On June 17, Dylann Roof sat in on a Bible study group at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina. After sitting with the group for about an hour, he rose, pulled out a firearm, and began firing. In all, nine people were killed in the horrific events that unfolded within the sanctity of the historic church. The entire nation was shocked and entered mourning as details began to emerge on national news. Immediately, there was an outpouring of support with other churches urging prayer and support for the victims’ families and for the members of the church who were so gravely affected by heinous, hate-filled crime.
Then, something extraordinary occurred. After the killer had been apprehended, the victim’s families were given the opportunity to speak to him via streaming video during his bond hearing. The families expressed their shock and grief at his actions. They spoke of the heart-rending sadness caused by the loss of their loved ones. But then, instead of lashing out with justifiable anger and demanding retribution, something very spectacular occurred. One by one, the victim’s families voiced forgiveness and offered to pray for the killer’s soul. The sister of DePayne Middleton-Doctor made the most moving comment. She said her sister DePayne taught her that they were the family that love built. “We have no room for hating, so we have to forgive.” A very powerful statement made by a woman deeply entrenched in the bereavement process.
These family members had made the active choice to surrender their anger and grief to radical acceptance. Since they had no control over the incident and could not change how the incident made them feel, they could either accept the situation and begin the healing process or they could stay miserably mired in their emotions. The vicious attack at the church was never going to be something the victim’s families would feel happy about, but radical acceptance is not about changing the way you feel, it is about total and complete acceptance of the event. It is the undeniable knowledge that you cannot change reality so you stop fighting and accept the event from your soul – mind, heart, and body combined. Radical acceptance does not diminish the sadness; it accepts the new reality in which you must exist.
Radical acceptance comes in three parts. The first part is accepting that reality is what it is. For these families, it is accepting that their loved one will never be coming home again. This is much more difficult than just hearing about a loved one’s death because the first stage of grief and bereavement is often denial. In order to move to the second stage of radical acceptance you must first leave denial behind and accept the new reality. The second part of radial acceptance is accepting that the event or situation causing you pain has a separate cause. There is a reason the event occurred. You may not immediately be able to understand what that particular cause is, but the event was caused. As of now, this attack appears to have been caused by hatred but it may be a while before we truly understand what the true cause is.
Finally, the third part of radical acceptance is accepting that life can be worth living regardless of the painful events that we survive. For these families, they are already making the choice to move forward with acceptance of the event for their own reasons. In order to initiate change, they know that acceptance must come first. These families may eventually want to change the laws surrounding the attack but before they can petition for change, they must accept the new reality and use it as a catalyst for that change. Perhaps, knowing that this attack was the result of racial hatred will lead these family members to create social outreach groups to combat hatred with love. Perhaps their personal journey through grief will lead the church to offer grief counseling. Whatever occurs, it will have only become possible through the radical acceptance shown by the friends and families of the victims. As Marianne Willimson said, “We do not heal the past by dwelling there; we heal the past by living fully in the present.”
At Brookhaven Retreat, our hearts go out to the victims of the terrible attack at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina and we offer the following message to the friends and families left behind: We share your grief and mourn for your loss, but most of all, we admire your radical acceptance and offer you hope during the healing process.