Grief: Acceptance or Acquiescence?

(Twenty-ninth in a series of topical blogs based on chapter by chapter excerpts from Opiate Nation. Translation into most languages is available to the right.)

I have never been one to accept something without question – anyone who knows me well, knows this – and they live with the frustration my incessant questions create. But it’s the way I need to process what is happening to or in or around me in order for me to honestly make the decision to accept or reject whatever the issue is at hand. I don’t think I could live with myself if I pretended I agreed or accepted something when I didn’t – the dishonesty would keep me in turmoil. And many times, it is ultimately for self-preservation that I accept something distasteful or painful when I finally understand there is no other option.

Death leaves us no other option – it is not negotiable. For most of us, our survival instinct brings us to the realization that in order to retain our sanity, we must eventually accept death – even of those we love the most in this world – whether we like it or not.

After the first four stages of loss and grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression – comes acceptance. Acceptance is not an end point but a process that we each, in our own time, use to reintegrate the pieces of our life without our loved one’s presence. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross tells us in On Grief and Grieving that acceptance does not mean we are okay with what has happened but rather it is about accepting the reality of what has happened, that our loved one is gone, and that we have a new reality which is permanent. We slowly transfer our energy from our loss and re-invest it in our life.

For those of us who experience complicated grief, the readjustment to life without a child is understandably harder because it increases the sense of unfairness. Children are supposed to bury their parents, not vice versa. Accepting that it was our son’s time to die while we, and others, live on will never seem fair. But we know we cannot change it and that it is our time to heal. The healing process can actually bring us closer to our son as we begin a new relationship with him, even while we plod ahead in uncharted territory.

Acceptance cannot be rushed, and it cannot come before grief is fully experienced and processed. Regardless of the non-linear moving in and out of the first four stages of grief, acceptance necessarily comes afterwards. In reflecting on my journal entries from the first weeks and months after JL’s death, it seems I felt some pressure at that time to accept, to move on. Was it self-imposed from my own impatience, trying to escape the pain, or was it pressure (either real or imagined) from the world around me? Regardless of the source, I was absolutely not ready to accept what had happened and I knew I would just have to live with the discomfort that accompanied working through my grief. Others would either allow me this time or I would simply not spend time around them.

Many times, acquiescence is what those who are uncomfortable with grief are actually asking of us. But acquiescence is different than acceptance: it is reluctant acceptance, resignation, without protest. Seeming like you accept something while deep inside you don’t want to or you still have nagging questions but for some reason (usually external pressure) you just ‘accept’ and don’t make a fuss. But have you noticed that when we do this, many times resentment takes hold and grows and festers until at some point our true feelings burst out? We should never allow ourselves to be pressured into acquiescing.

After our son’s death, we realized were facing a similar challenge as those who are learning acceptance in recovery: surrendering to what is, not to how we wish things are, and letting go and turning over control. Accepting our place in the scheme of things, in The Big Picture, in The Universe, in order to have sobriety, to have peace, is the same for those in the grief process. How ironic, we thought, that we were again facing a challenge that we and our son had been facing in the years before his death.

As we begin to accept reality, ultimately, we are accepting our mortal-ness, our human-ness, our limitations, our fallibilities. This is where forgiveness and grace come in, towards ourselves and others. Accepting our son’s death as best for some unknowable reason lies in the spiritual sphere, where we can each choose to go or not. What I do know is that when I fully accept, I move myself from the ever-elusive realm of wishful thinking into the domain of reality of life here on earth. What enabled John and I to fully accept the tragedy of our son’s death and experience peace was our hope in a joyful reunion in eternity together, anchored in our faith and trust in God and his promises.

Shredding A Life – Losing the Future

(Twenty-sixth in a series of topical blogs based on chapter by chapter excerpts from Opiate Nation. Translation into most languages is available to the right.)

Nine months after our son, JL’s, sudden death, we were gradually unearthing our grief, as we gradually unearthed pieces of his life. We were miners searching for something precious, digging through the layers of years as if through layers of rock. Or perhaps we were more like survivors of an earthquake. Our entire earth, with everything we had built on it, was suddenly shaken to the point of collapse, and we were sifting through the remaining buildings and rubble to see what was left. Deciding what to keep and what to dispose of. “Dispose of” has new and unwelcome meanings now. Clothing, personal belongings, furniture, files, photos, childhood toys, keys, memorabilia.

John’s journal entry on May 12, 2015 expresses some of our feelings:

Dear JL,

It’s dad again. We are going through more of your things and I spent a half-day shredding your old papers and notes. It is so odd that much of our lives comes down to boxes of paper to shred. This is very, very hard for me. Shredding your life.

I love you – Dad

Grief is about what is going on inside us after a loss—how we feel. We have no more control over it than we have control over other feelings. Our choice involves how we deal with it.

Mourning is the action of dealing with our loss—what we do, the common rituals, the external part of the tragedy. Again, we choose how we mourn.

Some people put acts of mourning off indefinitely – leaving a deceased loved one’s belongings just as they were when they died until they die themselves. Others, urged on by society or their own distraught emotions, will almost immediately begin sorting and throwing. For us, there were some natural milestones when deep inside we seemed to know it was time to face the loss of another part of our son’s life. The grief-work we were engaged in – being aware of the various stages of grief and facing them as they surfaced – was our internal guide. We never let societal custom or any external pressure guide us, while we did read and listen to other’s experiences.

One thing became clear: this loss of our child was very, very different than the loss of our parents or siblings. Although each of those were difficult in their own distinct ways, the level of personal pain with our son’s death was unique. He was an intimate part of who we are – of course – he came from us. As he grew and became his own person, he yet remained a part of our life and more significantly, our future. All is engulfed in a thick fog. Which is why the quote in the photo is so poignant:

When you lose a parent, you lose the past. When you lose a child, you lose the future.