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Finding Meaning in Grief

My last blog looked at the five stages of grief suggested by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. David Kessler added a sixth stage – he looked at the importance of finding MEANING in grief.

When Elizabeth Kubler-Ross moved to the US from her native Switzerland in 1958 she was shocked by the way the hospitals she worked in dealt with dying patients. “Everything was huge and very depersonalised, very technical,” she said in a subsequent interview. “Patients who were terminally ill were literally left alone, nobody talked to them.” So she started running a seminar for medical students at the University of Colorado where she would interview people who were dying about how they felt about death. Although she met with stiff resistance from her colleagues, there was soon standing room only. These interviews led in 1969 to a book called On Death and Dying. In it, she began by describing how patients talk about dying, and went on to discuss how end-of-life care could be improved. 

She is especially known today for her “five stages of grief” – a loose framework that she put forward simply to start a conversation about death in a world that preferred to ignore it.

A sixth stage: finding meaning in grief

She wrote her book with On Grief and Grieving with David Kessler who, later, with the permission of the Kübler-Ross family, added a sixth stage to the original five stages. “I discovered there was something else, something beyond acceptance. It was finding meaning: the possibility of being able to discover something meaningful in my grief.”

David Kessler was prompted to forge a career working in palliative care after he lost his mother when he was just 13. As an adult he suffered more tragedy when his adopted son David died and he describes feeling, on hearing of the loss of his son, as though he had “fallen into the deepest part of the ocean of grief.”

What does “finding meaning in death” mean?

He stresses this does not mean for him 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.

Grief and the Covid 19 pandemic

David Kessler has spoken in recent times about the effect the pandemic has had on us on a global scale: “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.”

“We live in a grief-averse world”

“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.” 

“There is no right or wrong way”

Kellser is clear one of the most important things about grief is that 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.”

David Kessler’s website is His book, Finding Meaning: the Sixth Stage of Grief. 

Need some advice and support?

If you are struggling with any of the issues raised in this article, or indeed any other emotional issues or life challenges and would like to talk things over in complete confidentiality, call Alison Winfield, Mindfully Well Counselling Cork on 087 9934541.

Book a counselling session today!


See also: What is Grief?

Coping with Sadness

Sadness, loss and grief