What About This Thing Called 'Acceptance'?

By Elizabeth Harper Neeld, Ph.D.

A partner reports:

Probably the hardest thing for me to tolerate after Leslie died was the lethargy. I lost all ambition. Up until that time I had been gung-ho about everything. I had a game plan that excited me. I worked out regularly at the gym. I had high goals in life and total confidence that I would reach them. But with Leslie gone, I just didn’t care about anything.

Lately, though, something has started to change. It’s like I’m waking up. The thing that has excited me is the idea of simplifying my life. I’m looking to see how many things I can get rid of around the house that is just clutter. It’s a game for me to find as many ways as possible to make things more simple.

But I also have to admit that sometimes it’s upsetting. Many of the changes involve things related to my life with Leslie. We were into buying old — I mean really run-down — houses and fixing them up to rent. We fixed them up together, and then Leslie managed them. Now, every time I sell one of those houses, I feel like another part of Leslie is gone. But the rewards of simplifying are strong. So I just keep moving on with the project.
(Adapted from Seven Choices by Elizabeth Harper Neeld)

Probably if there is any information that people have heard about the grieving process, it is the famous five steps: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. And if there is any one thing that I have heard people say makes them feel the most like a failure at grieving, it is these same five terms.


The famous “five stages of the grieving process” end at “acceptance,” yet there is at least half of the complete grieving process left to do! Whatever one means by the term “acceptance” (whether resignation — the definition of most people — or gaining a useful perspective), getting to this place is only a point in the ongoing continuum of what it means to grieve fully.

What happens after we come to see that we will need to reshape and replan our lives in a way that honors our loss yet is not dominated by it on a daily basis? We begin, then, what researchers call the “longer-term adjustive” tasks.

Here’s an example of these longer-term adjustive tasks:

A woman talks:

I had been married to George for almost fifty years. We had that kind of old — fashioned marriage where he handled all the finances and outside things, and I handled the family and ran the house. With him gone, I realized I had to learn all kinds of things — like how to reconcile a bank statement and balance a checkbook. And establish a whole new network. You know, like finding someone you can trust to tell you what’s really wrong with your car and not charge you an arm and a leg for fixing it. I saw that I was just going to have to move out and do these things. (Adapted from Seven Choices by Elizabeth Harper Neeld)

These longer-term adjustive tasks are very hard and courageous work. And they are as central to the complete grieving process as the initial experiences of shock and disorientation.

How did some come to name only the five terms — denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance — the full grieving process?

These terms come from the excellent work of Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross who worked with people who were dying in a hospital in London. As she watched these patients deal with their pending deaths, she began to see a pattern. They often would deny that they were about to die. Then they would get very angry. They might think of a bargain they could make that would keep them alive — e. g., if I follow this food regimen, then I can get well. When this didn’t seem to be working, the patients felt depressed. Finally, Dr. Kubler-Ross identified that the dying people accepted that they were going to die.

The trouble is that the “five stages” that originally described the grief process of a person who was dying have been applied to those of us who are still living!

And the terms don’t fit.

We still have a whole set of actions to take that are in addition to dealing with our initial responses to our loss. We have to learn how to live productively and, we hope eventually, with a renewed sense of love for life without the lost person. And often we have to do this work around people who don’t understand that we are still grieving…that this longer-term adjustive work we have to do is as hard as any other part of the grieving process has been.

The best gift we can give ourselves in this matter is to remember that the complete grieving process includes these longer-term adjustive tasks as we move forward to integrate our loss into our lives in a way that is honest and productive. The complete grieving process does not end with just a change in perspective.

Related articles:

Time Does Not Heal All Wounds

What "Recovery" Will and Will Not Mean

You Know You're Getting Better When...

Also by Elizabeth Harper Neeld:

How Long Is This Grieving Going to Last?

The Value of Reminiscing

Do Men Grieve Differently from Women?

Dr. Elizabeth Harper Neeld offers wisdom and practical insights born of personal experience to people rebuilding their lives after suffering grief and loss. As an internationally recognized and accomplished consultant, advisor, and author of more than twenty books - including Tough Transitions and Seven Choices: Finding Daylight After Loss Shatters Your World - she is committed to work that helps lift the human spirit.

Author's photo by Joey Bieber

Photo by MR+G/Flickr Creative Commons

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