The Free Dictionary defines it as "to start to accept and deal with a difficult situation," but I don't know what accept means in this expression.

Does accept mean to welcome the difficult situation? That can't be right, as I've heard "come to terms with" pertain to one whose friend or family member died, and I doubt anyone would welcome that.

Does accept mean tolerate, as in to allow the difficult thing to happen? That wouldn't work either, as going back to the death example, there's nothing one can do to make the dead individual stop being dead (for now, at least).

So, I'd like some help understanding "come to terms with" given my trouble with the definition I've seen.

  • Why do you think it can't mean "tolerate"? Tolerating somebody being dead doesn't mean bringing them back to life. Commented Jan 4, 2015 at 12:30
  • the free dictionary is risible.
    – Fattie
    Commented Mar 5, 2015 at 5:50
  • 1
    idioms.thefreedictionary.com/come+to+terms+with Very often idioms are listed separately in dictionaries... the drawback is you need to recognize when a phrase is an idiom; however, if an idiom is very common that too will be listed with the main word, in this case term.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Mar 5, 2015 at 6:02

5 Answers 5


The closest synonym I can think of is: "to reconcile oneself with (something)". Reconciliation does not necessarily imply enthusiastic acceptance. Does this help?

  • Which definition of reconcile?
    – Kelmikra
    Commented Jan 4, 2015 at 12:48
  • thefreedictionary.com/reconcile The third one. "To bring (oneself) to accept: He finally reconciled himself to the change in management." I know it's now a little circular because 'accept' is the word you had an issue to begin with. So let me just clarify what it means here. To 'accept' something in this context means to acknowledge something (mostly negative) happened, recognise the impact and yet learn to live with it nevertheless.
    – Deepak
    Commented Jan 4, 2015 at 13:19
  • I think I understand now. I didn't know what "learn to live with" meant, but then I saw on Dictionary.com in means "Get used to or accustom oneself to something that is painful, annoying, or unpleasant." I didn't know what accustom meant, but then I read it means "to cause habituation." I didn't know what that meant, but then it said it means "reduction of psychological or behavioral response occurring when a specific stimulus occurs repeatedly." This I understand. In conclusion, "come to terms with" means to have one's distress from an unpleasant event be reduced. Is this correct?
    – Kelmikra
    Commented Jan 4, 2015 at 16:20

come to terms
1 : to reach an agreement —often used with with < the company has come to terms with the union >
2 : to become adjusted especially emotionally or intellectually —usually used with with < come to terms with modern life >

[ Merriam-webster online ]

come to terms with
1. To come to accept; become reconciled to: finally came to terms with his lack of talent.
2. To reach mutual agreement: The warring factions have at last come to terms.

[ American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language ]

See also the Wikipedia entry for grief which should prove insightful; of note the latest research about Bonanno's Four Trajectories of Grief, which, according to the article, has upstaged the classical five stages theory. Reality offers terms which one must accept or cope with. One is free to deal with loss as they see fit.


In the context of your question, "to come to terms with" means "to acknowledge the reality and the consequences of" [the person's death].

  • By acknowledging the reality of, do you mean that those who haven't come to terms with something have yet to believe it happened?
    – Kelmikra
    Commented Jan 4, 2015 at 12:51
  • if you have not yet "come to terms" with death, you are still furious and will not "deal with" the actual situation -- you may be "in denial"
    – Fattie
    Commented Mar 5, 2015 at 5:53
  • 2
    I think this is relevant, but not quite on point. One can acknowledge a death, but the way we define the consequences of such can be very different depending on many things, including how upset we are about it, how confident we feel we can regain peace or recover from pain and loss. Commented Mar 5, 2015 at 6:18
  • quite right, Jim. "come to terms with" means "come to terms with". (for a non-English speaker, "terms" is another word for an agreement or contract.) It's an extremely straightforward, very literal phrase and the meaning is literal.
    – Fattie
    Commented Mar 6, 2015 at 2:29

well, it simply means "to come to terms with"

"terms" means an agreement (as in, say, a contract)

Say your Uncle and you really hate each other. But, you have to share a house.

You would have to reach some sort of "working agreement" on how to handle that situtaion -- you both hate each other, but, you have to at least be civil, say, and not try to use the fridge at the same time, and you don't touch his train set and he doesn't touch your nintendo. A sort of detente, you know?

Another almost identical phrase is "came to an understanding".

"We had to share the house, so we had to come to terms with each other."

Note that he phrase is usually used in that sense .. two parties who hate each other, form a detente, an understanding, to get by without being at each other's throats.

However, it can also very simply be used in the sense of a contract or other agreement. How's your payment negotiation going? No problem, we came to terms.

in your particular example, it means has come to an "agreement" with Death.

So, as Erik points out, you are actually "dealing with" ("dealing" means "doing business with") Death.

before you "come to terms" with Death, you are perhaps still in pure shock, or perhaps in denial ("I can't believe person X is dead.."). you are behaving perhaps erratically, not looking after yourself, not eating etc.

once you start "dealing" with Death, you accept person X is dead, you start making arrangements - even though your life has changed dramatically you find an arrangements to press on.


It does not necessarily have to be in the context of tragedy, as death.

e.g. "You just need to come to terms and act, because doing nothing will bring you problems in the future."

(You need to come to terms = you need to pull yourself together, get a grip, get over the situation, understand it and finally take decisive action.)

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