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Finding meaning in the life of a loved one who dies is part of grief

Joanna Moorhead
·8-min read

Death came early into David Kessler’s life. He was just 13 when his mother died, and her loss prompted his decision to forge a career working in palliative care. He went on to collaborate with psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, a central figure in the field, who devised the five stages of grief. In lectures he would talk about his mother’s death and remind his audiences that no one is exempt from loss; and yet, he says today, in his heart he believed his personal experience of devastating grief was behind him, rather than ahead.

And then, four years ago, another tragedy hit his family. Kessler was totally floored by it. He discovered it was one thing knowing the landscape of mourning, and quite another travelling through it. But his journey, hard and long as it was, had an important by-product: he realised that the seminal Kübler-Ross inventory was not complete. To the five stages of grief she described, he was able, with the permission of the Kübler-Ross family, to add a sixth. And now, in the midst of the pandemic, he believes that the sixth stage will be as important in our universal experience of grieving as it is in individual lives hit by loss.

The tragedy in Kessler’s life came out of nowhere, as tragedies so often do. He was on a lecture tour when his son Richard, the eldest of two boys he had adopted in 2000, phoned to say his younger brother David, 21, had been found dead. As children they had a traumatic past life. Kessler says this had come back to haunt David and that he was using drugs at the time he died. In his book, Kessler describes feeling, on hearing of the loss of his son, as though he had fallen into the deepest part of the ocean. What’s more, he knew he would have to stay there for some time. He knew he would experience the stages outlined by Kübler-Ross – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance – and he knew these would not necessarily be linear, that there was no “right” time frame and that he would oscillate between the different stages.

But what he hadn’t realised until he experienced it for himself was that there was a sixth stage. “I discovered there was something else, something beyond acceptance,” he tells me on a call from his home in Los Angeles. “It was finding meaning: the possibility of being able to discover something meaningful in my grief.”

He’s not saying, he stresses, that there was anything meaningful to be found in David’s death. “It’s not about finding meaning in the death – there is no meaning there. What it’s about is finding meaning in the dead person’s life, in how knowing them shaped us, maybe in how the way they died can help us to make the world safer for others.” Finding meaning, in other words, is something the bereaved can do after the death of someone they loved very much. It’s how those who are left can fold the existence of the lost individual into their lives, how they can allow it to change them, and how they can behave in response to it.

Meaning allows us to change and find ways to respond to our loss

Much of what is experienced on an individual level in grief is echoed in what we’re collectively experiencing because of Covid, Kessler believes. “Many people say they are feeling a heavy sadness – and what they’re describing is grief,” he says. “We’re grieving the world we have lost: normal life, our routines, seeing our friends, going to work. Everything has changed. And change is actually grief – grief is a change we didn’t want.”

Just as with individual loss, at the moment the whole world is going through the stages Kübler-Ross documented. Some people are denying what’s happening; others are angry about it; some are trying to bargain; many are depressed; and eventually, there will have to be an acceptance of what we can never go back to. But also, there will have to be the sixth stage: a search for meaning – and indeed, the stages of grief aren’t chronological or linear, and we’ve been seeing signs of that search from the earliest days. But certainly when it’s over, says Kessler, we will need to find meaning in what we’ve been through. “We are going to say, what was the meaning? What post-traumatic growth can we take from this?” And, crucially, finding meaning is “the stage where the healing often resides”.

Kessler thinks Kübler-Ross, who died in 2004, would have agreed. The two of them met in 1995 and went on to collaborate on a book called On Grief and Grieving, in which they talked about how the stages of grieving were being misinterpreted. But as Kessler sees it now, it wasn’t until he experienced the loss of his son that he was able to finally get to the root of what they had grasped.

All of this matters, he says, because the global north is grief-illiterate. “The things I’m teaching are things people’s great-grandparents knew very well,” he says. “There are people today who think grieving takes three months, or even three weeks.” In the past, he says, you could mourn for as long as was needed – and in truth the fallout of grief never ends, it only changes. “But we live in a time when we’re told we should feel like this for this long, and then you’re done.”

One of the things we risk losing, in our grief-adverse society, is the personal growth it can enable. “We all talk about post-traumatic stress, but I’d say post-traumatic growth happens even more.” He believes we need to acknowledge that loss can have this spin-off and understand what it can do for us.

This makes perfect sense to me. I’ve often noticed, when I’ve interviewed people who have experienced bereavement, that they’re in a better place psychologically if they have taken what Kessler would describe as meaning from it, or when they’re upfront about how it’s changed them. And I know my own life has been radically changed, and achieved meaning, because of the loss of my sister when we were both children – I simply can’t imagine the other person I would have been without that experience.

When we are all grieving it’s often not possible to reach out

Which brings us to another point: guilt. Because surely if we as bereaved people are gaining from loss, we will at some point feel guilty about it. Yet we should not, says Kessler, because we’d never have chosen to lose the individual we cherished. Their death is something we can’t change, but what we can change is how we live in the now, without them. We’d all give up, in a blink of an eye, the growth we’ve experienced if it would bring anyone back; but the point is, that’s the one thing we absolutely can’t do. And we have to remember, too, that the person who has gone would have wanted us to find meaning in our lives because of them. “My son was proud of what I did, and he’d be pleased that my work has found a new dimension because of him,” says Kessler.

The bottom line about grief, says Kessler, is this: there’s no wrong way to do it. Grieving is as individual as each of us; our grieving needs are different, in every case – and that seems to be true of how we’re coping with the grief of the pandemic, too. It’s also incredibly lonely: people who haven’t experienced grief before imagine that other family members will be able to help. But, in fact, when everyone is grieving it’s often not possible to reach out to one another, all you can do sometimes, as a grieving person, is survive.

One question he’s often asked, says Kessler, is which kind of loss is the worst. “People ask, is it worse to lose your child or your spouse? And I always say: the worst grief is yours.”

But if that’s the case, the positive message of Kessler’s book is that the best gain can also be yours. He tells me a story: he was speaking at a conference in a big hotel, and there were other conferences going on in the rooms around his. “Afterwards a member of the hotel cleaning team came up to me and asked: ‘What were your group working on? Because so much laughter was coming from your room.’” The reason, says Kessler, is that people who have been in the deepest depths of despair have the broadest bandwidth when it comes to enjoying life: “When you’ve travelled through the deepest valleys, you surely appreciate the views from the highest hills.” And right now, as we all travel together through the deepest of valleys, that’s a very good message to hear.

David Kessler’s website is grief.com. His book, Finding Meaning: the Sixth Stage of Grief, is published by Penguin Randomhouse at £14.99. Buy it for £13.04 at guardianbookshop.com