Grief is by no means a constant emotion. It comes in waves. In highs and lows of deep sorrow, of overwhelming guilt, of powerful helplessness. When Alex passed away, I have received a lot of advice from people around me, trying to help me through this devastating loss. Trying to get a grip on my own emotions, I have been submerged in grief, analyzed it thoroughly and now – the time has come to accept the final decision Alex made during his life. I have to accept that he didn’t want to continue living.
My Favorite Pic of Alex playing Hockey
Grief has been explored by many. A well-known theory is the “Five stages of Grief”, first introduced by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her book On Death and Dying from 1969. The five stages are Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and – finally – Acceptance. These are not meant to be followed or seen as a step-by-step journey, but as a dynamic one. As we mourn, we shift between the phases.
I have experienced all five stages to a different extent, yet am most interested by the last, and most challenging stage – Acceptance.
The word ‘Acceptance’ is thrown around often: we need to accept the challenges life lays on our doorsteps, accept the changes we go through and accept ourselves – just the way we are. No judgment, no guilt. While this all seems very peaceful once we reached that stage of true acceptance, how can we get there? And what does it even really mean – to accept?
What is Acceptance?
There are many definitions of Acceptance. A proper dictionary one is ‘the action of consenting to receive or undertake something offered’. A conscious action, like accepting a gift, or a compliment. Which for many people is actually something very difficult. Hearing you are an amazing person, the light of someone’s life, it’s too much to take sometimes. Because we so often believe otherwise…
Another intriguing definition is acceptance as the ‘willingness to tolerate a difficult situation’. In this sense acceptance is more passive, we accept that something is hard and we relieve ourselves from the constant struggle we feel we are in. We bow our heads and mumble “I accept”, sigh deeply, let the pain in and move on.
Psychology hands us a deeper meaning of acceptance – describing it as a person’s agreement to the reality of a situation. True acceptance of any situation means no more protesting, not trying to change it. At rest in the comforts of knowing it happened and there is nothing to do about it. The studies even go as far as describing acceptance as a critical component of change – some even call it the one mechanism that truly changes a person.
In his book Out of the Darkness, Steve Taylor writes about people who have gone through a trauma, and how it transformed their lives. He calls it ‘transformation through suffering’ and states that the people that were transformed all had clear moments of acceptance. They stopped resisting the reality of the situation they were in, they let go, they surrendered. And it changed them.
How do we reach Acceptance?
So it seems we actually need acceptance, in order to welcome change into our lives. But when that change is something as big as your son being taken from you forever, how can we even start to accept something like that?
There is a beautiful saying, the Serenity Prayer, that can help us:
“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.”
It basically tells us that in order to accept, we need to know what we can change and more importantly – what we cannot. This is the first step in accepting anything that happens. Ask yourself the question: Can I change this?
An example from daily life: you missed the bus to work, meaning you will be at least half an hour late. Instead of worrying, cursing or blaming yourself, you might instead ask yourself: can I do anything about this? Can I maybe take the bicycle, or the car, or walk to work? If there are no other options, the energy you are spending with worrying about being late is not worth it, because you cannot change the situation.
What you can do though, is finding the lesson in the situation. Or even better – finding the gift. As a possible lesson, maybe tomorrow you can wake up earlier, or walk faster. Or the gifts: half an hour more to read your book at the bus stop, talk to a stranger, catch up with a friend. If we can see the embedded gifts in our trials, it will make them easier to shoulder, easier to face. And in the end, it will make it so much easier to accept them.
Now the final stage would be to accept and let go of the situation, but often a challenge does not just concern us, but others around us. And we often place ourselves at the mercy of others. We think they have to change in order for us to accept them or their actions. Eckhart Tolle has a nice theory about this. He says change can only happen inside, it does not depend on those around you. We need to free ourselves from our judgmental mind, accept the other as he or she is, give them complete acceptance. The behavior of people is not who they are. If we realize this, let go of our ideas about others, then we can reach acceptance.
So how to accept the decision of my son to take his own life? It’s very clear to me there is no way of changing his decision. He is gone, I can’t change that. The lesson or gift of the situation, well, that might be a harder one. I know that Alex sent me on a path of finding myself, a beautiful Spiritual Journey. He has taught me the value of forgiveness, of having an open mind, of finding my own Truth.
I cannot change what happened, I cannot change him and I cannot change the people around me. All I can do is change myself. But in order for that to happen, I need to fully accept Alex’ decision, fully accept my family, fully accept myself.
I might not be there yet, but I am getting closer every day. Acceptance helps me grieve my dear son and slowly unwrap the gifts he left me. It has already changed me and I am sure there will always be new lessons, new gifts and new changes.
“So dear Alex, I accept your decision. I accept you. I accept myself.”