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Grief Expert David Kessler Helps Us Find Meaning in the Death of a Loved One

by SUSAN PASCAL

Until the tragic death of his 21-year-old son, David, renowned grief expert David Kessler thought he knew everything there was to know about the grieving process. The co-author—with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross—of “On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief Through the Five Stages of Loss” said he needed to find meaning in the loss. This became the basis of his latest book “Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief.”

 

1. How is this book different from your last book, “On Grief and Grieving," co-authored with Elisabeth Kubler-Ross?

In On Grief and Grieving, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross asked me to help adapt the stages she had observed in the dying to account for the similar stages we had also observed in those who are grieving. They are not a method for tucking messy emotions into neat packages. They don’t prescribe; they describe. And they describe only a general process.

In the years since that book’s publication, I’ve experienced a great loss myself. The fifth of Kübler-Ross’s five stages is acceptance. At this stage, we acknowledge the reality of the loss. We take some time to stop and breathe into the undeniable fact that our loved ones are gone. It can be extremely painful, and acceptance doesn’t mean that we are okay with the loss or that the grieving process is now officially over. There’s been an assumed finality about this fifth stage that Elisabeth and I never intended. I don’t think our generation is just “okay” with accepting loss; I think we want more.

Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief begins where our last book ends. I came to realize that there’s a crucial sixth stage to the healing process: meaning. This isn’t some arbitrary or mandatory step but one that many people intuitively know to take and others will find helpful.

2. You define the Sixth Stage of Grief as “meaning” and then break that down further into seven “thoughts" in your book. Can you explain them here?

  1. Meaning is relative and personal–comparing losses makes no sense. The worst loss is always your loss. Only you know your loss and the meaning.
  2. Meaning takes time. You may not find it until months or even years after the loss. Meaning is not a quick fix; it is a way of living with the loss rather than getting over it.
  3. Meaning doesn’t require understanding. It’s not necessary to understand why someone died in order to find meaning. Most of us will never understand why our loved one died at that time and in that way, but we can still find meaning.
  4. Even when you do find meaning, you won’t feel it was worth the cost of what you lost. Meaning can become a cushion, but we would always rather have your loved ones back.
  5. Your loss is not a test, a lesson, something to handle, a gift, or a blessing. Loss is what happens to you in life. Meaning is what you make happen after the loss.
  6. Only you can find your own meaning. No one can make you find meaning; only you can do it in your time and in your way. You are the only one that will ever truly understand the depth of your loss; only you understand the relationship you have with your loved one who died.
  7. Meaningful connections will heal painful memories. Grief is pain, but grief is also love. Meaning does not negate or minimize the loss. But in time we can make meaning to give a balance to the pain.

3. After a loved one dies, many of us ask, “why?” Can you explain some of the challenges we may face in dealing with our grief, (i.e. suicide, infant death)?

There are many variations of the haunting Why question: Why did my child die? Why did I have a miscarriage? Why did my loved one die by suicide? Why did my husband die? Why did tragedy strike us? Why him? Why her? Why them? There must be a reason, and it must be a big reason. Life can’t be that random.

Many people spend years looking for a why answer that will never come. Why is one brother mentally compromised and not the other? Why does a baby die? Even if we are given answers, they will never be satisfying. There is no satisfying answer. Our minds can’t conceive that death happens; it must be their fault or ours. A miscarriage must be the mother’s fault, right? Wrong, miscarriages happen to the best of parents. Something must be wrong if our family members died by suicide. Why did they choose to die? No, suicide is not a choice it is an illness of the mind.

We have a belief that everyone should always be healthy and live to 85 years old or older. But that is not the actual reality we live in. Even as a grief specialist, I had to face that one directly when my youngest son died at 21 years old. We don’t get to choose how long we have with each other, but we get to choose the quality of the time we spend together.

Pain, death, and loss are never wanted, but they’re unavoidable in our lifetime. Yet the reality is post-traumatic growth happens more than post-traumatic stress.

4. Are we all capable of finding meaning in the death of a loved one?

Yes, meaning can be found in the life of anyone who has ever occupied space on this planet or in someone’s heart. It is there if you look for it. What about those who can’t find meaning? Is it possible that the ability to find or make meaning is inherent in our DNA? Do some of us get it, and others do not? In other words, are only some of us born to make lemonade out of the lemons of tragedy? The answer is no. Finding meaning is for everyone.

In my lectures and retreats with grieving people, I’m often asked, “Where am I trying to find meaning? In the death? The loss? The event? The life of the person I loved? Or am I trying to find meaning in my own life after the loss?” My answer is yes to all of the above. You may find meaning in all of those, which will lead you to more profound questions and deeper answers. Maybe your meaning will come by finding rituals that commemorate your loved one’s life or by offering some kind of contribution that will honor that person. Or the loss of your loved one may cause you to deepen your connection to those who are still with you or to invite back into your life people from whom you’ve been estranged. Or it may give you a heightened sense of the beauty of the life we are all so privileged to have as long as we remain on this earth.

5. What do you hope readers will learn from your book?

In this sixth stage, we acknowledge that although, for most of us, grief will lessen in intensity over time, it will never end. But if we allow ourselves to move fully into this crucial and profound sixth stage—meaning—it will enable us to transform grief into something else, something rich and fulfilling.

Through meaning, we can find more than pain. We want more than the hard fact of that trauma and loss. Yet for some, the grieving mind finds no hope after loss. But when people are ready to hope again, they will be able to find it. Bad days don’t have to be an eternal destiny. That doesn’t mean your grief will get smaller over time. It means that you must get bigger. As the saying goes, “No mud, no lotus.” The most beautiful flower grows out of the mud. Our worst moments can be the seeds of our best moments. They have an amazing power to transform us. That’s what I hope readers will glean from this new book.

I wanted to begin my new book with a quote from someone who had experience horrific loss and saw the possibility of hope and meaning. “Birds sing after a storm; why shouldn’t people feel as free to delight in whatever sunlight remains to them?” —Rose Kennedy

This Q&A was featured in the November 10th edition of The Sunday Paper. The Sunday Paper inspires hearts and minds to rise above the noise. To get The Sunday Paper delivered to your inbox each Sunday morning for free, click here to subscribe.

SUSAN PASCAL

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