The Sixth Stage of Grief with David Kessler

Jun 11, 2020

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How can we remember those who have died with more than just love and pain? David Kessler’s insights in this podcast are both professional and intensely personal. For decades he taught doctors, nurses, counselors, and first responders about end of life and trauma. Yet despite that knowledge, his life was upended by the sudden death of his twenty-one-year-old son. His journey through that tragic loss ultimately led him to discover and write about the sixth stage of grief—meaning.

David Kessler: My name is David Kessler, and I am a grief specialist.

Jeff: Grief specialist. When I'm asked to check the box on one of those forms, I rarely see that particular vocation. Can you unpack that for me a little bit?

David Kessler: Sure. I often think about no one's in the third grade and goes, "Let's see, police officer, fireman, and grief specialist, I'll do that." I don't think it's a profession you choose sometimes as much as it chooses you. So that's what it did when I was young. I had a mother who was ill most of my life, up to 13 years old, she was in and out of hospitals. And then when I was 13, she got really sick. She had to go to an out-of-town hospital for a new procedure called dialysis back then. She had a very sterile experience in an ICU. It was at the sort of the new age in '70s of the ICU and the medical technology.

While we were there, at the hotel across the street, broke out a fire, which then once the firetrucks came, they realized it was actually an active shooter starting the fire. It turned out to be one of the first mass shootings in the US. So in a period of just a few days, I dealt with my mother's death, a mass shooting. And I have a bent that puts me in relationship work with people a lot because while my mother was dying, my parents decided to have an intense monogamy interaction with me present. That just screws up your mind. So I've really had to hone my talent in on dealing with loss, relationships, attachment, helping people.

Jeff: So you were 13-14 years old?

David Kessler: 13 years old.

Jeff: Of course, that's a very acute situation. I mean, and rare, but still, I can't imagine that there was a lot of available help for you as a 13-year-old back in the 1970s having undergone that level of tragedy.

David Kessler: It's interesting, I say in a lot of ways I grew up to be the person that could have maybe helped him and helped my parents. So, yeah, I became what was needed in a strange way. I think of my work now, and I think whether we're talking about a loved one dying, a breakup, a divorce, a betrayal, all those things, a job loss, that we go through.

My work now is helping people realize that in our modern world, after you have a change, grief, relationship ending, whatever it may be, we often perceive ourselves as broken. And then we arrive to the rest of our life broken, broken in the new relationship, broken for the years we have left here, broken for the new marriage. My work is about recognizing and helping you find peace with the loss that has occurred, but also helping you to find your whole self again to bring into the rest of your life or the next relationship.

I think we're grief illiterate. We don't know how to do that. It wasn't taught to us.

Jeff: Yeah, I think it's important to point out and articulate the fact that you're not just caring for people in hospice or during palliative care or a death, after a death of a family member, but that grief, that the situations are broad and the kinds of grief and loss are also broad.

David Kessler: Right. My lectures and retreats, some of them are geared around breakups, divorce, betrayal. Others are geared around a loved one dying. Others are geared around changes that take place in the workplace. All of those transitions we make in life, I work around. A lot of it is, moreso these days, with people trying to find the rest of their life and trying to make life work after.

Jeff: You had a mentor named Elisabeth [crosstalk 00:05:04]

David Kessler: Elisabeth Kubler-Ross , right. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross .

Jeff: You coauthored some books with her, correct?

David Kessler: I did a book On Grief and Grieving, and another one, Life Lessons.

Jeff: She helped to codify what I suppose you've brought into these kind of five stages of grief.

David Kessler: Correct.

Jeff: Can you articulate those?

David Kessler: Sure.

Jeff: Maybe articulate them around a situation so people can actually really understand how they might apply to them.

David Kessler: I want to start with a disclaimer that some people when they hear the five stages are like, "Oh, got it. Know them, love them." Other people are like, "It doesn't unfold that way. Don't tell us what to do." I want to let everyone know, I'm going to clarify those sort of nuances in them. I'll explain them first. There is first the five stages are: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Denial is that, "I can't believe this has happening. I mean, I can't believe you served me with divorce papers. I can't believe we're breaking up. I can't believe they died."

Denial is a positive coping mechanism. We couldn't take all the pain of the divorce or the death or whatever it is in one moment, in one day. So our psyche spaces it out for us. And that, "I can't believe it," is a little bit of a bridge over the pain. That, "I can't believe this has happened." Then some people will experience anger. Anger is my go-to emotion. So some people will go to anger. Anger, I always say is pain's bodyguard. We encounter the anger first, but the pain is underneath.

Then there's what's called bargaining. Bargaining is all the what ifs and regrets. What if I had just called? What if I'd kept better shape? What if I had not allowed him to hire that secretary? What if I had taken them to the doctor that day? What if I'd called? There's so many situations around illness, addiction, death by suicide, breakups, divorce, that we're left with: if only I had done this different, they'd still be here.

Jeff: Right.

David Kessler: So that's the bargaining. Then we have the depression. Now I clarify with people, I'm talking about situational depression, not clinical depression. Situational depression is: they served you with divorce papers. They're breaking up with you. They died. Those are depressing situations. In themselves it's depressing. So many times in our modern world, we use the word depression, and we think clinical depression. But the translation I ask people to make is when we say depression, to really think sadness. We don't use the word sadness anymore.

Think about someone will say, "Oh my goodness, we've got some bad news over lunch. We went into a whole depression, but we're fine now." Really? You went into a whole depression at lunch and you're better now? Wow. Was it like a drive through, rehab you went to? How'd you get through that so quickly?

But really we use the word depression when we mean sadness. So there's that sadness we experience, that they are gone, the relationship's over. And then there's acceptance, and people think acceptance means you have to like it. You have to be okay with it. You're never going to like it. You're not going to be okay with it. But acceptance is about acknowledging the reality of it.

Those are the five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. But I want to say, they are not a map for grief. You don't have to follow them. They're not linear. People cycle through them 100 times a day. I tell people, "Don't get caught up in the model," because the world has sort of turned them into five easy steps for grief, and they don't work that way. They're much more organic.

Kubler-Ross would sort of hate how they've been neatened up into five things you go through.

Jeff: Right, right. Just for click-bait for the internet.

David Kessler: Right, right, exactly.

Jeff: I mean, what happens to people if they're not... Because it's pretty easy to get stuck in one of those stages. Getting stuck in the sadness or depression, getting stuck in the anger, getting stuck in the bargaining and the what ifs. I mean-

David Kessler: Those are the tools no one teaches us these days. That's what we don't know how to do.

Jeff: Right. So we can live in one of those stages in perpetuity almost.

David Kessler: Stuck is the word that people use, the word you just used there. They will often say, "I'm stuck in..." And they will literally get stuck in, "If only I had called." They will get stuck in, "I can't believe it," whatever it may be.

Jeff: That can end up manifesting in disorders [crosstalk 00:10:20] alcoholism, yeah.

David Kessler: A million things. Weight gain, losing weight, not eating right. Addiction, unhealthy relationships, attachment disorders, a million things. I often say, "It's not the cause of everything, but you find it almost in anything." 

Jeff: Are the tools for being able to navigate and process grief so important because grief is an inevitable fact of life?

David Kessler: Yes. One of the things we don't understand is pain from loss is inevitable. Suffering is optional. For example, I can't take away anyone's pain. The pain of you losing your husband, your wife, your pet, I can't take that away. That pain is actually part of the love. But the suffering is the noise your mind makes, the blame, the self blame, the blaming of others, the regrets, all that crazy noise in our mind.

David Kessler: I try to help people understand your loss is not a test. It's not a blessing. It's not a gift. It's not a punishment.

Loss is what happens in this lifetime. Somehow we became the generation that thought loss would be optional, but people we love are going to die. People are going to break up with us. We're going to break up with people. People, divorces will happen. What comes afterward is what I was interested in. What do we do after the event happens? How do we hold it in a healing way, versus a wounding way?

Jeff: Yeah.

David Kessler: And that's I think what sort of that concept of after acceptance, is there possibly meaning?

Jeff: Yeah. I want to get there, because that's of course the subject of your book. I do think though it's interesting, you make this one point early on. And I think it derives from this Erich Fromm notion, is that you can avoid grief.

David Kessler: You can, it's optional this lifetime, but you will avoid love. You will avoid connecting with a pet, you will avoid connecting with friends, you will avoid romantic relationships.

Jeff: And what kind of life is that?

David Kessler: What kind of life is that?

Jeff: So in a way, when you feel grief, you're also sort of acknowledging within yourself your capacity to love.

David Kessler: And grief is pain, but grief is also love. And we think about it as only pain. And part of the finding the meaning is the idea of love. That love exists even in those hideous situations.

Jeff: So after acceptance, after acknowledgement, where do you go from there?

David Kessler: I thought about that concept of meaning. And I thought about could there be a sixth stage? And I began researching the idea of meaning. And could meaning really help us in our modern world now with breakups, divorce, betrayal, loved ones dying. Could there be something more than acceptance? And I felt like we're a generation now that we're not okay with just acceptance. Really, that's it? Really I'm just going to accept it? Really?

So I started writing about meaning and I thought, I wonder, "Could this be a book?" So I began writing about it. And while I was writing, as you do sometimes, you put it aside and you go do lectures or other things, I'd put it aside, and I was going to get back to it. And I have two sons. My younger son, David, tragically, unexpectedly died. And I found myself in the epicenter of the world I had been teaching about.

And people will often say, "Oh my gosh, what was it like for the grief expert to lose his son." And I would go, "It was actually the father who had to bury his child." That's who I was in that moment, and still am in a lot of ways. Hideous, enormous pain, canceled everything, had no idea what the rest of my life would look like. And at one point, probably six months into it, I was in my office, and I was putzing around. And I came across the stack of papers that were like "The sixth stage meaning."

And I looked and I went, "Oh yeah, like that's going to help with this pain." Because I was like, "This is a pain that there's nothing going to help." And I began reading it and it didn't take the pain away, but it gave it a cushion. It gave it a companion. And I thought, this is something I do need to explore more. And that really became the new book, Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief.

David Kessler: And the idea that the Kübler-Ross family and foundation gave me permission to add a sixth stage to her iconic stages was... I'm eternally grateful to them.

Jeff: Yeah. You could say that this work is a bridge between two banks of a river. You're one bank as the grief expert, and one bank as a father.

David Kessler: Right. I remember one of the things that happened fairly early on is maybe a month after my son died, a friend who was 43 years old, this amazing yoga dance teacher, the epitome of health, got the flu and died. We hear every year there's some death, but not our friend who is the yoga teacher who's healthy.

And another friend had his 17 year old dog die. And as I was sort of with both of their families, there was moments where they went, "How can you comfort us? Your son." And I said to them, "All tears count." I think it's important to recognize that people will often go, "What's the worst grief? Is it this? Is it this? Is it divorce? Is it a death?" Or whatever it may be. All of them are unique, but the worst grief is always yours.

Jeff: Yeah.

David Kessler: What you're going through is the worst one and that's the one you need to honor.

Jeff: Yeah. Yeah. I was talking with Michael Beckwith here last week. And it seems easy to create some sort of odd twisted hierarchy around grief.

David Kessler: Right.

Jeff: Like that the loss of a child, for example, the disorder of that, the chaos of that would create sort of proportionally more grief, because it's sort of out of time. Versus losing your grandmother who's had a full life and in her nineties. But is that not fair really, because-

David Kessler: It's much more complex than that. So can I make a case for my grief as the worst that my son died and it's out of order? Absolutely, I can make that case. I can also make a case that's my worst grief. But I can make a case for the person whose one companion for 17 years has been their dog that's been in their bed every night, that's greeted them upon coming home, that sat at their feet for 17 years. That's their worst grief.

Jeff: Yeah.

David Kessler: I can make a case for the person who says, "My husband, my wife and I were supposed to have a life together and out of the blue they found someone else and they've replaced me." And I hear this a lot in divorce. People will say, "I've had my brother die. I've had my parents die. The divorce grief is the worst for me because there's literally someone alive rejecting me every day. Who's walking on the planet."

Jeff: Yeah.

David Kessler: So I don't think it's a productive discussion.

Jeff: No.

David Kessler: I think my job is to help you honor and pay attention to your grief.

Jeff: Yeah.

David Kessler: And to help witness your grief, because we're always going to lose the, "Who's got the worst grief." It's always gone, there's... Look, the truth is with my son dying at 21, I can tell you five other experiences I've helped people with in the last two weeks that were more hideous.

There's just hideous things in the world, so there's always going to be a grief worse than yours and always going to be a grief, not as bad as yours. But your job is to sit with your own grief, and honor it, and feel the pain. And find a way to heal it and integrate it. I think the goal of grief work is to remember that person, or that relationship with more love than pain, in time, at your own pace.

Jeff: So let's explore how it is possible, despite how anyone might feel at a moment where a loss is so prescient. How is it possible to find meaning in that loss, in that suffering, in that grief? What do you do? How do you start?

David Kessler: You have to start with feeling the feelings. And you would think that would be easy for our generation, but it's actually not. We're like one of the first generations that we have feelings on feelings. "I'm angry, but I don't have a right to be angry. I'm guilty, but I should feel better about things. I'm sad, but I don't want to wallow in it." And I tell people, "Don't listen to the comments of your mind. If you're feeling sad, feel sad, if you're feeling angry, feel angry, whatever it is, you can't heal what you don't feel. You have to feel it."

People are worried about what I call the gang of feelings. If I start crying, it'll never end. I am here to tell you it will stop and start again. It will end at some point, and then maybe start again, but you have to feel those feelings. When you have fully felt the feelings authentically as they come up, the intensity will begin to change. The frequency will begin to change. And meaning can begin to creep in, if you begin to plant the seeds of it. 

David Kessler: I'm not teaching people to find meaning in how they die, their murder, their death, the divorce, the betrayal. There may just not be any meaning in that, but isn't there meaning from your time with them? Wasn't their life meaningful? What part of them lives in you? What can you take into the future? Or, if they did die tragically, how can you change the world so other people don't die that way?

David Kessler: I also share this story in the new book. There was a woman who, her father had been in Vaudeville and loved Danny Thomas and Milton Burrow and all those guys. One day she's just buying post [inaudible 00:29:15]. She's in the post office getting stamps. They flip out all these books and she's like, "I just want a forever stamp." She's looking, and do I want an astronaut? A flower? What do I want? She sees this Danny Thomas stamp, which makes her think of her dad. She buys them. She doesn't frame them. She uses them as stamps, just randomly in the middle of her day if she's got to pay a bill and she takes out a stamp. She has a sweet moment with her dad. That's a moment she created just to help honor him. That's in the mundane.

Jeff: Yeah, no, it's that finding the beauty in the everyday, right? My grandfather, I was very, very close to him. He was the loving, warm patriarch of the family, helped me through school. He used to get up every morning, bright and early, and say good morning to the sun. I remember watching him out on the patio with his outstretched arms, sun beaming down on his face. I remember quite vividly the day that he passed away. I went out to the roof. This was in New York City. I went out to one of those classic, tarred roofs of New York. It was a cold, sort of cloudy, overcast day. The clouds parted and the sun came down and caressed my face in a very particular way. Now, every time I step out into the sun, I have a feeling, a warm, beautiful feeling. I try to channel that into generosity, because he was so, so generous. In a way, and this was not obvious to me at first, I feel as close to him as I ever felt, but it is a process, a long process for me because I didn't have someone like you around.

David Kessler: Well, and just think about what you just described there. You talked about meaningful moments around his death right after he died. You talked about how ... My guess is, if you happened to be witnessing a sunrise, you probably bring him to that memory. You think about him as you embrace the sun at different times, and he lives in you. He brought a smile to your face. You carry a part of him with you. So, I think about ... energy can't be destroyed. That interesting concept that when someone dies, people will often go, "They take a part of me with them," but a part of them is left behind in you, that it's that interesting exchange about how are you going to honor that? How are you going to honor the memory of them? How are you going to honor who they were, why they lived, how they touched you? 

Jeff: So, with all the wisdom that you've been able to acquire over dedicating your professional life to this subject, going back and beholding you at 13 in New Orleans, witnessing and dealing with the death of your mother and then also a mass shooting, what would you say? How would you counsel that young boy now?

David Kessler: Well, if I could talk to him, I would probably whisper and just say, "There's more. This is not all there is in life. This is what all of life feels like now, but there is more." I think that's still something I help people to try to understand. In the depths of their sadness, there is more. It's interesting, I will sometimes say to people when they say, "Nope. It's over. I'm never going to love again. I'm never going to have another relationship. I'm never going to have a full life now that they've died or now that we've divorced." I'll tell them, "You know, so many of us are alive, but not living." I'll say, "When you go home and you're alone, check out your toenails. They're still growing. Your fingernails are still growing. Your hair is still growing. Often, as we get older, in the wrong places, but it's still growing. You are continuing. We can shut down or we can go with that life that continues." 

Our tendency is to shut down after, in so many ways, that this has been a permanent loss. I try to tell people that life, that death, unfortunately, physically is permanent, but the damage doesn't have to permanently destroy your life. You can integrate it and honor it and remember it and feel the pain of it, but create a life after it that would make your loved one proud. Or, utilize everything that you went through in that relationship to empower the next relationship rather than to paralyze the next relationship. 

Jeff: You are an incredibly vibrant, vivacious, gregarious person with a very optimistic and uplifting spirit that seems, on the surface, to belie what you do every day.

David Kessler: Correct.

Jeff: How does that square?

David Kbessler: So, first of all, I tell people, "Number one, you would not want to be with a grief expert that it looks like they're at their edge."

Jeff: Fair enough.

David Kessler: What I'm trying to help people find is this. It's interesting, at my lectures, they're often in hotels. We rent out meeting rooms. They're in hotels and next to us is the accountant's annual meeting and the healthcare practitioner's annual ... and there's 12 meetings going on. At the end of the day, everyone's gone. The cleaning crew's in there and they'll go, "Hey, what was your meeting?" I'll go, "Why do you ask?" And they go, "Because they were laughing the most." I'll go, "Grief," and they'll go, "Well, what kind of grief?" And I'll go, "That kind of grief." If you are willing to go all the way into the pain, there is a bandwidth that you will find that not only stretches you into the worst of this life, but also stretches you into the happiness of this life. We are all about the peaks. Yeah, all those goals. Do it. You can do it. All that, but we avoid the valleys and the valleys make us appreciate the peaks. 

The people in my life that have died have just left a hole in my heart that will never be filled until the day I'm with them. I cried about them yesterday and I may cry about them today, but I will ... When I cry, I will be absolutely fully in that sadness and it will pass and then the next moment they may bring a smile to my face and then the next moment I'm doing a podcast and we're just chatting about a new book. I think it is the willingness to go into the darkness, the shadow side, that I think does make me the optimist and happy. I also know it is a decision we have to make. It is a decision we have to make, that I clearly knew after my son died, this could really end my work. I knew there was a good possibility that if I said, "Not doing grief work anymore," no one would argue with me. They'd go, "Oh, yeah, after what you've been through, shooting, son died, no, no, we get it." I could go do balloons. I don't know why.

Jeff: Sure.

David Kessler: But could go do balloons.

Jeff: Sure.

David Kessler: Balloons just seems like a light job, filling them with helium all day, but-

Jeff: You kind of are doing that.

David Kessler: I kind of am doing that, right? But I thought about my son. My son loved my work. My son was so proud of my work. My son's death could constrict this work or it could expand it. What would he want? He would want it to expand it. So, the meaning I find doesn't negate the pain, but it's there in addition to the pain. 

Jeff: Well, David, I think the highest expression of being human is loving, selfless service, and I think we owe you a great debt for doing what you do. A place where not very many people want to spend their time and we're very grateful for that selfless service. Thank you very much.

David Kessler: Oh, well, thank you. I really appreciate it.

Jeff: God bless you.

David Kessler: Thank you. 


Thanks for listening to the show today. I hope you can apply some of David’s teaching to your own life - as we all  share some story of loss and pain. I urge everyone to learn more about David and his work as

If you have any comments or questions about today’s show or the podcast in general, please email me at [email protected].

That’s all from the commune for this week. I am Jeff Krasno and I will see you next time.  

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