In the episode “On Grief and Finding Meaning” in Unlocking us with Brené Brown, writer and grief expert David Kessler talks about ‘meaning’ as what follows after we accept our loss. Guided by research, counseling experience, and his own loss as a father, David points to meaning as what will heal our pain and what humanity can create from all that was lost to the coronavirus.
Read this if...
- You lost a loved one
- You lost your job or your business
- You are grieving any form of loss
David Kessler is a writer, public speaker, and death & grieving expert. He is the chairperson for the Hospital Association of Southern California Palliative Care Committee. He concentrates his study in hospice, palliative care, grief and loss, and conducting interviews on near-death awareness and near-death experiences.
the distilld lessons (extended)
People suffer great losses every day, but the pandemic seemed to have magnified these losses on a global scale. What can we do to help ourselves and others through these great losses and the grieving that follows after?
In this episode of Unlocking Us with Brené Brown, writer and grief counselor David Kessler
discusses meaning as the sixth “stage” of grief—after acceptance. Guided by his research, work, and his own loss, he points to meaning as our light to healing from loss. He walks us through grieving by ourselves and with others.
Here are the distilld lessons inspired by the “On Grief and Finding Meaning” episode of the Unlocking Us with Brené Brown podcast:
1. Grief comes in waves.
Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance—and now, Meaning. Even if it’s how they’ve been made to look, it’s not a roadmap for grief. In an interview, David stressed that the process of grieving isn’t definite. It's not a simple step-by-step. There's nothing simple about dealing with grief. He refers to the stages of grief as descriptive, not prescriptive. It only describes how we would grieve. It doesn’t tell us how we should.
While we want the process to be linear—with pain saying farewell once we hit acceptance—it’s not like that. The process is messy. There’s a lot of back-and-forth. Our emotions and our circumstances are too complicated for straightforward healing.
When we feel like we’re returning to ‘past’ stages of grief, we shouldn’t think that we are grieving ‘incorrectly’. Grief comes in waves, not steps. It can push you forward one day, and then pull you back the next. David also emphasized that grieving doesn’t have to be swift. There’s nothing wrong if we take our time. Healing will take a while. There is no deadline.
When we accept that there isn’t a definite path to grief, we unburden ourselves from the unnecessary guilt and pressure to move on. The best pace of grieving is our own.
2. We make meaning, not find it.
Similar to thinking that the stages of grief are linear, we also consider great loss to be a test. We try to find how they may be blessings in disguise. Loss just happens. There’s no meaning to it. If we want it to mean something, we make meaning out of it instead of finding one.
David lost his 21-year-old son to a tragedy. As a grief expert, he saw himself go through the stages. When he found acceptance, he thought that there had to be more to it. He wanted to find meaning after his son’s death, so he reached out to people who experienced loss themselves. He shared that talking to them made him realize how they found meaning. His book Finding Meaning, which has helped people work through their grief, was based on his conversations with them.
Through this experience, David helped and guided people in their grief through his writing, research, and counseling. His son’s death became a way for him to reach out and help people in dealing with their own losses. He made meaning of his loss by using what he learned to help others.
3. Meaning soothes pain, but it doesn’t erase it.
David is grateful for how his book helped millions. But even if it reached billions, David would trade them all to have his son back. The meaning he has found from the loss of his son hasn’t erased the pain of losing him at all.
For David, meaning is a cushion that helps with the pain, but not erases it completely. That’s because pain is a reminder of how much we lost means to us. We have no choice but to feel this pain, and only then can we seek ways to heal it completely. “If you don’t feel it, you can’t heal it.” says David in an interview.
4. Comparing grief doesn’t help with healing.
We’ve suffered great losses in this pandemic. Some have lost jobs and even lives, while others have lost long-held plans. Which losses are greater? None. All losses are equally valid.
Judgment demands punishment, according to David. When we judge others, we end up hurting whoever it is we are judging, including ourselves. We punish those we judge by not allowing them to go through their own grieving process, insisting that they don’t have the right to grieve because others have It worse.
David notes that whatever we’re grieving over is the worst grief we’re experiencing. There’s no need to compare, because it’s incomparable. We are all grieving different things for different reasons, and in different ways. The fact that we all experience grief is what we have in common. Knowing that everyone is grieving over something can help us be more understanding of each other.
When we allow each other to be in pain and help each other heal, we can weather this pandemic. We can create meaning in our collective grief through one another. We can cherish the moments we have with others. Even little things like giving compliments and sharing laughter can help us get through our personally losses.
For a shorter conversation, the distilld lessons summary are here.