Eileen (not her real name) sat quietly sobbing across from me, holding a picture of her sister.
"She was just diagnosed with lung cancer and she never smoked a day in her life," Eileen said, explaining what brought her in to see me.
"It doesn't make any sense and it's just so unfair! We're all scared and can't believe this is happening. I want to be supportive to her, her husband, and my niece and nephew, but I'm having trouble accepting the reality of all this."
Acceptance. A common theme discussed in my office and considered in my life.
Why is it so difficult to accept unwelcome change?
And how can we possibly accept circumstances that feel unacceptable?
The first step is to figure out what acceptance means to each of us. When my heart is screaming "NO!" and rejecting every aspect of a situation, what would it mean if I had to accept it? That I approve or agree with what's happened? That I'm fine with it?
No, there are some things in life that I would never want in a million years and that I could never be fine with. Alas, they happen anyway.
To me, acceptance means getting to the point where I acknowledge my reality without shock, denial, or resistance. It is what it is. It doesn't mean I like the situation nor does it suggest I don't care. And it certainly doesn't mean I don't continue to have strong feelings about it.
Moving beyond shock is a normal process that obviously takes time. When my son died in the motorcycle accident, it was a long time before the news was old and simply a part of me. But even when someone is ill or you learn other distressing facts, there is still that moment when you realize your world is irrevocably altered.
I've found that the same thought that is shocking in one moment seems much less intense once it's old news. I remember thinking I can't wait for this to be old news, when I don't feel intense shock.
Moving beyond resistance requires some resolve. Let's face it: it makes sense to resist pain and tragedy. Who would welcome it? At the beginning, feeling resistant toward what happened actually demonstrates our reasonableness. The difficulty comes if we remain resistant to our circumstances and keep trying to hold onto some version of life as it used to be. Ongoing resistance can lead to denial.
Moving beyond denial can be tricky because a certain amount of denial at the time of a crisis or tragedy is adaptive and protects us from an overload of pain.
Denial becomes problematic when it continues and keeps us from ultimately dealing with our feelings. I remember those first feelings of unreality - that sense of things being surreal. It was impossible to wrap my mind around what happened. But eventually the truth of the situation took hold, and that's when I began to feel all my emotions.
Here are a few tools that can help you work through shock, resistance, and denial on your way to acceptance:
1. Writing/journaling - keeping your own personal record of thoughts and feelings not only helps the healing process but also shows your progress over time. Make sure you stay in a judgment-free zone, approaching whatever comes out with curiosity and interest.
2. Talking with supportive friends and/or family - there will be times you'll want to be alone, but it's important not to isolate yourself. Stay connected to those you feel closest to and share your connection.
3. Learn as much as you can about the situation. This will help you cognitively understand the facts and eventually pave the way for a deeper acceptance.
4. Make room for your feelings - emotions will bubble up on their own so give them space to be expressed (even difficult ones). Try not to busy yourself doing so much that there's no room for just being.
5. Find appropriate distractions that work for you and then use them to take breaks from distress. Alternating between facing the pain and distraction from it helps ease the process of acceptance.
6. Get additional support when you need it. Remember that we are all capable of great resilience; I'm holding that vision for you.
Essays on Grief Resilience