Renowned grief expert David Kessler familiarized us with the famous Five Stages of Grief. Now, he believes, there is a life-affirming sixth stage in the grieving process.
“It’s about finding meaning,” he says, “We want to find meaning.”
Since then, the writer has become a respected bereavement expert in his own right – and a familiar talking head on TV in the wake of major tragedy. Off-screen, he spends many counseling hours with the bereaved and those at end of life, through his work in palliative care, with hospices, social care providers, and emergency services. His outreach also extends through his website, Grief.com.
“Death,” he says, “makes life important. Death makes life valuable and how we do grief, reflects how we do life.”
Through his work, he has come to identify how many of us also seek to find meaning in the legacy that our loved ones leave behind – that sixth stage of grief.
This may be a charity to honor a cause close to someone’s heart, or reflecting on the life they lived. For others, the continuation of their story could be the passing down of a family tradition or their legacy woven into the life that you live.
Grief: Pain vs suffering
While pain is an inevitable symptom of grief, suffering is optional, he believes.
“I’m not here to help people grieve,” says Kessler.
“The reality is, I’m here to help them live. Part of what I do in my teaching is help people experience pure grief – not suffering.”
His latest book, You Can Heal Your Heart was co-written with the late Louise Hay, a pioneer of the self-help movement who championed the wellbeing benefits of re-attuning our psyches to positive thought.
“Our minds have had a negative bias from our caveman days,” David explains.
“With positive psychology, there’s a group of people who bounce back from grief stronger. It doesn’t mean you don’t go through the pain. Every thought we have affirms something good or bad. So we need to change how we perceive loss, or else our mind will punish us.
“Grief does not occur if you do not love. I can’t take away pain– that’s evidence of love. So, pain is inevitable, but the suffering is optional.
“The first thing you have to do is really feel your feeling. You can’t heal what you don’t feel and in grief, we have trouble with this.
Opening up to pure grief
“One strange thing Elisabeth and I used to talk about, is that it’s hard for us to fathom that death actually happens. So we turn on ourselves or blame others… ‘If only I’d done differently…’
“We get caught up in the pain of suffering. My role is to help tease out the suffering, from the pure grief.”
On Grief & Grieving identified a grief model based around key symptoms of life-changing loss: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance – misinterpreted by some as fixed virtual stations on an emotional journey; but never intended as such.
“A lot of people have formed opinions without reading the book,” David good-humoredly observes – almost certainly not for the first time.
“The stages are not linear points of a timeline or map and are different in everyone. You may go through them many times – or some not at all.”
David identifies a fruitful search for meaning in terms of legacy – a connection with that person we can carry on in our own lives.
It is not about finding answers to questions we cannot resolve, he says.
“We have to live with the why – and part of the goal of grief is to have that relationship.”
This Fall, he’ll be exploring the Sixth Stage of Grief, in a series of live talks across the U.S.A. His live grief talks are often attended by people keen to learn how his insight can help them administer support to the bereaved. But the majority are people who are coping with their own loss and who come to listen – and perhaps open up a little among empathetic strangers.
Kessler doesn’t talk about grief in a somber Sunday voice. He demonstrates how grief is a part of the human condition – yet something from which many of us have been quarantined in modern America.
“We’re not taught about how to grieve well,” he says.
“When someone tells you the story of their loss, your job is to witness. It can be tough for people to be present without thinking about ourselves and what we can say next.
“What I’m teaching now is what our great grandparents knew how to do. Society didn’t tell them to ‘have a nice day’ – they knew how to be sad.
“Our tendency is to try to ‘fix’ grief and yet when you are in grief, you are not broken.”
David himself has lived through – and with – the pain of pure grief. He has borne sympathetic witness to the personal tragedies of many – and adjusted to his own.
When he was just 13, his mother was admitted to a hospital ICU which would not allow visitors under the age of 14. Unable to afford hotel accommodation, David and his father had been sleeping in the hospital lobby – visiting a hotel they couldn’t afford to stay in for refreshment.
One evening as they ate, they heard gunfire – the beginning of what turned out to be a 12-hour mass-shooting. Having witnessed the horror, they headed back to the ICU when it was safe. Despite his mom’s critical condition, David was still refused admission.
“And that,” he says, simply, “was the day my mother died.
“Talk about complicated grief. So I knew as a child there had to be a better way to die than the way my mother died and I also understood how terrible the world could be. I was inoculated. I knew I could either be a victim or help people, so I decided to help.”
“My dad? My dad was terrible! He didn’t know about grief or how to handle it.
“It wasn’t until I was an adult I could understand that he just didn’t know.”
David is also grieving his 21-year old son, David junior, who died in the summer of 2016. Three weeks after his loss, he wrote a message thanking friends, family and strangers for their sympathy.
“The pain of this loss has been shattering. In my work, I deal with challenging times but nothing prepared me for the pain that is now present in my own house.”
It is a wound, he says, which never diminishes. David says he aims to live and continue to flourish in the way he feels his son would have wanted for his dad, explaining: “Our grief doesn’t get smaller: we have to grow bigger – and in a way that honors our loved one.”
David’s junior’s death, he says, has not only increased his empathy for the bereaved parents he counsels in his work, but further informed his understanding that every grief is individual. Your heart may go out, but to help other people heal, you cannot assume their pain.
“When we talk about my own son, to those parents that came to my lectures all my years... I wanted to write them a note, saying ‘I’d no idea how bad it was’. But they were also my inspiration, knowing I’d been watching them get through this for years, they’re going to hold my hands now.
“And they have.”
- David Kessler’s latest book, You Can Heal Your Heart, with Louise Hay, is published by Hay House. David offers grief support including online grief workshops at Grief.com where you can also book dates for forthcoming live talks on Grief and Grieving and The Sixth Stage of Grief in from July 20 through November 25, 2018.