Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief

By David Kessler. Scribner, 2019. 272 pages. $26/hardcover; $17/paperback (available in September); $13.99/eBook.

You woke up the morning after a devastating loss. The sun was shining. A cardinal’s trill floated through an open window. A robin was pecking at something in the grass. Outraged, you cried out, “The nerve! The very nerve! How dare the world go on!” What was happening to you? That rage? Well, my friend, you were in a particular stage of grief: namely, anger.

Stages of grief? What is that about? The late Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, a Swiss-American psychiatrist, developed the idea that there are five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance). Kessler, a student and later a colleague of Kübler-Ross, invites us to move on to a next stage in his new book, Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief. He writes, “We want more than the hard fact of that loss. We want to find meaning. Loss can wound and paralyze. It can hang over us for years. But finding meaning in loss empowers us to find a path forward.”

Kessler tells his own story of loss and grieving. He adopted four-year-old David and five-year-old Richard from the Los Angeles County foster care system in 2000. His son David became addicted to drugs as a teenager, but, after a few years of struggle, he got his life back. Then, shortly after a breakup with his girlfriend, he did drugs with an old friend from rehab and died of an overdose. Kessler writes, “I was not able to find any consolation in memories of my love for my son.” A friend said to him, “‘I know you’re drowning. You’ll keep sinking for a while, but there will come a point when you’ll hit bottom. Then you’ll have a decision to make. Do you stay there or push off and start to rise again?’”

Kessler struggled through the stages of grieving, but wanted to move beyond acceptance, namely finding meaning in his grief experience. His grieving included telling his son’s story; affirming his love for his son; and acknowledging his son’s gifts to him, how he was changed by his son’s life and death. Then he focused on the importance of telling his story. He writes, “In a way, meaning both begins and ends with the stories we tell. Storytelling is a primal human need. The meaning begins with our own version of the story of our loved one’s death.” He knew he was moving on when he was able to take the action of doing something to spare other parents the pain of having a child die of a drug overdose.

I will not tell the rest of Kessler’s story but rather note that the book is organized into three sections. In the first section, “Every Loss Has Meaning,” Kessler references Viktor Frankl, who reminded us in Man’s Search for Meaning that we can and must decide how we will be changed by the pain of our losses.

The second section, “Challenges in Grief,” explores how painful it can be to keep alive the memory of what has been lost. Parents ask, “Why did my child die? What good can come out of this loss?” Kessler gently pushes back by asking, “How have you changed? More understanding of others, perhaps, more compassion?”

The last section is simply titled “Meaning.” Kessler guides us beyond grieving to creating meaning in our lives. How can our remembering be filled with more love and less pain? More compassion and less regret? What action can we take that honors the memory of what has been lost?

We all mourn the loss of those warm days when we could give and receive hugs, which pales in comparison to the pain suffered by those whose family members and friends have sickened and, in some cases, died in the current pandemic. We’ve been living through what Kübler-Ross and Kessler called the five stages of grief. We have noted initial denials of infection risks. Then we saw the angry blaming of others for what they did, or did not do. We felt the pressure to bargain that we could get our lives back sooner rather than later. Depressed, we grumble, “Will this crisis never end?” And when it does (if we’ve been wise), there will be an acceptance of a new and possibly better state of affairs.

We can struggle through our grieving and move into what Kessler calls the sixth stage by telling our stories, by witnessing how we’ve been changed, by seeing what good things have (or have yet to) come from this crisis, and by taking action in remembrance of what has been lost. By telling his story within the context of years of professional experience, Kessler shines a light for us in our journey through darkness.

Brad Sheeks, a retired hospice nurse, is a member of Newtown (Pa.) Meeting, where he lives with Patricia McBee and a few miles from daughter, Jennie Sheeks, and her family.

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