Accepting the Unacceptable – Acceptance as Part of Grief

Acceptance is an important part of the grieving process. To be able to fully process what has happened, you need to be able to fully accept that it has actually happened. 

Acceptance is one of the five stages of the grieving process. These stages were developed by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in the 1960s and are used as a model of working through the grief process. The five stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. The stages are not a linear process and people will fluctuate between the different stages as they progress through grief. 

As viewed in Kubler-Ross’ model, acceptance means accepting that the loved one has gone physically, and that the loss is permanent.  

Accepting that it happened doesn’t mean that you are alright with it, or that you can’t grieve any more. It just means that you have taken on board the reality and the full meaning of it. 

Often, after a bereavement, there will be a feeling of disbelief and a denial of the reality of what has happened. Why would you want to believe that something so horrendous has happened? How can you even begin to accept this new and unwelcome reality? 

The mind will often protect the person from the intense painful feelings by using defense mechanisms. People will disconnect from the painful feelings. This is known as dissociation.  

Dissociation can come in the form of numbness, where there is an absence of feelings of any sort. This is often the experience of people after a bereavement. 

Dissociation can also feel like you are not entirely in your own body, and that what is going on around you isn’t real. Sometimes, dissociation can make people feel like they are watching themselves from outside their own body. 

In extreme and prolonged cases of dissociation, people can create whole new identities to carry the difficult feelings so that they do not have to feel them personally. This process is known as splitting and in some cases can develop into Dissociative Identity Disorder. 

The mind will do what it can to protect you from feeling emotional pain. These protection mechanisms can be helpful in the short term while you are coming to terms with the loss and can help you to survive in the immediate aftermath.  

Certain things can help people to accept the reality of what has happened. Grieving is different and unique for each person and these will not be right for everyone.  

Seeing the body can help the grieving person towards the stark reality of what has happened. Being involved in the preparations for the funeral and other practical tasks can help the reality to sink in and speed up the acceptance process. The funeral service itself can be a watershed moment for starting to accept the reality of the loss.  

Bereaved people who didn’t attend the funeral service or weren’t as involved in the family’s collective grieving often find it harder to reach acceptance. This can happen because of a belief that children need to be protected. It can also happen where the bereaved person is estranged from the family. It also happens where the bereaved person was having a discreet relationship with the deceased. Also, when the deceased is a companion animal, the bereaved person often doesn’t receive the same level of support and may find it harder to reach out and talk about how they feel and to accept the reality of the loss.  

These types of bereavements are known as disenfranchised grief. People who are struggling with disenfranchised grief will have less support around them and will often find it harder to seek help from professionals. 

The only way to move forward in grief is to fully feel everything you are feeling, both consciously and subconsciously, and to process it all in a safe environment.  

Once someone has accepted the reality of what has happened, they are able to start to work on reorganizing and adapting and moving forward. In grief, this is about starting to develop a new type of relationship with the deceased person. 

This may sound daunting, but it doesn’t happen all at once. It needs to happen safely and at your own pace. In fact, opening up traumatic feelings too quickly can be damaging, and can potentially retraumatize. 

As a therapist, it is my job to very safely allow you to process difficult feelings. I create a safe, warm accepting environment where you can begin to open up and process things in your own time and at your own speed.

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