While there is not necessarily any order to the previous phases (of denial, anger, bargaining or depression) in grief it seems that the acceptance phase can only begin after you have experienced these earlier phases.
The acceptance phase is where eyes lift to the horizon of a “new normal”. Where your spiritual, emotional and mental centre of gravity adjusts, so you position yourself to catch the curveball that has been travelling along it’s trajectory, dictated by reality itself. It is the realisation that response is the key. And perhaps the understanding that how we respond in that moment of clarity, can direct the ball as we catch it, and then determine what we do with it.
Acceptance is not about miraculously being “ok” or somehow finally reaching that place of complete healing. I would challenge anyone who thinks that is even possible.
It is about learning to live with a new reality, the good and the bad. That might mean that we have to learn to function in a world that is altered forever for us, but unchanged for others around us.
Life. Goes. On.
We will hear the words and wonder what they mean. We will say the words and hope that they give us the strength to get through a day. We will absorb the words, and realise that the world keeps spinning for others, and so we too must find our own way to “get on with our life”.
At first, you have more good days than bad. You might finally find the strength to clean out a cupboard or a room. Some will find a fresh start helpful, others will take comfort in their surroundings and their memories. There is no right or wrong way.
Some days it will take everything in you to reach out to others, to say yes to an invitation, to leave the house to do something, to connect with friends old or new. You may even feel like you are betraying or forgetting your loved one just by living. That is not the case. Nothing and no one will replace who you have lost, but your very survival depends on you maintaining or making new connections and relationships.
If you are supporting others through grief and you recognise them finally entering the acceptance phase, it is tempting to stop mentioning their loved one, for fear of “setting them back” to a grief state. Don’t do that. When the good memories come freely, with laughter (even if with occasional tears), this is a sign of acceptance. Acceptance is the ability to adjust to life and to experience joy in it, despite the sorrow, and to remember anyway.
Grief is like the ocean
One of my readers, Diana, in Scotland recently likened her own grief experience to a devastating tidal wave, that has over time, become more like waves that lap at her feet. What a great analogy for the journey of grief. Our unique loss event can definitely feel like a tidal wave. Smashing through our very existence, pummelling everything in its wake, churning and dumping us so that we have no idea which way is up, forcefully ripping things apart and taking with it the people and things we hold dear. That wave changes everything. Even when it retreats, it just exposes the devastation.
So, what do we do?
We find a way to re-build.
In part, nature itself steps in. Trees and plants begin their own restoration. Sometimes seeing that natural order of things happen, helps us to start taking our physical steps to re-build.
Grief can be just like the ocean. It can bring in devastation, and when storms in life blow through, it can often stir up the grief for us. Reminders return to our shores on anniversary dates, at celebrations, and sometimes completely out of the blue. But over time, for the most time, our grief sits – as an ever-present ocean – sometimes rough, often unpredictable but mostly as the gentle lapping of waves at our feet.
Vicki Harrison put it this way:
Grief is like the ocean; it comes on waves ebbing and flowing. Sometimes the water is calm, and sometimes it is overwhelming. All we can do is learn to swim.
I don’t think I’ve met anyone grieving the loss of a loved one that hasn’t regretted things they didn’t have a chance to say or do. Many regret not asking their loved one questions or telling them how much they were loved. Whatever your beliefs, it seems to me that those who find their own way to forgive themselves and make their own peace, are the ones who tend to reach acceptance earlier than those who don’t.
Prepare for holidays, birthdays and anniversaries
Be prepared for the fact that your ocean of grief will become rough from time to time, and that you might get hit with yet another wave that dumps you upside down. If you can prepare for the events that you know will be hard, you can work out how best to manage them. You can communicate to others to remind them that these times are still painful. You can think about whether you want to keep past traditions alive, or if you want to create a new way of marking the day. You might choose to take time out in solitude, or you might prefer to be surrounded by others who will understand. There is no right and wrong, but I do encourage you to think about how you will honour the memory of your loved one at these times.
Find your tribe
This is critical. If you don’t want to join a formal bereavement support group, then at the least find others who have lost a loved one. Because you need at least one or two people around you who actually empathise from their own experience. Others can only give sympathy clueless to your grief. This tribe of the uniquely scarred, can be invaluable as a source of encouragement, guidance and comfort. Only this tribe can offer practical advice and information and will help you feel less alone. And if the people in this tribe suggest you need professional help, you will listen to them, rather than those who cannot understand. In fact you may lose relationships or gain relationships as you travel through your grief – and that is ok. If you are not up to speaking to people face to face, or over the phone, start by reaching out to others online.
Try something new
This is not about filling life with distractions while in a state of denial, but instead about making decisions, based on your values and the things that bring you joy, to try something new, for yourself. In doing this, you give yourself permission to enjoy life again. It might be taking up a new hobby, volunteering for a cause, or doing something that connects you to your loved one. It is not the what but the why that counts.
This might seem obvious, but what I mean is embrace living your life to the full. It might be as a way of honouring your loved one, or to prove them wrong! The fact is, when anyone close to us dies, it reminds us to cherish each day, to live with purpose and find our way to to bring joy to ourselves and others. So this is your chance now – to live your life well.
It seems to me, that it is in the acceptance phase, that healing begins.
It is during this phase that I have witnessed something truly inspirational – those moments where those who grieve, share their experiences to help others navigate their dark valley. Somehow, they find a strength beyond themselves to help others. And THAT is where the power is. THAT is where new life takes on new meaning. THAT is where miracles happen. Where we make a choice on how we will respond to the devastation we have experienced.
I love this Cynthia Occelli quote:
For a seed to achieve its greatest expression, it must come completely undone. The shell cracks, its insides come out and everything changes. To someone who doesn’t understand growth, it would look like complete destruction.
Sometimes it seems, that there is such beauty, strength and power that comes from our complete “destruction”.
This is the last in my series of posts on the 5 phases of grief inspired by the work of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. As always I very much value your feedback and your insights from your own experiences.