Alan, seventeen years old, was thrilled to go to the basketball championship that was being held downtown in the sports arena. After the game, in the parking lot, Alan walked ten feet to his car and was randomly shot and killed by a gang member.
His father, Keith, and his mother, Donna, could not understand why their son was killed. They were filled with anger as they spent their days and nights trying to raise their other kids, go to work, and follow the all-consuming ongoing investigation into the killing.
A close couple, friends of Keith and Donna's, became concerned because they were not available to get together for meals or anything else. One evening the couple dropped in out of concern and said to Keith and Donna, "You have to accept this loss. Your son is gone and none of this is going to bring him back. Haven't you heard about the five stages? You've done all the others. All you need now is acceptance."
Keith got angry with his friend and asked, "What part of Alan's death don't you think I accept? At his grave today, I cried like a baby. If I didn't accept it, would I go to his grave? We're not setting a place for him at the dinner table tonight. We live in reality, his room is empty every night. How much more acceptance can we feel?"
The friend looked down and said, "I just hate to see you in so much pain."
Keith replied, "Believe me, I hate to be in so much pain."
We have found that this is not unusual for people like Keith and Donna's friends to misunderstand the stages. Acceptance is not about liking a situation. It is about acknowledging all that has been lost and learning to live with that loss. It would be too soon for Keith to be able to accept the situation. He can acknowledge the reality of the loss, but it would be unrealistic to think he should have found some peace with it by then.
After closing arguments in the murder case, it took the jury only five hours to come back with a guilty verdict. The gang member who killed Alan was sentenced to life in prison, and Keith and Donna went back to their own lives.
Keith actually had a new loss to deal with, which was the emptiness he now felt without the trial to consume his time. It made the absence of his son's loss even louder.
We think it is important for people to understand that gradually, in your own time, you can begin to find some peace with what has happened. In situations such as murder, it is vital to understand we have a legal system, not necessarily a justice system. For some, the only justice would be to have their loved one back. Acceptance is a process that we experience, not a final stage with an end point.
For Keith, no one else could know how much acceptance he was capable of or how time would affect his process. After five years, Keith felt he had found as much acceptance as was possible. Then he was notified that the shooter was up for his parole hearing. Keith felt all his hard-earned acceptance drain out of him. By the time of the hearing he was once again filled with anger. The proceedings were brief and parole was denied. Keith was struck by how quickly it happened and by the tears of the shooter's father. For the first time, Keith realized that there were victims on both ends of the gun.
Keith walked over to him and shook his hand. At that moment, something happened for Keith as his anger was replaced by a curiosity. He wanted to know what this other father's life was like and what led him to the same place. Over the next few years, the two men formed an alliance to help gang members stop the violence and find their place in the world. They went from school to school in the inner city with their story.
Keith's acceptance was a journey that was deeper than he ever expected. And it happened over many years, not many months or days. Not everyone will or can fully embrace those who have hurt us, as Keith did, but there is always a struggle that leads us to our own personal and unique acceptance.