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As we embark on the holiday season, our grief at the loss of our loved ones becomes more tangible. We see the empty seats around the dinner table. We obsess about the gifts we won’t get to buy, and the memories we won’t get to make.
Let’s refresh our memory:
1. Denial: We feel shock and disbelief that the loss has occurred.
2. Anger: We feel anger that the person we love is no longer here.
3. Bargaining: We sift through all the what-ifs and regrets.
4. Depression: We experience deep sadness from the loss.
5. Acceptance: We acknowledge the reality that the loss is permanent.
Although On Grief and Grieving has become the definitive guide on how to grieve, that was never the authors’ intention. The stages were always meant to provide a framework with the understanding that grief is a deeply personal process, and each person walks through it in their own time and way.
The Sixth Stage of Grief
As coauthor David Kessler grappled with the death of his son, it solidified an idea he had thought about for years. He came to realize the five stages of grief were not a complete picture of the grieving process. There was a sixth stage that was crucial to personal healing: meaning.
In his new book, Finding Meaning, David Kessler tells us, “In the sixth stage we acknowledge that although for most of us grief will lesson in intensity over time, it will never end. But if we allow ourselves to be fully into this crucial and profound sixth stage—meaning—it will allow us to transform grief into something else, something rich and fulfilling.”
Guidelines for Finding Meaning
David Kessler provides some thoughts to help guide you in understanding what finding meaning looks like:
- Meaning is relative and personal.
- Meaning takes time. You may not find it until months or even years after loss.
- Meaning doesn’t require understanding. It is not necessary to understand why someone died in order to find meaning.
- Even when you find meaning, you won’t feel it was worth the cost of what you lost.
- Your loss is not a test, a lesson, something to handle, a gift or a blessing. Loss is simply what happens to you in life. Meaning is what you make happen.
- Only you can find your own meaning.
- Meaningful connections will heal painful memories.
So how do we do it? How do we transition from the fifth stage of grief—acceptance—into the sixth stage where we find meaning?
Here are three ways to find meaning after the death of a loved one:
1. Move into the love.
When you walk through grief, you begin to believe it is all about the pain. The pain is excruciating, and it has no end in sight.
You may feel that your life was robbed because of your loved one’s death. You begin to believe that love died when the person you loved took their last breath.
David Kessler reminds us that grief is not just about pain. It is very much about love. Kessler says, “The common belief is that grief is all about pain. Anyone who has been in grief would certainly agree with that. But I believe there is more. There is love. Why do we believe the pain we feel is about the absence of love? The love didn’t die when the person we loved died. It didn’t disappear. It remains.”
How do we move into the love? We must make the conscious decision to walk through the pain. All of it. Feel it. Absorb it. Let it permeate your being.
Feeling the pain is not a step that can be skipped. It is crucial. It is better to embrace it, so it can run its course.
David Kessler tells us it is time to move into love, “When you feel that you have fully felt the pain. Even when you do, it will hurt again. It will just hurt less, and less often. Moving into love begins with realizing the love was always there. It was there in the good times, in the illness, in the death, and in the grief. It was never absent even in the worst moments, and it is there still. Death is not strong enough to end love.”
2. Continue a legacy or create a new one.
According to Dictionary.com, a legacy is “anything handed down from the past, as from an ancestor or predecessor.” There is a tendency to think of legacies in monetary terms—a university building named after a family or an endowed scholarship given to honor someone’s memory. Your family’s legacy could be your grandfather’s pocket watch or your mother’s wedding ring.
Those are great legacies, but sometimes a legacy is something money can’t buy. The beloved Christmas movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, illustrates how one life can affect so many.
In Finding Meaning, David Kessler tells us, “The film shows us that legacies are a mixture of who we are and what we have done. It was true for George Bailey and it’s true for your loved one who died.”
You don’t have to be a billionaire to provide a lasting legacy for your loved one. You can create a memory book filled with stories of your loved one’s life to share with family and friends. You can care for their pets, children or family members. You can continue traditions that were dear to them.
You can actually walk in their shoes by visiting places that were meaningful to them. According to David Kessler, “Sometimes walking in their footsteps is all you need to do to find a legacy of gratitude for having known them.”
3. Realize a relationship doesn’t end with death. It just changes.
When I attended a grief seminar during college, the speaker said something that resonated with me so much that I carry it with me even today. She said that death is not just about the loss of our loved one; it is also the death of who we were with them.
Think about it. We play different roles with all the people in our lives. Sometimes we are children, friends, students, teachers or spouses. How we act depends on our audience. When our starring role is cut short by the death of someone we love, it is natural to feel lost.
But according to David Kessler, “When someone dies, the relationship doesn’t die with them. You have to learn how to have a new relationship with them. You can still keep learning from them in your everyday life. An instant will come up and remind you of something that happened between you and your deceased love one, and now that he or she is gone, you can see it from a different point of view.”
You still have a relationship with your loved one who has died, but you just must find a way to move forward. For some, that may mean visiting the gravesite and talking to the person they lost. It may be keeping the spirit of their loved one alive by making them a continued part of life and conversations. It may mean talking about them in the present tense to keep them a part of your daily reality.
I think some of us have this notion that our grief isn’t as important as someone else’s because of the way death touched us. My two miscarriages don’t seem as important as my loved one who lost her spouse to suicide.
Comparing losses is like comparing apples and oranges. There is no comparison.
I like what David Kessler says about comparing losses: “For years I’ve entertained the question of which kind of loss is the worst. My answer remains the same. The worst kind of loss is your loss.”
Finding meaning is a challenge when you are walking through the grief of losing someone you love. It is hard to accept that it is time to embrace that sixth stage of grief and find meaning.
In the words of David Kessler, “Your future is still unwritten. You have loved, you have experienced great loss, but life continues. Explore that. Be curious about that. You will never be the same, nor would you want to be. You can be whole again, however, and you deserve to be.”
To get your copy of David Kessler’s new book, Finding Meaning, click here. If you have never read Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and David Kessler’s quintessential book On Grief and Grieving, click here to get your copy.