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Five stages of grief: stage five – acceptance

Five stages of grief diagram

Developed by Dr Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, the five stages of grief are an outline of how grief commonly affects people after the loss of a loved one. They are:

  1. Denial
  2. Anger
  3. Bargaining
  4. Depression
  5. Acceptance

They are not meant to be a definitive set of rules – you are very unlikely to experience each stage one after the other in order. You may not experience some stages, or you may switch back and forth between two or more. The five stages, however, can still help you understand what you are feeling and why those feelings might affect you in certain ways.

What is acceptance?

Acceptance is sometimes seen as the ‘final stage’ of grief, where you get better and life becomes okay again. However, it is not this simple.

In her book On Grief and Grieving, Dr Kubler-Ross explains the acceptance stage: “Acceptance is often confused with the notion of being all right or okay with what has happened. This is not the case. Most people don’t ever feel okay or all right about the death of a loved one. This stage is about accepting the reality that our loved one is physically gone and recognising that this new reality is the permanent reality.”

Acceptance does not mean forgetting your loved one, or being happy all the time, or not being sad about your loss anymore. “Acceptance is not about liking a situation,” Kubler-Ross says. “It is about acknowledging all that has been lost and learning to live with that loss.”

It is also important to note that acceptance does not mean the end of grief. You will still experience sadness because your loved one has passed away. The other stages of grief, such as anger and depression, may resurface again, even a long time after your loss. This doesn’t mean that you have moved backwards, or are ‘failing’ at acceptance. This is perfectly natural. Acceptance is not a finish line that you cross, it’s an ongoing process that you have to work through as you rediscover ways to enjoy life.

Why does it happen?

As you grieve, your mind is constantly struggling to accept the reality of your loss. You will subconsciously be trying to find ways to deny it, to ignore it, and to change the fact. Denial, anger and bargaining are stages that are fighting the reality. A part of you is refusing to fully accept, to know deep down in your heart, that your loved one isn’t coming back.

In the fourth stage of grief, depression, you may start realising the true extent of your loss and react with a deep, overwhelming sadness.

Acceptance comes from working through the disbelief, the anger, the sadness, and reaching a place where you understand your loss is real. In this way, the other stages of grief are important to experience, because they can help lead you to acceptance. This is why you may hear people say that “grief is painful, but it needs to be done.” Acceptance eventually happens because you have processed painful truths and the difficult reality that you have lost a part of your life.

How do you reach acceptance?

Reaching acceptance is a complex, personal journey that can take many forms. Unfortunately, there is no easy way of reaching acceptance and it may take much longer than you expected. Be aware that it is not as simple as achieving acceptance, like crossing a finish line, and then you are done with grief.

Because acceptance is about realising what your loss means and learning to live with it, the best thing you can do is acknowledge your own emotions. Finding ways to express how you are feeling at every stage of the grieving process may help you move towards acceptance.

There are other practical ways to cope with grief that may make the journey slightly easier. These include:

  • Taking care of your physical health, by eating well and sleeping regularly.
  • Joining a support group or seeing a bereavement counsellor.
  • Finding small ways of honouring your loved one’s memory in your day-to-day life, for example with tokens of remembrance.
  • Finding new hobbies or rediscovering old ones, to keep your mind active and confidence high.

You may find that as you begin to accept your loss and enjoy life again, you experience feelings of guilt. Kubler-Ross says: “As we begin to live again and enjoy our life, we often feel that in doing so, we are betraying our loved one.”

You may feel as though being happy means you have forgotten them, or that you don’t love them anymore. Try to be kind to yourself and remember that acceptance is a part of grief. It does not mean you have forgotten them, or are moving on. You are finding ways to get through each day without them, and that is okay. Your happiness is important and it is possible to both love and miss them and experience happy, enjoyable moments in your life.

If you feel you are struggling to move towards acceptance, you might benefit from the help of a dedicated bereavement support organisation, or read more about coping with the loss of a loved one in our help and resources section.

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