraught that his dead wife was apparently texting him from the grave. After a while, the young woman confessed what she had done. Her father immediately stopped speaking to her or acknowledging her existence. For an entire year he walked past his daughter, on the stairway, in the kitchen, in the hall, as though she was invisible. As though he no longer had a daughter. The ultimate denial.

Sitting here now, deep in denial of that which would otherwise distress me, I think of all the dead people buried with their mobile phones and the many ways people have of grieving. I think of how the truth is often stranger than bad fiction. I think of how we need to be kind to ourselves and kind to the people in our lives who find comfort in the denial of difficult truths. We might get there eventually, but right now we can’t handle those truths. Let us be.