Chapter 1: Exploring feelings while living with a serious diagnosis

Shock and denial

I’ve been there
Catherine and Joel discuss the importance of open and honest communication about Catherine's advanced illness(3:22)Video transcript

She felt a lot of doubt about the medical system. She thought maybe they were wrong.

It’s common to experience a range of thoughts and feelings when you or someone you care about has been diagnosed with a serious illness. These may include shock and disbelief. A person’s emotions at the time of diagnosis can make it difficult to remember what was said in the medical appointment. Some people may seem to be “in denial” shortly after a diagnosis or sometime later. However, it’s important to consider that everyone needs time to adjust to a new set of life-changing circumstances.

What is denial?

Denial is a way of protecting ourselves from an attack on our reality. As people take in the information, their sense of denial and shock usually lessens with time. It’s important to respect that some people may not wish to talk about their illness for various reasons that may include protecting those they care about.

Because denial serves a purpose, it’s not always helpful to try to take that away from the person who appears to be in denial. Instead, families sometimes develop an understanding that includes respecting differences in how they respond to the situation.

If the person does not wish to talk about their illness and it’s preventing the family from being able to get helpful supports, families might seek the help of a social worker or counsellor. Never acknowledging that things are getting worse can lead to missed opportunities for important conversations or access to helpful care.


If you’re concerned about a person’s denial, consider contacting a healthcare provider. They are well positioned to support you and may refer you to a counsellor or social worker or help facilitate a family meeting.