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The Sixth Stage of Grief: 'Finding Meaning' by David Kessler

David Kessler

The leading grief expert's new book goes beyond the five stages...

David Kessler was introduced to death young: As a 13-year-old boy, he witnessed a mass shooting in New Orleans just days before his mother succumbed to a long illness. His grief pointed him toward what would become his life's work.

In the decades that followed his mother's death, Kessler immersed himself in the fields of palliative care, bioethics, and trauma response. He worked with countless grievers to help them through their pain, and he coauthored five bestselling books sharing what he learned along the way, including the landmark On Grief and Grieving with Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, who formulated the well-known "five stages of grief."

Kessler's latest book may be destined to become his best known. Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief goes beyond the familiar idea of "acceptance" of a death to focus on how finding meaning in a loved one's loss is what most deeply helps people heal. In exploring how this works, Kessler opens up for the first time about the loss of his own son to an overdose, and how even as a grief professional, he feared for a time his suffering might never end.

On Monday, October 28, Legacy will host David Kessler for a book signing at the NFDA International Conference & Expo in Chicago, where attendees will be able to meet him and receive a free autographed copy of Finding Meaning. Meanwhile, we're proud to present the following excerpt from Finding Meaning about the power of funerals to help people process the meaning of a death. 


Grief Must Be Witnessed

(from Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief, by David Kessler)

Funerals and memorials are important. Something profound happens when others see and hear and acknowledge our grief. Mourning is the outward expression of our grief. Conversely, something goes wrong when it remains unseen. That’s why I believe that when someone decides not to have a funeral, they’re missing out. A funeral is the time for people to gather as a family, as a community, to witness grief together. The funeral is the most well-known ritual for death, a ceremony that creates meaning out of our loved one’s experience of life, and our own experience of loss.

At a memorial, people talk about what the dead person meant to them. This may be in the form of a somber eulogy or a funny story. It can be accompanied by laughter or by tears—or both. Whatever form it takes, telling the story of the loved one’s life helps the mourners to accept the reality of death. It also helps us through the process of grieving. We need to hear the story from others, which helps us see things from a different perspective, and we need to tell it ourselves.

In the eulogy of Diana Spencer, Princess of Wales, her brother, Charles Spencer, told those who gathered in her honor, “Today is our chance to say thank you for the way you brightened our lives, even though God granted you but half a life. We will all feel cheated that you were taken from us so young, and yet we must learn to be grateful that you came along at all. Only now you are gone do we truly appreciate what we are now without and we want you to know that life without you is very, very difficult.” That is where the healing—and the meaning making—begins.

We think we can spare our children pain by not exposing them to the reality of death. But the opposite is true. Our children, just like us, are in pain when they lose someone they love, and it will not help them to have their pain glossed over. Going to a funeral will help because they, too, need to have their pain witnessed, to feel it reflected in the emotions of those around them.

When I explain funerals to young children, I’ll say something like, “Do you remember last year when you went to Grandpa’s house for his birthday gathering? Everyone sang ‘Happy Birthday’? That’s a way of saying I love you. Now that Grandpa has died, we’re going to have a funeral for him and gather one last time in his honor to say goodbye. Saying goodbye is another way we say I love you.”

The funeral ritual is important in witnessing grief because we will grieve alone for the rest of our lives. This is our last formal time to mourn together. One of the most common things we hear at funerals is that the deceased would not want us to grieve for them. I always think if we can’t grieve at the funeral, when can we grieve? The funeral is by design a communal time to witness each other’s grief through music, stories, poems, and prayers.

People often ask me, “Is a memorial better than a celebration of life?” My answer is one is not better than the other. They are both ways we witness our grief. In a memorial, we witness the sadness of the loss as well as honor their life. The celebration of life clearly moves the focus to celebrate what they meant to us when they were alive. I always remind people you can still cry at a celebration of life.

Ellen was a child of six who was very attached to her great-aunt, Ruth. They were inseparable, and when Ruth contracted brain cancer, she went to a nursing home to be cared for. Ellen missed her terribly and kept asking where her aunt was. Her mother said, “She’s away resting.”

Ellen kept asking when she would come back home, and her mother said, “Pretty soon.”

A few weeks later, her mother told her that Ruth had died. Ellen climbed into her mother’s lap and cried, but after a few minutes, her mother walked away, went upstairs to her bedroom, and shut the door. On the day of the funeral, Ellen’s mother and father left the house to bury Ruth. Ellen begged to go along, but they said that the funeral was for grown-ups. In my lectures I ask whether Ellen should have been allowed to go to the funeral. Both small and large groups always answer with a resounding yes!

I follow up with, “How many of you have issues or wounds because you were allowed to go to a funeral?” Occasionally I get a hand or two. Then I ask, “How many of you have issues, wounds, or trauma because you weren’t allowed to go to the funeral?” About 15 percent of the hands in the room will go up. We think skipping the pain helps our children, but the opposite is true. Our children, just like us, need their pain witnessed, and a funeral is important to them.

When I was a child, sometimes our car would be slowed down because we were behind a hearse. We were used to seeing those black station wagons that picked up bodies at the hospital or someone’s home. Now hearses are only used for the short drive between the service and the gravesite. Death has become sanitized, and the dead move around our cities in white unmarked vans. The next time you see a white van with no windows, you’re probably behind a hearse.

People often tell me they are stuck in their loss. In the old days, there was just the funeral and the burial. People didn’t have many choices. Now with cremation, there are many more options. We have the ability to personalize our final disposition as well as choose how and when we have a ceremony. That option to delay things is not just for cremation, but for the burial ceremony. These new choices also provide more opportunity for putting things off.

I often ask people questions about their loved one’s memorial or celebration of life. More and more, the ones who are stuck in grief say, “We didn’t have one. It just wasn’t practical.” Or “Everyone was busy. We were thinking of doing one in six months when everyone could plan,” or “but now too much time has passed,” or “now another family member has died.” When someone is struggling with their grief, and I ask about the final remains, they often tell me the ashes are temporarily in the closet until they figure out what to do with them.

Ceremonies commemorating a loss are not supposed to be practical, easy, or come at a perfect time. When our loved ones die, it is the moment when grief is most palpable and witnessing is most needed. There is no completion of grief or closure, but that last ceremony is a bookend that acknowledges that the final chapter of life has ended. There seems to be an ever-growing inconclusiveness when the life of a loved one is not marked by an event.

We need a sense of community when we are in mourning because we were not meant to be islands of grief. The reality is that we heal as a tribe. There is no greater gift you can give someone in grief than to ask them about their loved one, and then truly listen. When we see our sorrow in the eyes of another, we know our grief has meaning.

We get a glimpse, maybe for the first time since the loss, that we will survive, and a future is possible.