How Grief Teaches Us Acceptance & Commitment Therapy

Jacob Martinez, MA, LPC

Live long enough and you are guaranteed to know it intimately, that tangled up mix of inner experience we call grief. Grief is an experience that all of us share at one time or another, and it has a lot to teach us about ACT and about how to do ACT well. Here’s how grief and death naturally nudge us in the direction of psychological flexibility, the target of ACT.

Here and Now

Death has a way of shrinking the world down into a single moment. When we learn that someone we know, or even a public figure, has died, we are shocked into the present moment as if a bucket of cold water was dumped over our heads. Suddenly, that thing you were stressing about before fades into the distance. That problem you were ruminating on for the millionth time pops like the soap bubble it is, in favor of experiencing what’s going on right here and now. In ACT work, we strive to bring attention back to what is presently occurring because this is the place where we live, and from where we can more freely choose how we want to respond to our environment.

Holding gently

Death forces us to face a conclusion, that a person is gone, and the relationship that you had as two physical beings is no longer accessible. We may try to argue or push away at this, especially at first, but in the end it’s simply a fact. Death is final. At a certain point, trying to deny this fact seems absurd. Eventually the only course left is to let the argument go, moment by moment, and hold onto the fact with gentleness, rather than with hatred or disbelief. ACT aims to promote this form of acceptance for all kinds of emotional and cognitive experience.

Shifting Perspective

I wonder how long it took our ancestors, hundreds of thousands of years ago, to start to question what happens after death. To wonder what comes after this life requires a complex ability to shift the perspective of our sense of self. Our sense of self quickly became separate from that of our physical body, and if separate from our physical body then why not separate too from this physical world? In ACT, we harness this natural ability to perspective shift in numerous different ways to promote wellness. “I am more than just my body”, “I am more than just my thoughts”, “I am more than just my emotions”, “I am Me.” All these verbal behaviors shift our perspective allowing us to experience differently even the most intense experiences and emotions.

Still Moving

One of the greatest lessons Death teaches us is that of what is truly meaningful in our lives, and the importance of connecting to it whenever possible. Not just the people and things that are important, but the ways of being we most value. We rarely see in obituaries how many cars a person owned, or how many hours they spent at the office late at night. We do see what qualities of being they shared with the world, and how they did it. When we are faced with our own mortality it is not the mistake we made in middle school that weighs on our minds (I hope), it is what we had yet to offer others and the world. It’s the ways of being we wish we embodied just a little bit more. ACT at its core is all about action. What do you value? How can you exercise that value?

Much of this is encapsulated in a question I’m sure you’ve heard before: If you only had 24 hours to live, what would you do?

Could you do that today?

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Jacob Martinez is an ACT therapist and trainer living in North Texas. He is the President of the Texas ACBS Chapter and host of ACT Naturally where he interviews great therapists, talks mental health & wellness, and shows you how to do ACT. Check out his work at


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