Acceptance and grief

A friend offered me a gift for my birthday. I accepted.

I was offered some work. I accepted.

I was offered a new phone contract. I didn’t accept.

It seems to me, that whenever we talk about “accepting” there is an element of choice. We accept if we want it; we don’t accept if we do not.

So how does the term “acceptance” get to be used so much in relation to grief? The death of our loved one was not our choice. It wasn’t offered to us; we didn’t have the option to take it or not. It happened.

I suppose you could interject here that how we choose to respond is a choice, but even that argument has limits. Grief can be overwhelming.

“Accepting reality” is something a bit different. Acknowledging the permanence of what has happened to our loved one is part of the grief journey. In the early days of loss, everything can seem quite unreal, like you’re in a (bad!) dream and in a moment you will wake up and find it was just that, a dream. Later on we might look back at that time and it could be hazy. That unreal, dreamlike state might persist or might pop up again on occasion. But generally we come back to a sense of reality, and acknowledge the fact that our loved one is gone.

Perhaps that’s what some people mean when they refer to acceptance in relation to grief, but I have a feeling that more often there is a different implication, something on the lines of taking it, receiving it, perhaps even being positive about it…

Accepting reality and accepting our loved one’s death as a positive outcome are two totally different things. “It was for the best”, some people tell us.

Perhaps the grieving are encouraged towards acceptance in the same way that BT offered me a mobile phone contract. They think it’s a good deal and it will be better for them and me. It is certainly easier on our friends if we get over the difficult emotions of grief. They are not inconsiderate; it is just that coping with a grieving friend is not easy.

Sometimes the acceptance has to do with inevitability. Someone who is struggling with a terminal illness will die. We all will eventually. But do we have to accept that the illness itself was inevitable, the genetic condition, the stillbirth, the accident that took our loved one?

Accepting that something happened is not the same as accepting it should have happened.

Those on the outside looking in to our grief sometimes expect too much from us. Perhaps they’re the ones that would benefit from a bit more acceptance — to acknowledge that our lives are forever changed, that we are coping the best we can, that there is a sadness and a vacancy in our hearts that cannot be filled. Our loss is now part of our lives. We can go on living and finding joy in that life, but there will always be something missing.

I suppose there is an aspect of acceptance for us too. Accepting that our life now is as it is; we might not have chosen it to be this way, but this is our reality. Reconciliation with God or the universe about our current circumstances is something we might move forward towards.

That still isn’t the same as what most people mean when they talk about acceptance and grief. For most the implication is “moving on”. But “moving with” is a much more helpful concept. We move with the memories of our loved one; our relationship endures but in a different form.

Perhaps you will think back to this the next time someone makes the “acceptance” type of comment to you.

For more on this, see the tag (or subject index) on “continuing bonds”

Red squirrel in Scotland, quite happily accepts the food that’s been provided. Acceptance is a choice, and the death of our loved one wasn’t.


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