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Acceptance in the 5 Stages of Grief
All the passages below are taken from the book “On Grief and Grieving” by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and David Kessler. It was published in 2005.
Acceptance 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 the 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 may cease to be angry with God; we may become aware of the commonsense reasons for our loss, even if we never actually understand the reasons. We the survivors begin to realize sadly that it was our loved one’s time to die. Of course it was too soon for us, and probably too soon for him or her, too. Perhaps he was very old or full of pain and disease. Perhaps her body was worn down and she was ready for her journey to be over. But our journey still continues. It is not yet time for us to die; in fact, it is time for us to heal.
We must try to live now in a world where our loved one is missing. In resisting this new norm, at first we may 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, reassign them to others or take them on ourselves. The more of your identity that was connected to your loved one, the harder it will be to do this.
As we heal, we learn who we are and who our loved one was in life. 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. We start the process of reintegration, trying to put back the pieces that have been ripped away.
Alan, seventeen years old, was thrilled to go to the basketball championship that was being held downtown in the sports arena. After the game, in the parking lot, Alan walked ten feet to his car and was randomly shot and killed by a gang member.
His father, Keith, and his mother, Donna, could not understand why their son was killed. They were filled with anger as they spent their days and nights trying to raise their other two kids, go to work, and follow the all-consuming ongoing investigation into the killing.
A close couple, friends of Keith and Donna’s, became concerned because they were not available to get together for meals or anything else. One evening the couple dropped in out of concern and said to Keith and Donna, “You have to accept this loss. Your son is gone and none of this is going to bring him back. Haven’t you heard about the five stages? You’ve done all the others. All you need now is acceptance.”
Keith got angry with his friend and asked, “What part of Alan’s death don’t you think I accept? At his grave today, I cried like a baby. If I didn’t accept it, would I go to his grave? We’re not setting a place for him at the dinner table tonight. We live in reality, his room is empty every night. How much more acceptance can we feel?”
The friend looked down and said, “I just hate to see you in so much pain.”
Keith replied, “Believe me, I hate to be in so much pain.”
We have found that is it not unusual for people like Keith and Donna’s friends to misunderstand the stages. Acceptance is not about liking a situation. It is about acknowledging all that has been lost and learning to live with that loss. It would be too soon for Keith to be able to accept this situation. He can acknowledge the reality of the loss, but it would be unrealistic to think he should have found some peace with it by then.
After closing arguments in the murder case, it took the jury only five hours to come back with a guilty verdict. The gang member who killed Alan was sentenced to life in prison, and Keith and Donna went back to their own lives.
Keith actually had a new loss to deal with, which was the emptiness he now felt without the trial to consume his time. It made the absence of his son’s loss even louder.
We think it is important for people to understand that gradually, in your own time, you can begin to find some peace with what has happened. In situations such as murder, it is vital to understand we have a legal system, not necessarily a justice system. For some, the only justice would be to have their loved one back. Acceptance is a process that we experience, not a final stage with an end point.
For Keith, no one else could know how much acceptance he was capable of or how time would affect his process. After five years Keith felt he had found as much acceptance as was possible. Then he was notified that the shooter was up for his first parole hearing. Keith felt all his hard-earned acceptance drain out of him. By the time of the hearing he was once again filled with anger. The proceedings were brief and parole was denied. Keith was struck by how quickly it happened and by the tears of the shooter’s father. For the first time, Keith realized there were victims on both ends of the gun.
Keith walked over to him and shook his hand. At that moment, something happened for Keith as his anger was replaced by a curiosity. He wanted to know what this other father’s life was like and what led him to this same place. Over the next few years the two men formed an alliance to help gang members stop the violence and find their place in the world. They went from school to school in the inner city with their story.
Keith’s acceptance was a journey that was deeper than he ever expected. And it happened over many years, not many months or days. Not everyone will or can fully embrace those who have hurt us, as Keith did, but there is always a struggle that leads us to our own personal and unique acceptance.
Keith’s story is just one example of how, little by little, we withdraw our energy from the loss and begin to invest it in life. We put the loss into perspective, learning how to remember our loved ones and commemorate the loss. We start to form new relationships or put more time into old ones.
Finding acceptance may be just having more good days than bad. 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 interdependencies. 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 ourself. We begin to live again, but we cannot do so until we have given grief its time.
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