The Sixth Stage of Grief: Finding Meaning

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In 1969, Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross identified the five stages of dying in her groundbreaking book On Death and Dying. Three decades later, in her final book On Grief and Grieving, co-authored with her friend David Kessler and published posthumously, Kubler-Ross adapted the stages she had observed in the dying to account for the similar stages she had also observed in those who are grieving. The five stages of grief are:

Denial

Anger

Bargaining

Depression

Acceptance

In the fifth stage, acceptance, we acknowledge the reality of the loss. We take some time stop and breathe into the undeniable fact that our loved ones are gone. It’s anything but easy, extremely painful and certainly not an end to our pain. “However, there’s been an assumed finality about this fifth stage that Elisabeth and I never intended,” writes David Kessler, “Over the years I came to realize that there’s a crucial sixth stage to the healing process: Finding Meaning.

David Kessler.

David Kessler writes:

Through meaning, we can find more than pain. When a loved one dies, or when we experience any kind of serious loss — the end of a marriage, the closing of the company where we work, the destruction of our home in a natural disaster — we want more than the hard fact of that loss. We want to find meaning. Loss can would and paralyze. It can hang over us for years. But finding meaning in loss empowers us to find a path forward.

This realization came to Kessler in the wake of the tragedy in his own life — the loss of his twenty-one-year-old son. Kessler writes:

Nothing in either my personal or my professional life as a grief specialist had prepared for the loss I experienced when I embarked on this book — the unexpected death of my twenty-one-year-old son. This was a loss so shattering that despite all the years I’d spend helping others through their grief, I didn’t know if there was anything could assist me through my own.

Funeral Symphony II by Mikalojus Konstantinas Ciurlionis.

Ultimately, meaning comes through finding a way to sustain our love for the person after their death while we move forward with our lives. That doesn’t mean we’ll stop missing the ones we loved, but it does mean we’ll experience a heightened awareness of how precious life is. Whenever it ends — at a few days or in extreme old age — we rarely think that life is long enough. Therefore, we must try to value it every day and live it to the fullest. In that way we do the best honor those whose deaths we grieve. Kessler writes:

1. Meaning is relative and personal.
2. Meaning takes time. You may not find it until months or even years after loss.
3. Meaning doesn’t require understanding. It’s not necessary to understand why someone died in order to find meaning.
4. Even when you do find meaning, you won’t feel it was worth the cost of what you lost.
5. 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.
6. Only you can find your own meaning.
7. Meaningful connections will heal painful memories.

Quoting Erich Fromm who famously said, “To spare oneself from grief at all costs can be achieved only at the price of total detachment, which excludes the ability to experience happiness,” Kessler writes:

As time goes by, I have been able to keep finding deeper meaning in [my son] David’s life as well as in his death…. Meaning is the love I feel for my son. Meaning is the way I have chosen to bear witness to the gifts he gave me. … For all of us, meaning is a reflection of the love we have for those we have lost. Meaning is the sixth stage of grief, the stage where the healing often resides.

The Sixth Stage of Grief by David Kessler is a gift to anyone who experienced loss and looking for a way to heal. Complement with Einstein’s letter to a grieving father.

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