What does acceptance look like?

I don’t even want to accept it, if acceptance means “being OK” with what happened. It will never be OK that my son raped my daughter.

The last stage of grieving, the apparent goal of healing, the epitome of mindfulness and serenity and maturity, is usually described as “acceptance.” But what does acceptance mean in the aftermath of sibling sexual trauma? Is it healthy or even right to “accept” that one child in a family violated their own sibling in such a basic way?

 

It’s one thing--although not an easy thing--to believe that it actually happened. It’s an even harder task to let that truth sink into your awareness, to carry that truth in your head. But to be at peace with a world in which such things have happened may feel like a step too far.  The word acceptance can carry overtones of approval, or at least neutrality, or being at peace with what happened. 

It is hard to accept that something is part of your life while also holding the truth that it never should have happened. There’s no doubt this is a different kind of acceptance than accepting something you simply don’t like or didn’t expect. There’s no right way to go or right place to end up.

 

The path to healing may, or may not, include some of these pieces.

  • Facing that we cannot change the past

  • Accepting that you did not have control over what happened, that you are not at fault for not knowing enough to see what was happening and prevent or stop it

  • Learning to live with ambivalence

  • Learning to live with regret

  • Finding meaning in how you choose to react to an awful reality (see Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning)

  • Coming up with the words to describe this part of your life, to yourself and/or to others

  • Re-writing the narrative of your life, the way you understand your own life, to include the reality of sibling sexual trauma

  • Adjusting expectations for your family, your relationships, your idea of “normal” or “OK”

  • Letting go of expectations to “move on” or be “over it”

  • Using techniques of mindfulness or DBT to practice radical acceptance

 

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross developed her classic Stages of Grief model to be used like a map, not a GPS. Something that accurately tells what exists, rather than something that gives a route you are expected to follow. The stages portray the terrain; they describe places most people will encounter as they grieve. But they do not imply a fixed destination or a discrete end to the journey.

 

Denial is a commonly shared starting point for grief, and in some ways the other stages mark a slow move away from denial and toward acceptance, the ability to face reality. Our losses don’t go away, and we don’t leave our emotions behind forever. We will still have moments of sadness or regret, anger or shame. But through the process of grieving we can learn to navigate them, learn to live with them, so our lives become manageable again.

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