Grief is the Process of Acceptance
My first experience with grief over a life shift was when I graduated high school. I wasn’t a kid anymore. I wasn’t a student anymore. My whole community had been in school and it would be gone overnight. That was all I had known so far in my life! There was no going back. I would never be a kid again; I would never recreate a community like that again. If I was a student again it would be in a very different context. I didn’t feel the grief until graduation drew near. I didn’t know to expect it. No one talked to me about it, so I did not speak of it. I was embarrassed by emotions at that age anyway and I sensed it was a sign of weakness. (Poor kid!)
None of this meant I found adulthood undesirable. But I knew it would be very different and so I felt a loss. Following closely on this I came out to myself and entered into an even longer and darker grieving period. Again, it was not that I wanted to stay in the closet, but I was also not going to have the life I’d envisioned in my denial.
These were my first experiences of grief not over a death, but over change. Of course I experienced this many times, to varying degrees, through my life. And yet I was surprised to learn that the undefined discomfort and pain I experienced for the past five years was grief over the ego (personal thought system) falling away. I did not expect this when I imagined what it would be like when the ego fell away. Actually, I really didn’t imagine it, but I suspect I unconsciously expected only joy. I guess I thought it would be something like it was for Jan Frazier, who went right into joy and stayed there. She is a happy learner, apparently, but this mind has never been a happy learner. (Bernadette Roberts entered a dark night of the spirit when the ego fell from her mind because until then she had joined with God through the ego. There are all sorts of experiences when the ego falls away, depending on how each mind works). With every change in my life, even minor ones, I am acutely aware of what is lost, and I grieve in proportion to my sense of loss. And when the ego fell I felt I lost myself, which was so huge it took me four years to face it and then I spent over a year in conscious shock.
(I also lost a whole life in the world in the process, which is not something that happens to everyone. In fact, it was the undeniable signal of what had occurred and led to conscious shock. But, honestly, that was minor and superficial compared to my sense I lost myself).
My grief does not mean that I want the ego or that I find an expanded sense of existence to be a bad thing. But in my former experience I was defined by boundaries and limitations and now those are gone. And it is very different. I am not what I was, and there is no going back.
I’ve written about grief before, because I recognized that many of my clients had unresolved grief about the past for not-so-obvious losses, as in, their parents or other loved ones not being for them who they wish they were. I had come to recognize grief as an important, though painful, process because so much of the personal experience is loss, and the grieving process leads to understanding and acceptance. But somehow only recently have I come to see the significance of that. Grief is how we move through resistance to acceptance.
Remember, acceptance does not mean you embrace or like what has occurred. It means you acknowledge it without resisting it.
When a loss is sudden our minds go into shock and numbness for a while as protection: “I can’t believe this has happened.” Whether or not there is shock and numbness, there is denial, and what is that but resistance?
If the loss is foreseen, there is often bargaining, another form of resistance: “God, I’ll be good from now on, if only you won’t take my son.” “I commit to eating clean and getting regular exercise if this cancer goes away.”
Sometimes bargaining comes in the form of magical thinking even when the loss has already happened: “If I don’t throw out her clothes it means she hasn’t really died.” “If I don’t grieve it means he has not really left me.”
Anger and depression (which is anger turned inward) signal the beginning of acceptance. The blow has been received and acknowledged. But it is a hybrid stage, because continued resistance shows up as blame and unhappiness: “I will never walk again and I will make that driver pay!” “She’s not coming back. My life is over.”
Finally, understanding and acceptance show up: “I can see he’s happier without me. It’s best for both of us that he moved on.” “I lived a good life. It had to end sometime.”
Grief does not proceed in a straight line from denial (resistance) to acceptance. You weave in and out of the stages, parts of you advancing to acceptance faster than other parts. One day you may be depressed; the next back in denial. Especially at the beginning you may take three steps forward only to take two back. The grief process is jagged, with peaks and valleys coming and going. But, finally, you achieve complete understanding and acceptance. And from there you can move on from the loss.
The grieving process is painful, so we want to avoid it. But recognize it is the process to acceptance and perhaps you will find it is something you want to go through.