The death of a loved one is, sadly, a pain we’ll all experience. Here, leading grief expert David Kessler reveals the sixth stage of grief, and explains how it can help us find meaning after loss.
David Kessler is one of the world’s foremost experts on grief, but it wasn’t until he tragically lost his son three years ago that he realised he needed to revisit his seminal work on the stages of grief, because the final stage of ‘acceptance’ wasn’t enough.
“The five stages of grief that Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and I adapted [in the 2005 book On Grief and Grieving] were ‘denial’ (the ‘I can’t believe they’re gone’ stage), ‘anger’, ‘bargaining’ (all the what-ifs and regrets), ‘depression’ (the sadness) and then ‘acceptance’ (acknowledging the reality that our loved one is gone),” he tells Stylist, ahead of the publication of his latest release, Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage Of Grief.
“We never intended ‘acceptance’ to be a finality.”
In the decade between then and now, Kessler has counselled and consoled “thousands and thousands of people” struggling with grief – along with experiencing a deeply personal bereavement first-hand.
“It felt like just reaching acceptance wasn’t enough,” he explains. “When my son died, I personally realised I didn’t want to be left in acceptance. I wanted more. I wanted to make meaning of his life and death.”
“I believe that ‘more’ is ‘meaning’, so ‘meaning’ is the sixth stage of grief. Meaning helps us connect to their life. Many people think that grief is only pain, but grief is also love. So my goal is to help people remember those who have died with more love than pain.”
But, how exactly do you do find meaning at a time when life can seem very cruel?
“The first thing is you actually have to make a decision,” Kessler says. “You have to decide that there was more to the person than just their death, there was also their life. I talk about how the mind is like Teflon; nothing sticks to it when it comes to the good memories, but when it comes to the bad memories it’s like Velcro and we remember every bad memory.”
That doesn’t necessarily mean a grand gesture like setting up a charity or foundation in their name, unless, of course, that feels like a fitting tribute. Savouring “little meaningful memories of the good times you had” also help us to process the finality of a loss.
“Ask yourself, what memories of their life do you want to keep alive? What quality of them now lives in you? What memories can we pass on to others?” Kessler says.
“I tell the story in the book about the woman who finds the stamp in the post office that reminds her of her father and whenever she pays her bills, she has a sweet memory of her father. The other day I suddenly just remembered my son when he was in kindergarten, and it brought such a smile to my face. These are both small, meaningful moments.
“You can obviously talk to people who know them, but you could also be in an everyday situation. Right now I’m visiting the city of Chicago. As I’m here, I think about much my father loved Chicago. I have this sweet photo of him here in Chicago, everyone I run into today I could say, ‘I have a sweet memory of my father being in Chicago’. My father never saw London, so when I go to London I take a part of my father with me there – I hope he gets to see it through me.”
Death itself needs a re-brand, Kessler believes, because we’re often encouraged to focus on the suffering the person we loved experienced in their final days or weeks – not the incredibly rich life they led. Instead we should “water the good memories” by regularly sharing stories and thinking about how they enriched our every day.
“Meaning is never going to take away the pain, but it’s also going to give you some of the good,” he says. “This is the love that can be your cushion as you go through the pain. You’ll hear people say, ‘a part of me died when they died’, but I also say, ‘remember a part of them lives on in you’.
“If we spend all our time telling everyone what a horrible death they had, that’s the part that will grow, so we want to try and focus on the good. But, I always caution people, focusing on the good doesn’t mean that the bad didn’t happen. It just means that you’re not always focused on the bad.”
Wherever we are in the grief cycle, Kessler says the journey is a hugely personal one.
“It was very important for me in this new book to help people understand that the stages are not a map for grief, they’re not linear, and you don’t have to follow them exactly. Women are so affected by loss, I just like to make sure that we give them as many tools as possible.”