July 28, 2020

Radical Acceptance and the Invitation to Mourn

Anxiety & Depression

Growing up with a mother as a pastoral care minister who now works as a hospice chaplain, I have heard endless stories about loss, grief, and suffering. She has described grief to be like the natural disaster of a tornado, whether large or small, it changes the landscape. When it hits your house, the house has changed forever. Yes, the house can be rebuilt, but it will never be the same house. Life can be rebuilt after loss, but it will be a different life.

Life’s Losses

Grief is a normal and necessary reaction to many kinds of loss, not only the loss of death of a loved one. The more life is fully lived and experienced, the more loss can become a part of it. Loss of relationships, identity, roles, jobs, health, independence, physical abilities. Loss of hopes and dreams. Loss of innocence. Loss of security. The list can go on and on.

Grief is not linear and it’s a journey that looks different for everyone.

Models of Grief

Various models of grief have been developed in efforts to better understand the experience and to help provide a sense of normalcy for those in the midst of the whirlwind of grief. Kübler-Ross developed the five stages of grief, including denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. William Worden wrote about four tasks of mourning, including accepting the reality of the loss, experiencing the pain of grief, adjusting to the new reality, and finding an enduring connection or meaning with what was lost. Alan Wolfelt described six “reconciliation needs” for those who mourn. They include acknowledging the reality of the loss, embracing the pain of the loss, remembering what was lost, developing a new self-identity, searching for meaning, and receiving ongoing support from others.

While being one of the most difficult things to experience, acceptance is one essential thread weaved throughout each of these models. Now you might think, in the midst of tragedy, how does one come to a place of acknowledging the reality of the loss, and accepting or even embracing the pain of the loss? I believe the concept of radical acceptance is helpful to examine in order to better understand how acceptance might be possible and why it is essential to the work of grief. Let’s first look at what radical acceptance is and especially what it is not.

What is Radical Acceptance?

The term radical acceptance was developed by Marsha Linehan as a specific skill within Dialectical Behavioral Therapy. Dialectical essentially means when two things that seem to be complete opposites can actually both be true at the same time. For example, a dialectic of grief might be the experience of needing both to let go and to hold on to different aspects of what was lost. Radical acceptance is specifically a skill to use “when you cannot keep painful events and emotions from coming your way.” Linehan describes radical acceptance as:

Radical means all the way, complete, and total.
It is accepting in your mind, your heart, and your body.
It’s when you stop fighting reality, stop throwing tantrums because reality is not the way you want it, and let go of bitterness.

Radical acceptance is a way to thoroughly, holistically, and actively engage in the process of embracing reality, especially when reality is really hard.

Reality is basically that which is real, that which is true about a situation. For example, the facts about the past and present are the facts. There are realistic limitations on the future that may look different for everyone. Everything has a cause, including events that cause you pain. The “tantrums” we often throw are our efforts to try to avoid pain. However, pain cannot be avoided. “Pain is nature’s way of signaling that something is wrong,” according to Linehan.

What Radical Acceptance is Not

Linehan notes that radical acceptance is not to be confused with “approval, compassion, love, passivity, or against change.” It is not that any of these are bad or wrong, and perhaps much needed as well. However, in order to radically accept an event, a situation, or a loss, these factors are not necessarily key ingredients. For example, you may not approve of another person’s actions or behaviors, but you can accept the reality of what has happened. You may also be required to act or make changes in a situation rather than sit back and do nothing. Acceptance does not mean being passive in allowing what is wrong to continue to be wrong. For instance, you may need to assert your needs and advocate for change. You can love the people within the reality of your circumstance, yet it may be that you do not love the circumstance itself.

Considering the Invitation to Mourn

The concept of radical acceptance within the context of grief and loss boldly invites us to enter more fully into the process of mourning. Consider what pain and suffering you have been trying to avoid. What is one step you can take toward identifying and acknowledging difficult reality within your life circumstances? Allow yourself space this week to begin to grieve. Part II of this blog series will aim to more fully answer the questions why and how do we come to a place of radical acceptance.

Above all, know you are not alone in this journey. If you need some guidance while you process your grief, don’t hesitate to reach out to us here at Optimum Joy. Call today!

Written by therapist Anna Quistad

We can help you get started

Ready to set up your first appointment?

If you haven’t been in touch with us yet, you can get started by filling out our intake form.