Rethinking Acceptance in Grief: A Love/Hate Story

Understanding Grief / Understanding Grief : Litsa

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I can’t remember when I first heard about the five stages of grief. But, I do know it must have happened sometime between age seven and age twelve. I was not one of those kids who made it to adulthood without death shattering their world. So, though I don’t remember first hearing the five stages, I know that by age twelve I hated them. Or, at least I hated one of them.

Some backstory

When I was a kid I had a best friend. He lived right down the street. We were born two months apart and our moms reminded us that we knew each other before we were born. His dad and my dad were good friends (“best friends”, we used to tell people). His mom and my mom were good friends (also “best friends”, of course). Our families were best friends. We had movie nights and built blanket forts together. We went on vacations together. Their house felt like my house. His mom felt like my second mom. Then, when we were six, his mom got sick. When we were seven, she died.

I was seven. At that age I knew nothing about the five stages or how I was "supposed" to grieve. I went to the funeral and, as kids, we found our own ways to get through.

Then, when we were twelve, his dad got remarried. I remember the day strangely well. I can picture what everyone was wearing, where everyone was sitting. During the ceremony, I remember looking over at my mom, who was smiling. I remember tears starting to well up, feeling overwhelmed by anger and betrayal. I remember the fear that this meant everyone was forgetting my friend's mom. It felt like everyone was moving on. My defiant twelve-year-old brain thought one thing: all these adults might be accepting it and moving on, but I won’t. Ever. F*ck acceptance.

Fast forward

My father died when I was eighteen and I immediately started compiling every scrap of paper with his handwriting on it. I didn’t journal so much as I frantically scribbled thoughts and memories in no particular sequence, for fear they'd evaporate. And my twelve-year-old voice was there in my ear: f*ck acceptance. I would never, ever, ever, ever accept that this happened.

After that, I did what so many of us do in grief. I somehow put one foot in front of the other and kept going, having no idea how I was doing it. Keeping approximately a million mental connections to my dad, I spent four years getting a philosophy degree which, in its own way, felt like a protest to acceptance.

During those years I tore through pages written by thinkers and writers who, for centuries, had been trying to make sense out of a universe that didn’t make sense. And, largely because I was surrounded by college friends who had very few preconceived ideas about what my grief should look like, no one told me I needed to accept anything or move on. I count myself lucky for that.

The personal turns professional

When I finally found myself working as a clinical social worker in grief, I learned I wasn't alone. I was suddenly flooded by people who hated the word acceptance.

The reasons were all the reasons you would guess, reasons you might have felt. It sounded like resigning oneself to what happened. Or worse, saying you were okay with it. It implied that there was some endpoint to grief, after which you accept and things go back to "normal". It is tucked at the end of the five stages, which sounded so neat and tidy, when grief was neither neat nor tidy. Many people grieving just didn't seem like the idea that they should be striving for acceptance in order to heal.

But what does acceptance in grief mean?!

Now, don't go assuming 'acceptance' is a part of all grief theories. I have found other grief theories that better reflect my personal experience. They don't involve the word "acceptance".

As you know if you hang out around here, we love the Continuing Bonds Theory and the Dual Process Model of Grief. We find those resonate more with us, and often with those we work with.

That said, I also know that so much misunderstanding exists around Kubler-Ross' work. Most people don't know her theory was developed as stages for people who were dying, not those who were grieving. Out of her hundreds of pages of writing, most people only know those five simple: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. From there, they make assumptions, define things themselves, take a guess. I knew if I wanted to hate acceptance (and I did) I needed to know more than just the word.

When I first read Kubler-Ross' book, I was fascinated by her actual definition of acceptance. Acceptance, she says: "is often confused with the notion of being all right or okay with what has happened. This is not the case. Most people don't ever feel okay 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 a permanent reality.

We will never like this reality or make it okay, but eventually, we accept it. We learn to live with it. It is the new norm with which we must learn to live. This is where our final healing and adjustment can take a firm hold, despite the fact that healing often looks and feels like an unattainable state.

Healing looks like remembering, recollecting, and reorganizing . . . we must try to live now in a world where our loved one is missing . . . In a strange way, as we move through grief, healing brings us closer to the person we loved. A new relationship begins. We learn to live with the loved one we lost".

Rethinking acceptance

For all that 'acceptance' aversion I had, that others have, I can't say I disagree with Kubler-Ross. No doubt you have to accept that your loved one is gone.

This “new reality” is the “permanent reality”, whether you like it or not. All you can do is figure out how to live in that new, permanent reality. Plenty of other grief theorists, before and since, have asserted exactly the same thing.

As I first explored Kubler-Ross in earnest, what became clear was that I didn't disagree with her concept of "acceptance" once I read about it. It just didn’t feel particularly useful or instructive. With all the assumptions I made about the word stripped away, I no longer felt disdain for acceptance. Instead,I felt a bit indifferent. It just felt . . . obvious.

Surprisingly, by the time I finished graduate school, I was thinking a lot about acceptance again. I had become a big fan of a therapy called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. ACT for short. Unexpected as it was, I had been drawn to a therapeutic approach with 'acceptance' right at the center.

A new idea of acceptance

The ‘acceptance’ of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy was different than all my previous understandings of acceptance. Like Kubler-Ross' definition, it didn’t mean being okay with anything. But, unlike simply accepting the permanence of the new reality, this acceptance felt more active.

It isn't a stage, a place where you arrive. Rather, it is an active way of being. One that felt helpful and instructive (and, if you know me at all, you know I like helpful and instructive).

Steven Hayes, the founder of ACT, explains achieving 'psychological flexibility' as a core piece of his approach. This psychological flexibility allows us to feel and appreciate all of our experiences.

Rather than embracing "good" feelings and experiences and quickly trying to escape "bad" or "negative" experiences, he describes a state in which all emotions have a place. Though there are some variations of the definition, this one sums it up well: "psychological flexibility is coming in full contact with painful experiences and with uniquely chosen values while consciously choosing to act and engage in a meaningful life".

Hayes tells us to think of acceptance from the Latin root of the word. This isn't to resign oneself or be okay with something. Rather, it is to accept something that is given to you, like a gift. And let's be honest, we've all accepted a gift we really didn't like from someone.

He suggests that the art of living in a meaningful way comes through learning to 'accept' all the experiences that our lives have given us. The good experiences, and the brutal and painful experience. The love and loss.

So, rather than seeing 'happiness' as a state of pleasure, devoid of pain, Hayes says instead that "happiness is living in accord with your values in a way that is more open and accepting of your history as it echoes into the present".

That history for most people, certainly for those of us grieving, is a very mixed bag. It isn't being grateful for that past. It isn't being glad that it happened. Instead, it is acknowledging the reality of that past and accepting that history as part of our wisdom in the present. It is part of who we are.

We can disconnect from difficult experiences and emotions, like those that come up when we think of the person we love who died. But in doing so, we disconnect from the love and power in our memories, from comforting connections, and from a past that can propel us closer to our values.

Acceptance comes full circle

So now, all these years later, acceptance occupies a very different space in my grief. Acceptance is not resigning ourselves to a past we then put behind us. Rather, acceptance is creating a space to bring that past with us, the most beautiful parts and the most painful parts.

It is what allows me to create a space that is fully open to my history - to all the losses and the pain that came with them. To all the memories and stories and connections that carry into the present. To the way that pain and loss have shaped who I am.

The way that grief has allowed me to more deeply connect to the values that mean the most to me, to live in a way consistent with those values. My twelve-year-old self never would have guessed it. But then again, she probably wouldn't have guessed much about who I am today.

Have your own musings and rambles on acceptance? Leave a comment. And subscribe to get all our new posts right to your email.

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7 Comments on "Rethinking Acceptance in Grief: A Love/Hate Story"

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  1. Joni Sensel  March 12, 2020 at 9:52 pm Reply

    Hmm. You haven’t convinced me, and I hate the word “healing” at least as much as “acceptance,” if not more. I can, however, get behind the idea of “adjustment,” and haven’t heard that one used before. I like it and it feels true.

    As for this:
    “happiness is living in accord with your values in a way that is more open and accepting of your history as it echoes into the present”.

    This is a definition of happiness that only someone who has never been happy could invent. Living in accord with my values is integrity. Completely different concept. Am I adjusting to the loss of the person with whom I spent the 3 happiest years of my life? Yes, whether I like it or not. Am I living with integrity? Yes, though it can be a struggle, since my values include gratitude and not suicide. Do I think people who’ve suffered great loss could still achieve happiness again? Possibly, but “adjustment” is not happiness, either. Happiness involves sustained joy. But I don’t think happiness is a state that we can necessarily expect our whole lives, or at all. I’m grateful for having found it more than once in my life, but I don’t really expect to again. And that’s okay, because I know I was privileged to have it while I did.

  2. Levi's Mom  March 12, 2020 at 7:24 pm Reply

    I will admit that I found it challenging to read this article. When anyone seemingly gives credence to the five stages, I grow deaf with the roaring in my mind. I had to crank the volume on this article to reach the part that made sense. The Kubler-Ross model was supposedly developed to help terminally ill patients to learn to accept death as it approached. Later someone thought the model could be applied with some degree of logic to grief. Perhaps because Death had already approached, wreaked havoc, and left us stumbling around in Her aftermath. My sister is a GriefShare counselor, and she immediately introduced me to the five stages. Fortunately, a friend explained it better by assuring me that I would vacillate among those stages and that there were not actual stages that seemingly indicate progress is to be attained. Losing my daughter truly put the whammy on my mind. Finally I discovered the illogical application of the model to grief and was able to toss that theory out the window. I have been reading about this newer theory of acceptance, and it goes along with something I learned in my youth. I was a so-called survivor of multiple types of abuse, and I was angry. I had been taught that anger was negative, not to show it, and as a result, I did not learn to deal with it appropriately. Finally a behavior modification psychologist revealed the truth or rather he let me gain my own understanding that anger is simply an emotion, not negative, not positive. That truth corresponds to the idea that if we disconnect from the bad in our grief, we also lose the good. Your last paragraph sums it up nicely. Thank you for your continued commitment to help others like me who continue to try to make sense of the senseless.

  3. Wifeykins  March 12, 2020 at 2:29 pm Reply

    I especially appreciate the part where we now form a new relationship with our loved one who is gone. Paul has been gone for a bit over 3 years and, while I wholeheartedly miss our lives together and his love in person, I think I can actually accept having a new (different) relationship with him, possibly a closer one, and the person I am now. One that I can take with me every minute of every day unlike when he was here in person. I’m still lost and feel like I have no direction or goals or even a wishlist for what comes next. But, just maybe, if I can have him with me as I take those steps, I will feel more confident and like he is still supporting and encouraging me – as he always did. If ever there was a “wings beneath my feet”, he was that for me and our family. ?

  4. Heartbroken  March 10, 2020 at 3:39 am Reply

    @ Bonnie… this is my great fear. Although like this post has said, it can be but nothing else. My love was with me for 20 years and yet he was taken from me and his three young daughters over 4.5 months by an unexpected, hard to identify incapacitating illness with no treatment option. Degeneration so slight to let you know something was wrong and then sliding down an ice mountain. in 5 days it will be 5mths. I am 42. I do not know or want to ride these insanely draining emotions for the rest of my life. Back at FT work because I have to. Trying to keep us all going … it’s what he would have wanted. It’s what our girls need. I hope I can continue.

  5. His Wife  March 9, 2020 at 6:57 pm Reply

    Last September 11 marked the 20th anniversary of my husband’s death. I hate my reality because it does not include him, except in my mind. I will never be OK. I still take every day one hour at a time, and pretend to be normal, smile when it’s appropriate, pretend I’m OK for the sake of our children when I’d rather still be curled up in a ball and never wake up. Acceptance? Perhaps this is as far down the “acceptance “journey as I will ever be since I’m already almost 67.

  6. Cathie  March 9, 2020 at 11:16 am Reply

    Tears in my eyes reading this- the first part.

  7. Bonnie  March 9, 2020 at 10:06 am Reply

    You perfectly expressed my previous thoughts on acceptance – thoughts for many years! I now know that acceptance does not mean I am “OK” with my husband’s passing- it means what you said .?
    It has been 3 years and I still go through all the stages every day. He occupies a place in my life , as always. It is just a different place and I am not happy with it- it just is. He helps me to go on with life, trying to live my best one, just as he always did. His love sustains me, even now.

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