This is the last of our six part series on “The Stages of Grief”. In this article we will address the Stage of Acceptance.
The Stages of Grief Model, proposed by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, was designed to explain the phases people experience when diagnosed with a terminal illness. It is understandable that these people would find acceptance difficult. Naturally, they would hope for an error in the diagnosis, seek a second or third opinion, explore alternate treatment options and, for those that are religious, pray for a different outcome. Accepting that your life is coming to an end can be an extremely difficult pill to swallow.
When we are dealing with other grief causing events, acceptance can be a term that is misunderstood.
Most people recognize early on that whatever emotional event that they experienced caused a change in the story of their life. It may be a change they were expecting, such as a promotion or move to a new home. Many times they are changes of a less positive nature, such as the death of a loved one (human or pet), a divorce or break up of a relationship, or any other negative event. In either type of situation, these changes can be fraught with elements of grief, since they will include changes from familiar behavior patterns.
For people grieving any of these other changes in their lives, the concept of “acceptance” can have entirely different ramifications. As mentioned in the previous articles, the average person has no concept of the genesis of these so called stages of grief. They have heard about them from other lay people and frequently been convinced that they must go through these stages, in the order listed, to have any chance of recovery.
How does a griever define acceptance?
The problem they face is in defining just what it is that they are accepting. Some may say that they are accepting the loss as having happened. A large share of grievers, however, are likely to feel that they instead must accept that the emotional pain with which they are now dealing is going to be a permanent part of their lives. They are accepting that “their new normal” is to be one with a broken heart. My mother’s mother died just one week after my seventh birthday, long before I was ever involved with Grief Recovery.
My mother was devastated. This was long before HIPPA, and my mother was privy to elements of her mother’s diagnosis that she never shared with my grandma. While her mother needed surgery to survive, the doctors also told her that, due to grandma’s overall condition, she would not live through the operation. In many ways, my mother felt personally responsible for the death, which, though not the case, was obviously emotionally overwhelming.
Needless to say, the resources available to her at the time were limited. This was decades before the internet. Ultimately, she simply accepted that the pain of this loss would be with her the rest of her life. To prevent taking on more such pain in the future, she built an emotional wall around her heart. That pain was so intense, it overwhelmed her ability to enjoy ongoing relationships or to create new ones. By the time that I learned about ways to help her successfully recover from the loss of her mother, this habit of self-protection was so well established that she saw no purpose in looking at alternatives. Sadly, it was not until her Alzheimer’s reached the point that she forgot her mother had died that she seemed to find joy in life again.
How people gather information today has changed!
The availability of information has changed with time, but the griever’s ability to find the best information is still limited. Since most grievers have a reduced sense of concentration, as well as little education on dealing with the emotional pain of loss, they often find themselves lost. Most are looking for simple and logical solutions for their grief. The trouble is that grief is neither simple nor logical. It is emotional.
The model of “the five stages of grief” can look like an easy solution. The problem is that the average griever does not understand that this first developed after interviewing those diagnosed with a terminal illness. They also fail to grasp that, even in this original application, the subjects of study did not always follow these stages in a linear order. For the average griever, their study stops with the listing of the stages, and they try to make those stages work, even if they do not help them successfully move through the emotional pain they are experiencing.
Every change we experience in life can bring with it elements of grief. If, with each change, we simply accept that any emotional pain we experience is something that we will carry with us for the rest of our lives, it is understandable that our pain load will continue to intensify with each new loss. With time, that pain load will become so overwhelming it cannot help but impact ongoing relationships, our ability to form new successful relationships, our ability to function at work, or any other aspect of our lives.
There is an alternative to living with emotional pain
Rather than just accept that pain, a better solution would be to work through it. Grief care professionals fully understand this, but the average griever has no concept that this is possible. Creating a non-threatening mechanism for accomplishing this is the design of the Grief Recovery Method.
Almost a day does not pass that we hear of another terrorist attack. When reporters speak with the victims, it is not unusual to hear the comment that it will take a great deal of time for these victims to “get over their pain and move forward”. This simply reinforces in grievers minds the concept that time can make them somehow better. As a result, many simply just begin to accept that this pain will forever be part of their “new normal”. People never “get over” a loss, but, given the proper tools, they can learn to survive, and thrive, in spite of it.
As grief care professions, we all need to be aware that the concept of “acceptance” is something often misunderstood by the griever and do our best to educate them about alternatives to living with that emotional pain in their heart for the rest of their lives. Of all of the stages of grief, acceptance is often among the most misunderstood.
It is our sincerest hope that you have found value in this discussion of “the stages of grief”, and how grievers sometimes use them in an effort to deal with each loss they experience. While these stages have value in understanding what is happening with a person diagnosed with a terminal illness, hopefully this series has reminded you that their application with other losses can be confusing and even damaging to these grievers.
Other articles on this website that relate are listed below.