Autobiographical writing / Child abuse / Psychology

Acceptance and grief

Grief is sometimes a long process. I have been grieving for decades.

It’s painful, and hard to get a handle on, and sometimes we veer away from it—take a break, shut down, ignore it, stop grieving for a while. But then we can’t hold out any longer. The grief demands we return to it.

Growing up with mental illness in the family involves ongoing and profound grief. You grieve for yourself, for

Reorganization requires acceptance.

Reorganization requires acceptance.

what you didn’t have and the ways you didn’t develop because someone else’s mental illness consumed the energy in the family. Or maybe it was your mental illness that robbed you of the opportunity to relate to others in positive ways, that kept you from discovering who you were underneath your mass of symptoms, that consumed your energy and held you back from becoming the person you might have been. Maybe it was both.

Because there is nothing like crazy in the family for making you crazy.

You grieve for yourself, and what you missed out on, the ways you are were damaged or stunted because of the illness in the family. You grieve for who you might have been if your family had been able to really care for you.

You grieve for the lost opportunities, the lost years, the broken relationships you were left with because of the psychic damage you incurred.

You grieve for the relationship you could never have with that person—or maybe it was several people in your family—because mental illness inevitably involves an impaired ability to relate to and care for others.

Hardest of all, you grieve for the person who was ill and who they might have been without their illness.

Nearly everyone in my family is mentally ill. I grieve for them as a whole—for the fact of a family—and I grieve for them separately, as individuals, and for who they might have been without their illnesses.


I think they missed something. Sorrow should be on here. It is not the same as depression and detachment. But grief means you will have to feel sad.

I am often angry at the entire mental health industry. My anger is a part of that grief. My family members did not get the care they needed, and so I suffered. I lost my family. I lost my childhood. I lost great chunks of myself. I lost the people they all might have become if they had gotten well.

I don’t know if anyone could really have done anything, but I’m angry anyway. I’m angry the way someone else might feel at a loved one who has died. They are angry at being left. I am angry that no one saved us. Strictly speaking, grief is not entirely logical. And yet it has its own logic.

Anger is a part of this logic. So is sorrow. And a lot of people have proposed a vast number of shortcuts you can take to get through these stages faster. They tell you to “let go” of your anger. They tell you that forgiveness will free you. They tell you “stay busy” and to “move on.”

I don’t think any of these things work, but they give you something to do while the grief works itself out in your own time, so that you feel less helpless in the face of it. But I think you are helpless in the face of this kind of grief, and the better course is just to roll with it.

The better course is to admit the degree of your helplessness in the face of the magnitude of the problem—we really have no completely effective treatments for most serious mental illnesses. There is little anyone actually could do to save all of us from the fragility of our minds.

But I do think you need to grieve. What I’m really talking about in this post is acceptance. Like other stages of grief, acceptance cannot be rushed. We get there when we can and stay there as long as we need to.

Stop trying to skip it. It doesn’t help.

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7 thoughts on “Acceptance and grief

  1. It stuns me to think of all the work you’ve had to do over the years. I feel your pain in so many ways. While my childhood was not nearly so dramatically dysfunctional (I hope that’s not offensive), it had many of the same elements of grieving for very fundamental relationships and needs.

    I agree with you. Mourning is something you just have to go with. I think all the well intended advice is to steer people from getting stuck in the mire with it. Which is definitely a threat.

    As always, Ashana, I am in awe of who you are and what you’ve been able to do. Hats off to you.

    • Thank you so much.

      Yes, there is something usually the same despite the differences in levels of intensity and atrocity–although I’m sure there are some differences too.

      Honestly, I think all the advice is really because we keep hoping we don’t have to grieve at all.

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  3. I think you are right. I tend to get stuck in the denial / depression stages as, in a sense, these protect me from feeling the pain. And sometimes all of the well-meaning advice to ‘keep busy’ or ‘think of so-and-so who’s going through a much worse time than you!’ can keep you from dealing with the bereavement – of whatever kind. In my experience I’ve needed someone to validate my pain and tell me that what I’ve been through is hard, in order for me to face up to it and grieve for what’s happened. But again, I have to say that many have suffered more than me.

    • Depression comes from a sense of helplessness–it’s a prelude to acceptance, and part of the realization that whatever you’re grieving really is gone forever. Denial is what everyone does when it’s just too much to deal with–keeping busy is a way to avoid thinking about it and is itself a form of denial and so useful as the same kind of stop-gap measure. I think there’s a tendency to go back and forth between these because the depression becomes too much, and when you’ve had enough of a rest in denial-land, you return to it. They might both be necessary. Just some thoughts.

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