What Does It Mean to Hit the 'Acceptance' Stage When Grieving a Loved One?
For the past few days, I have been contemplating the meaning of “acceptance.” We often hear of the five stages of grief, and some understand them to describe a methodological process. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, who presented these stages, later clarified they were simply meant to be an overall depiction of what those who grieve experience. It’s not that we complete one stage, then move on to the next and the next, etc., nor that once we have traveled through these stages our grieving is somehow complete. How nice that would be if we could simply journey through those five stages and then wrap it all up in a box and store it away with our child’s belongings.
Those of us on this journey know grief is not that simple.
David Kessler, who co-authored two books with Kübler-Ross, explained it this way:
The stages have evolved since their introduction and have been very misunderstood over the past four decades. They were never meant to help tuck messy emotions into neat packages. They are responses to loss that many people have, but there is not a typical response to loss as there is no typical loss.
When I first had thoughts on the meaning of “acceptance,” I questioned: “Am I suppose to accept that my son is dead? I know he’s dead; I buried him. I’m very well aware of the fact that my son is dead.” So what does “acceptance” mean? Searching the definitions online did not sufficiently answer that question for me. Acceptance in grief is not a mere superficial state of the mind; it is a matter of the heart. Sadly, many who have not known such a loss (and hopefully never do) have often heard of these stages and therefore make an assumption that we who grieve will “arrive” eventually at a completed stage of acceptance, and then all will be good… we will be the person we once were before our loss.
Nothing could be farther from the truth.
I don’t know the year, the day, the hour in which I accepted my son would not be calling, would not be walking through the front door, will not be bringing me some unexpected little gift, etc.. I just know I did. Because of my faith, I have always known though he is physically dead, he still lives and I will see him again. I know this physical separation is temporary. Yet, I still miss him terribly. Yet, I still have moments, even days, I am overwhelmed with a pain that runs so deep it can be physically felt. If not for the Grace of God, it would utterly consume me.
So what is acceptance? Kessler has offered a more complete understanding:
Acceptance is often confused with the notion of being “all right” or “OK” with what has happened. This is not the case. Most people don’t ever feel OK or all right about the loss of a loved one. This stage is about accepting the reality that our loved one is physically gone and recognizing that this new reality is the permanent reality. We will never like this reality or make it OK, but eventually we accept it. We learn to live with it. It is the new norm with which we must learn to live. We must try to live now in a world where our loved one is missing. In resisting this new norm, at first many people want to maintain life as it was before a loved one died. In time, through bits and pieces of acceptance, however, we see that we cannot maintain the past intact. It has been forever changed and we must readjust. We must learn to reorganize roles, re-assign them to others or take them on ourselves. Finding acceptance may be just having more good days than bad ones. As we begin to live again and enjoy our life, we often feel that in doing so, we are betraying our loved one. We can never replace what has been lost, but we can make new connections, new meaningful relationships, new inter-dependencies. Instead of denying our feelings, we listen to our needs; we move, we change, we grow, we evolve. We may start to reach out to others and become involved in their lives. We invest in our friendships and in our relationship with ourselves. We begin to live again, but we cannot do so until we have given grief its time.
I’m grateful for this clarification. I do wish the onlookers of our grief understood this stage of acceptance more thoroughly. Perhaps, it would help them, too. Perhaps, it would alter expectations and assist them in reaching a stage of acceptance.
Author’s note: I am the author of this piece and using it without my written permission is against copyright law. Registration# TX 8-383-134
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