Acceptance. What comes to mind when you hear that term? Does it seem like something you should do when you are ready? Does it seem like something you will never be able to do? Do you believe that acceptance means forgiveness, denial, or contentedness? If so, allow me to expand your view of acceptance through this article. For the past few years as a trauma therapist I have come to realize that almost every single family pursuing therapy has experienced some kind of loss and grief. That loss and grief does not only involve death but also divorce, estrangement, abandonment, strong denial, severe mental illness, and dissociation. You may be asking how the last three things could possibly be loss but it is important to understand that loss of a person you once knew, trusted, and/or understood can be just as terrorizing and even traumatizing as a divorce or death.
This article will discuss the grief & loss process while also highlighting what acceptance means and offering ways to cope during each stage.
As a trauma therapist I have had multiple discussions with clients on the stages of loss and grief. Although the stages are not absolute and tend to almost never occur in order, explaining the stages to my clients has never let me or my client down. The stages of grief helps individuals visualize what is possibly happening to them as they experience the loss and grief. Below are some of the most important stages to be mindful of:
- Denial: When we lose something in some capacity our world changes. We, as humans, become very complacent with what we have and rarely if ever consider how we would cope with the loss of that person or thing we love. When I worked with older adults 5 years ago, I had a client who lost one of his arms in the Vietnam war. He shared his story with me and 10 other members in a therapeutic group who listened intently to his traumatizing story of loss. What he shared was that he had never thought about what he would do if he lost a limb or even worse, his mind. Not only did he struggle with the loss of a limb, but psychotic symptoms such as hallucinations (auditory and tactile), delusions (strong beliefs held to be true despite concrete evidence to the contrary), and thought disturbance (confused thinking patterns that seem jumbled and incomprehensible). He decided to cope by going into denial.
- How to cope: It is important to eventually face the loss that you have experienced. The only way to get from one point A to point B is to be willing to look at what has happened. You may or may not experience acceptance at this stage, but being able to face the truth is a first step forward.
- Anger: Anger is a natural reaction to loss and feelings of grief. Some people seem to stay in this stage for a very long time, depending on how deep their grief is. Anger can express itself through sarcasm, frequent laughing and joking around about the loss, emotional distancing, isolation, frequent irritability, homicidal or suicidal threats and gestures, and behavioral problems such as opposition and defiance (primarily for kids and teens). Anger is a natural expression, in this case, of the grieving process. Many of my child and adolescent clients exhibit anger at school and toward parents following a divorce. The anger is an attempt to cope but it only creates more tension.
- How to cope: Pursue therapy or spiritual consultation. The anger can be dealt with alone, but only if you have social or familial support. If the anger is at such a level that it is causing challenges in other areas of life or is creating health and mental health symptoms, it is time to ask for help. You need someone to help you process the anger and strive to resolve or reduce it.
- Bargaining: Have you ever heard a child’s prayer? It is one of the most heart-wrenching things I have ever experienced. Before starting my career in counseling and psychotherapy less than 10 years ago, I worked in a child development school and center. I was able to work with children between the ages of infancy-age 5. One 5 year old told me, as we played outside, that she had said this prayer: “God, please listen to me. I want momma and daddy to stop fighting all the time. I love Che Che (her aunt) but don’t want to live with her. If you do this God I will never cry again.” Breaks your heart. Bargaining says “if only you do this…I will do that.”
- How to cope: For young children, take the time to answer their questions and explain that they cannot (and should not) feel responsible for the loss. Explain that they are not able to change the situation. Reinforce the fact that adults have to work things out. For adults who bargain, it will be necessary for you (or the grieving person) to challenge bargaining thoughts or behaviors. Ask yourself (or the person) how and why they think bargaining will change things. Bargaining can seem very much like a form of denial mixed with depression.
- Depression: We all know what depression looks like. It is a form of deep sadness which can sometimes result in suicidal thoughts. If the depression is severe and untreated, it can lead to psychotic thinking and behaviors. When suffering from the loss of something once loved, it is normal to fall into a place of denial, anger, and bargaining before hitting the ground of depression. It is as if the grief and loss is finally beginning to kick in and feelings of helplessness and loss of hope trigger the depression.
- How to cope: Seek professional help, talk to your medical doctor, eat healthy, and start exercising. It might also be helpful to start taking vitamins to build your body back up from the emotional and psychological stress of grief and loss. Q10, Iron, Magnesium, Fish Oil supplements, Multivitamins, and other such vitamins can help you cope. Most people double up on caffeine but this can come back to bite you.
- Acceptance: Acceptance does not mean that you have to forgive, ignore, go into denial, or excuse what has happened. Acceptance means that you are at a place where you can recognize what has happened, process it without denying what has happened, and are at a stronger place than before. “Acceptance” is a process in and of itself. You are not likely to embrace acceptance until you experience the above stages at some point. A former client of mine denied that his parents were heading toward divorce. Despite multiple calls to the police for help, hospitalizations for his psychotic father, and calls to the suicide and crisis hotline for help, he remained in the first 4 stages until he went off to college. While in college, he recognized that he was moving closer and closer toward acceptance each time he reached out to others for help. Calling for help and speaking to me was “acceptance” in and of itself. He knew there was a problem but he hadn’t accepted that he had somehow already internalized that something was indeed wrong.
- How to cope: Take your time and do not pressure yourself to accept the loss and grief if you are not ready. It is a process that can take years and may never fully happen. The important thing to do is reach out for support and be open to allowing others to help you along the way. If you need to accept anything it will be that you are suffering and need someone to help you cope.
Sometimes loss and grief can seem like the only experience that can truly break us. Many of us pride ourselves on how strong and resilient we can be. Some people live very traumatizing and difficult lives only to later come out with a powerful story of triumph. Loss and grief can truly impact the human mind, heart, and soul. My great grandmother referred to grief as a seed that is planted by the pain of the loss which eventually, if not appropriately dealt with, spreads to other areas of our life. We have to learn to cope, learn to explore it, and learn to accept it.
What has your experience with loss and grief been? How did or do you cope?
As always, I wish you well