Don’t Project Your Grief. Live it Intensely. How DBT’s Radical Acceptance Helps Me Through My Grief
Listen to Executive Director Gabriel Nathan read this post aloud:
“If you want to be able to endure life, be ready to accept death” – Sigmund Freud
In March 2015, I lost my mother after a long battle with chronic kidney disease. As a consequence, grief tried to be part of my emptiness, and in an attempt to refuse it, I began to fill my routine with as many activities as possible—cooking, cleaning the house, grocery-shopping. I wanted to avoid processing the pain of her absence in my mind by keeping my body busy all day long. Unable to accept this grief, I started projecting my pain onto all other mothers I’d meet out in the world. When I saw these mothers excited about their kids, it reminded me of how much my mother used to get enchanted about me.
With each new comment about their child’s performance at school, I’d try to shift the topic to my writing, how important I was in some way, and how I could help these mothers with my work. That’s exactly what my mother used to do with me. She put me at the top of her life, praising what I did best: writing. Now, without her, I had to try to make it on my own. But, it was clear how uninterested those mothers were in what I was doing, or how I was doing. Which is why, in my unresolved grief, I decided to stay away from them all.
My grieving process began on March 7th, 2015, when my cell phone rang around five a.m. I remember my heart beating faster than normal. I could barely say “hello” to my sister, who was crying on the other end of the line. Our mother had passed away.
I remember my lips feeling dry and my legs stiff as if they were in a cast.
During my mother’s funeral, my sister reported that I told her that I “wasn’t feeling my body.” I also remember taking a break from writing, as it reminded me how my mother used to call to ask me how my new articles were coming along. Like the time I wrote about ADHD and she commented that she had heard about it on TV and thought it was very interesting. She used to say that she learned a lot from my articles and that it was a source of knowledge for her. She was enthusiastic about my work and used to call me “her intellectual daughter.”
Over time, the feeling of loss took on an evasive character, and instead of mourning the loss of my mother, I demanded that, little by little, both my sister and my mother-in-law behave in a similar way to her.
“Why didn’t they ask about my work, about my emotions, about what I had prepared for lunch? Why didn’t they show interest in my life?” I thought whenever I talked to them.
Simple: because they are not my mother! They already have children of their own.
Because I didn’t feel loved by them, I cut ties and projected (unconsciously) my demands onto my father, who, despite loving me, is not my mother. The more I refused to accept the reality of the loss, the more I became trapped in a cycle of non-conformity, unhappiness, and bitterness. Amid this emotional exhaustion, I sought psychotherapy indicated for borderline crises.
Everything changed when I discovered dialectical behavioral therapy, a psychotherapeutic approach indicated for people with borderline personality disorder (as in my case), and started to practice what we call “radical acceptance.” Radical acceptance is a technique used in DBT that encourages the patient to accept reality as it is, with the mind, body, and the heart. Over time, this skill helped in my process of grieving and resuming my relationships (including with other mothers).
In DBT, there are many self-help strategies for patients with high emotional dysregulation. However, what caught my attention the most was how DBT can be effective in managing a patient’s grief.
More generally, DBT is a therapeutic approach based on acceptance and change:
The “D” stands for “dialectical.” It’s the synthesis or integration of opposites. Dialectical strategies help therapists and patients break free from extreme positions, avoiding all-or-nothing thinking styles.
In practice, the psychologist works for the individual to find ways to keep together two perspectives (apparently opposite, like joy and sadness) and maintain the balance between them. Dialectical thinking is important because we are neither completely happy nor completely sad, but a mixture between these opposite states. In the grieving process, this becomes even more evident. For example, the following thoughts swam around my head after the death of my mother:
“Is it possible to feel joy again, even amid sadness that comes with the death of a loved one? How do we start over after the death of someone who was part of our life? How can we have a life worth living when part of us leaves with the departed?”
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from DBT, it’s that it’s possible to be happy even after something sad happens in our life, such as the death of a loved one. It is possible to feel the presence—despite the absence—of those who have left. And this is what we mean when we talk about radical acceptance.
Patients are taught to accept themselves as they are, and life as it is, while learning the day-to-day skills needed to better regulate their emotions. In practice, radical acceptance requires that the person be exposed to reality as it is. In the case of the grieving process, it would be accepting that the loved one is gone and will not return and that the non-acceptance of reality does not change the present situation.
Brian Therialut, a writer who lost his wife to cancer, observes that “grief loses its power when it is radically embraced at the moment.” This is because we let our emotions flow instead of repressing or stifling them. The more we repress our emotions, the stronger they become, and the greater the chance that we will succumb to them. When we succumb to pain, depression and anxiety can surface. In my case, while I did not accept my state of grief, my obsession with cleanliness did not cease. My non-stop attempts to clean the house were ways of avoiding stopping to realize what I was feeling: her absence.
Radical acceptance is an invitation to dive deep into our pain, and in this case, the absence of the loved one. It may seem painful, but it helped me a lot to radically accept my mother’s death by understanding how a cremation ritual works. That was her last wish: to live free at sea, and so my family and I did.
Non-acceptance leads to paralysis, so it is important to accept for a process of change to occur.
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I understand that the pain of loss does not disappear, but changes in intensity. It is at this point that the pain becomes nostalgia, and this is eternalized in memory. When we start to accept that our loved one is gone, instead of remembering the pain of loss, we remember the pleasant moments that we spent together. It’s like revisiting a photo album, with the best cuts of life: birthdays, childhood moments, family reunions, in short, memories of a good time.
At first, it seemed like a rather painful technique. After all, “how can you radically accept that the person you love will no longer be here to love you?”
However, little by little, I could see that it was precisely this kind of thinking that was causing me the most pain. So it was time to let my mother go so that I also could go for a new life without her.
While radical acceptance often happened outside of the doctor’s office, it also has some technical steps in the clinical setting:
1. Reflect on the event: under the guidance of my psychotherapist, I remembered (little by little) my mother’s wake and the traumatic memory in which I came across her body in the coffin. She was like a doll in a box: motionless and lifeless.
2. Try to think of all the facts leading up to the event that you have a hard time accepting.
Throughout the sessions, I thought about all the suffering my mother went through kidney disease. Those were difficult years, in which smiles and joy were diluted amidst pain and weakness. I remember her asking us to let her rest, alone, in her room. It was very difficult to see her slowly getting sick. She had to start dialysis, which is no easy treatment. The person suffers from intermittent nausea, which over time can lead to a lack of appetite and weight loss. This lasted for ten years.
What made me accept my mother’s condition was precisely her coping with the disease. She did not have a victim attitude, but one of encouragement and responsibility for her health. She is my role model.
3. Accept emotions: Feeling sad and angry when a loved one passes away is natural. What is unhealthy is turning that sadness and anger into a life purpose. This way, tears came in homeopathic doses as I embraced my pain and accepted my mother’s rest, replacing rumination with acceptance.
According to DBT, we should see our emotions like waves of the sea: they come and go. And as new events arise, new waves (or emotions) are renewed. Thus, anguish and pain are not permanent feelings but temporary states of the soul.
4. Create a proactive plan: By accepting reality as it is, you can release emotional tension and judgmental thoughts. Mourning is a personal and non-transferable process; although it is uncomfortable, the pain of loss over time fluctuates, giving way to longing.
Today, I understand that my father, mother-in-law, sister and so many other mothers have nothing to do with the expectations that my mother placed on me. When talking to them, I interact instead of expecting something in return.
Projecting my yearnings, and expecting from other mothers the same love that my mother used to have for me, only caused me pain and prevented me from moving forward.
Today I understand that my family loves and cares for me. The fact that they don’t ask about every article I develop doesn’t invalidate the admiration they have for me. This was my mother’s way of loving, and she is unique and irreplaceable in my life. Just like my dad and my sister. Each type of person has a different way of showing affection. Not better, not worse, just different. My sister asks for guidance on any conflicts that happen to her children; my father is always excited to visit my husband and me, even when facing a tiring trip; and what about the other mothers? Well, they always invite me to their events (and that’s enough, as this is their way of showing that they enjoy my company).
From the moment I learned to accept and respect my family’s way of being with me, our relationship became more solid, lighter, and healthier.
The practice of radical acceptance takes time to work and looks different for everyone. And I should note that “accepting” does not mean “agreeing” with the situation, but ceasing to fight it. I realized that the more I became uncomfortable with my mother’s absence, the more pain I inflicted on myself, and the more damaged my relationships with my family members became.
Acceptance came along with the therapy sessions, in which, instead of being angry at death, I learned that it was a relief for the soul to let go of anger.
You don’t have to suffer alone. That’s where psychotherapeutic support can help you to learn how to deal with life’s mishaps.
Living one day at a time, and rescuing positive memories of those who are gone, instead of ruminating about the loss, is an effective way to free yourself from suffering and move on.
Death exists, and to learn to live, it is necessary to accept it.
Mom, thank you for everything. I love you!
In Memory of Marli Silva.