What Does Acceptance Mean in the Stages of Grief?

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From the moment you feel the shock of your loss, your mind may resist accepting reality. As you grieve or mourn your loss, you’ll try to cope with the truth in many different ways before you learn to live with it.

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Elisabeth Kübler-Ross was a Swiss-American psychiatrist, and in 1969 she developed the five stages of grief to describe the process terminally ill people go through before they die. These five stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally, acceptance. 

Grief is a very personal experience and doesn’t always proceed in a specific way. You may move through the acceptance stage more than once as you grieve. You may also be able to move forward quickly at first, but feel disbelief or have a depressed mood around the holidays. All of these reactions are normal and unique to you. As you learn to acknowledge the losses in your life, moving forward gets easier every day.    

Acceptance Stage of Grief Explained 

Acceptance does not equal contentment, nor does it mean that you are fine or OK with your loss. You may end up grieving over a significant loss for many years. But eventually, you’ll adapt and endure the toughest parts of the grief process. You’ll rebuild your life one day at a time and learn to live with your emotional pain.

The acceptance stage can often feel more peaceful than the other stages. Your emotional turmoil softens, and you begin to understand your new reality better. The loss will always be part of you, but you will make it through.

What happens before and after the acceptance stage of grief? 

Before accepting your loss, you’ll often go through the depression stage. This is not the same as a diagnosed depressive disorder, but it can look similar. Your mood may become somber as you feel the emotional weight of your loss. This deeper level of sadness can be uncomfortable. Instead of burying your emotions with substances or distractions, allow yourself to feel them. You may be able to deal with your grief more honestly when you face your feelings.

As you gradually move to the acceptance phase, you find ways to live with your loss. Every day can be a little different, some days with more pain and other days with less. As time passes, the loss can get easier to live with. The pain remains and disbelief will occasionally pop up, but the loss becomes part of your reality.

Do you stay in the acceptance stage of grief once you reach it? 

Acceptance is not a black-and-white stage. You may go through varying levels of acceptance, depending on how you’re coping on a given day. When emotional support is strong, you may feel more secure about the changes in your life after the loss. Other times, you may feel lonely or anxious, causing you to doubt how you’ll ever get through it. 

As time goes on, your acceptance becomes more stable. But grief does not necessarily go forward in neat, precise stages. You may go back and forth between stages of grief, depending on the circumstances. This adjustment may be more likely around anniversaries or holidays. 

Examples of Acceptance in Grief

The following scenarios show how each individual copes during the acceptance stage of their grief. They learn that they will be OK as they learn to live with their loss.

1. Amy and Melissa - death of a friend 

Melissa and Amy had been best friends during high school. After graduation, they stayed in touch and lived within an hour of each other. For about ten years, Melissa struggled with alcohol addiction. She went to a treatment center a few different times and became very ill once. Melissa didn’t see Amy very often during that time but reconnected during a period of recovery. Melissa died suddenly of a heart attack a few days after she had a long and meaningful visit with Amy. 

Amy was thankful for their brief reconnection but felt crushed over Melissa’s death. She gradually felt more accepting of Melissa’s death over time, and also understood the following things with more clarity:

  • She had been bracing for Melissa’s death for a long time because of Melissa’s addiction struggles.
  • She was now able to enjoy the happy memories of her friendship with Melissa.
  • She and Melissa had a genuine friendship that endured addiction and time apart from each other.

2. Liz and Chad - financial loss 

Liz and Chad opened a new bar and restaurant in the downtown of a small city. They were enjoying the first few months of their growing business when a powerful thunderstorm came through one night. Flooding rains filled the streets and caused extensive damage to their building. Liz and Chad were unable to operate or afford the repairs to the building. Reluctantly, they decided to close their business and deal with a total financial loss.

Liz and Chad took the loss of their business hard. Eventually, they were able to accept the loss as final and move forward emotionally. As they approached acceptance, Liz and Chad:

  • Were able to look back and enjoy the positive memories.
  • Started thinking more about their future in a hopeful way.
  • Recognized their ability to survive the financial loss and find a way through.

3. Jessie - missing a major life event 

Jessie was living and working in Germany for a few months. She was getting ready to return to the United States a week before her sister, Julie, left for a long-term overseas military deployment. An unexpected airline security issue developed the day before Jessie was preparing to come home. With thousands of flights canceled, Jessie was stranded in Germany. It was two weeks before she could get a flight back, causing her to miss her sister’s departure.

Jessie grieved the lost opportunity, feeling like she should have done something different to make it home in time. Eventually, Jessie became more accepting of the situation and  acknowledged that:

  • She could not have prevented the missed flight. 
  • Missing her sister’s departure was sad and unexpected, but it likely won’t be the last time they see each other. 
  • Jessie and her sister had many ways of staying in touch throughout the deployment.

4. Maggie and Ann - death of a child 

Maggie’s 8-year-old daughter, Ann, had just finished her last day of school and wanted to ride her bike around the neighborhood. Maggie had taken the afternoon off and was inside the house while Ann rode her bike. Suddenly, Maggie heard a scream outside. Her next-door neighbor had quickly backed out of her driveway and struck Ann on her bike. The ambulance took Ann to the hospital, where she died later of a head injury.

Maggie struggled with guilt for a long time as she grieved. But when she moved through the acceptance phase, she experienced the first few moments of normal life that she could remember. Maggie also experienced the following:

  • Moments of laughter and brief feelings of happiness
  • A faint vision of how to live her life without her child 
  • Realizing she’d grieve her daughter’s death her whole life, but that she could be OK

5. Jeff and Shari - long-term relationship breakup

Jeff had been with Shari since their freshman year in college. They had graduated and been in their first jobs for about a year when things started to fall apart. They no longer felt like they wanted the same things in life and didn’t spend much time together anymore. But they hesitated to break up because of how long they’d been together. After a couple of rough months, Jeff knew that ending their relationship was the best decision for both of them.

At first, Jeff struggled to adapt to life on his own and often felt lonely. After several months of separation, he eventually felt more comfortable living as a single person. As he accepted the end of his relationship with Shari, he discovered the following things about himself:

  • He had known for a while that he and Shari were drifting apart, but had been afraid of letting go.
  • He was enjoying doing some things on his own, even though he still felt lonely sometimes.
  • He realized he had become dependent on Shari in some areas of his life, and began building his confidence after living on his own.

How to Support Yourself Through the Acceptance Stage of Grief

The acceptance stage of grief comes when you’ve lived with the loss for a while. Unlike the obvious pain of a fresh loss, acceptance comes later and often more quietly. Here are some tips for supporting yourself through this phase of grief.   

Acknowledge and accept your feelings, even if they’re mixed

Accepting a loss is never easy. It can feel like you’re giving up something you hold dear. You may feel a mixture of sadness, emptiness, and peacefulness. Being in the acceptance stage doesn’t mean you’re 100% fine with your loss. You may question your viewpoint at times, which is a normal part of settling into acceptance.

Facing this range of emotions can be painful, but it’s part of caring for yourself. Accepting your emotional process is essential because there are no wrong emotions in grief.

Tell someone about your shift toward acceptance

Sharing your thoughts and feelings can make them seem less intense. At first, it may be challenging to put your emotions into words. And it may even scare you to say something with such certainty, especially a loss you’ve been reluctant to accept. So when you finally do, the words can strengthen that reality. While it may seem like this would hurt more, it can actually help you feel better. 

You may feel more at peace after talking about the loss, or it may not hit you right away. But opening up to someone you trust helps you get support, avoid isolation, and can make the coping process easier. 

Get plenty of rest 

Grief is emotional work, and it can be exhausting. Acceptance may seem like an easy, peaceful stage, but it can have ups and downs, too. To truly accept a loss, you have to let go of the reality you’ve been living with for so long. This can be a painful step, even when you know it’s time. 

Your emotions may distract and agitate you. And you may switch between feelings of peace and doubt. Coping with waves of emotions can take away the mental energy you need for other activities. With all of these adjustments, you may feel mentally and physically sapped before your day is done.

Take it easy with your schedule and plan for more downtime than usual. Over time, you may feel your energy coming back. But some days and weeks may require more rest to get through.

How to Support a Loved One Through the Acceptance Stage of Grief

Your loved one may not be ready to accept their loss for a while. And when they do, it can still be a powerful and emotional phase. Here are some ways you can support a loved one as they embrace their new reality.

Help them recognize other difficult things they’ve accepted 

At some point in the acceptance phase, your loved one may be feeling the full emotional weight of their loss. Even if they seem ready for this part of the process, it may seem overwhelming for a while. They may wonder how they can go forward with this painful reality. If this happens to your loved one, they may benefit from remembering what they’ve come through before. 

The pain can cut deeply, but it doesn’t feel that strong forever. They can move forward, even if they aren’t sure at the moment. They may feel broken, but part of them knows how to be resilient.  

Support them when they feel uncertain or emotional

Your loved one may go through periods of uncertainty as they learn to accept their loss. They may hesitate to fully grasp it at first. And even when they do move past their uncertainty, they may be deeply emotional. Truly accepting a major loss means embracing pain. Expressing this pain and feeling its impact can overwhelm a person. 

Your loved one may feel like they’ve been holding the force of their feelings back like a dam holding water. When it releases, be there to support them. Let them know it’s OK, and that feeling this pain is part of the process.

Remember that everyone’s grief journey is unique

Your loved one may grieve differently than you. Let them know you support them and that you know it’s difficult. But be cautious of making it about you. Talking about your loss may seem like it could help, but they may feel like it dismisses or overshadows their experience. Or it may sound like you’re trying to tell them how they should grieve. 

If they ask how you coped with grief, share what you think may be helpful. Otherwise, channel your experience in more neutral ways. Remember how hard it was for you and recognize that difficulty in their situation, rather than going into details about yourself. Acknowledge their pain and be supportive in their unique process. 

Accepting the Pain of Loss

Grief is not a tidy process, and you may move between stages of grief over time. But when you reach some level of acceptance, you are ready to start carrying your loss with you as you move forward.

Grief can be overwhelming, and some people struggle to accept deep losses in their lives. If you need support dealing with your grief, counseling therapy may be helpful for you.


Sources  

  1. “Elisabeth Kübler-Ross Stages of Grief.” Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville Counseling Services, siue.edu
  2. “Stages of Grief.” University of North Carolina-Greensboro Dean of the Students Office, sa.uncg.edu

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