In this special episode of Unlocking Us, US professor and host Brené Brown speaks with author and expert on healing and loss, David Kessler. Kessler trained under Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, the author of the 1969 bestseller On Death and Dying who identified the five stages of dying – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance – which were eventually adapted into the five stages of grief. Kessler has furthered his research and added a sixth stage: finding meaning.
Although he built a career on grief counselling, when Kessler lost his son he was suddenly confronted with the unbearable reality of grief and loss, and how to deal with it as a parent. As he worked through the different stages he had so often spoken about, he realised there had to be something beyond the last stage of acceptance.
“There are no easy steps to grief,” Kessler says. “Grief is so organic, there’s no one right model or one right way to do it.”
“People thought there was an end to grief, and that you would get to acceptance and be done. And I just thought, acceptance is not enough. I need to find meaning. I need to find meaning for my son,” he recalls.
But is it possible to find “meaning” in loss?
“I had been fascinated by Viktor Frankl’s work and this idea of meaning and how, in our darkest moments, do we find the light? Does the light exist in the darkness?” Kessler explains.
Frankl was an Austrian psychiatrist and neurologist best known for his psychological memoir Man’s Search for Meaning which documents his experience as a prisoner in the Auschwitz concentration camp for three years. “In the worst circumstances imaginable, Frankl held to the belief that the most critical freedom is an individual’s ability to choose one’s attitude,” writes Dr Melissa Madeson in an article, Logotherapy: Viktor Frankl’s Theory of Meaning, for Positive Psychology.
“I began thinking more and more about meaning, and asking people about meaning […] and it became a life raft for me,” Kessler says.
“The idea of meaning did not take away my pain, but it gave me a cushion that I had not noticed before.
“It’s about naming meaningful moments. When we go, ‘What’s the meaning in this? I can’t find meaning in a pandemic.’ But during this pandemic, you and I can create this meaningful moment together.”
In the episode, Brown asks Kessler about how he perceives the Covid-19 pandemic, noting that grief, to her, appears to be a central theme in people’s experiences, whether we are conscious of it or not.
“We are all dealing with the collective loss of the world we knew, the world we knew is now gone forever. We’re going to find meaning, we’re going to come out the other side of this, but this world that we’ve all been accustomed to is now gone. And so many people are feeling heaviness. And we, like every other loss, didn’t know what we had until it was gone.
“We’re all trying to find ways to virtually hold each other’s hands. We’re in this together, it is not going to be forever. It will end. There’s not a dark night that stays. And yet, we have to feel these feelings. We’ve gotta feel the grief,” he responds.
While finding good and meaningful moments in the pandemic is important, Kessler also notes it is not “a bypass to the pain”. Rather, we need to feel the pain to work through it, and to come out the other side.
“There’s no way around the pain. If you don’t feel it, you can’t heal it. Meaning will be the cushion, but you’ve got to feel pain,” he says.
“Another place that people get stuck is they’ll think there’s meaning in the death. The meaning is not in the death, the meaning is what we do after. The meaning is in us. That’s where the meaning lies. That’s what we can create.” DM/ML
"If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold it would be a merrier world." ~ JRR Tolkien
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