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  • Writer's pictureDr. Jenna Renfroe

What you need to know if you or someone you care about has been impacted by grief

I recently listened to an excellent podcast on grief where David Kessler was interviewed ( David Kessler is an expert on grief who worked closely with Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. Dr. Kubler-Ross coined the famous 5 stages of grief: 1) denial, 2) anger, 3) bargaining, 4) depression, and 5) acceptance (see more about the stages). While these stages of grief are widely recognized, Kessler argues that they have often been misused and misunderstood, and in fact, the labeling of them as “stages” is really a misnomer (see more from Kessler about misconceptions). This leads to my first take away from the interview:

1) Grief is not linear.

As someone who has dealt with grief intimately in the last month, I cannot say how important and spot on this point is. Anyone who has known grief intimately is aware that these are not 5 stages that one transitions through in a linear fashion. A friend and fellow clinical psychologist, Dr. Kate Junger, noted that she identified with an analogy that compared the experience of grief to a “spiral staircase,” where you continually cycle through these stages. Dr. Junger described that, as time goes on, although you recognize and can label these familiar and cyclical emotions, you are also able to look up the staircase and see how far you have come.

2) Grief requires witnessing.

Yes. One of the most important things you can do for someone who is experiencing profound grief is simply bear witness to their pain. Said differently, don’t grieve *for* the person, grieve *with* the person. There is a difference between sympathy and empathy. Sympathy is feeling badly for someone because of what they are going through, whereas empathy is *feeling* what someone is going through, with them. Witnessing someone’s grief requires presence without an agenda to fix, change, or lessen their pain or any component of their experience. Why can this be so difficult? Simply said, because grief is so profoundly painful. Literally, to every person it touches, whether that person is close to the loss or not, loss and grief evoke the most deep and intense sadness and aching that the human experience offers. Nothing about it is easy.

3) Grief is messy.

It sure is. So don’t try to contain it or wrap it up in a nice little box. Don’t confine it to 5 “stages.” It is what it is and it has a life of its own… rather, a life of someone else’s, who has been taken—that has to be honored and the pain of that loss has to be felt. And felt it will be, in its own time, in its own way. The timing and way in which it shows up can be unpredictable and uncontainable. It is amorphous, potent, earth-shattering, consuming, and heavy. It can be sharp, dull, jagged, hot or cold. And then it’s not. And then it is again. Welcome to the messy world of grief.

4) The most painful loss is your own.

Grief can show up in response to all sorts of losses in life. The end of a marriage, the loss of a job, the loss of a loved one. They are different and similar. The loss of a loved one affects different members of a family in different ways. The person was a husband, a father, a wife, a mother, a brother, a sister, a grandparent, a friend…. The list goes on. The loss of this person will affect everyone uniquely and there is no way for an individual to fully know another person’s individual experience. Comparing grief or minimizing your own because someone else may also be grieving is not helpful. As a family or a community, you must show up for one another, and honor each other’s grief. In other words, there is sort of a reciprocal transaction occurring: “I witness and hold your grief, while you simultaneously witness and hold mine.”

5) There is an important sixth stage of grief – meaning.

David Kessler described that he felt there was something missing in the original 5-stage model of grief. “Acceptance” as the final (though, again, not linear) stage didn’t seem to do it justice. This became clear to him during his own experience of grief, when he unexpectedly lost his 21-year-old son in 2016. He described that he had toyed with the idea of meaning in his work prior to this devastating event, but his own experience with the traumatic loss of a child is what made him realize that a sense of meaning – while it did not take away the pain – provided some sort of a “cushion.” He stated that this stage is not something that can be forced or rushed, and it is not a way of “catapulting” out of pain. He also clarified that the meaning is not necessarily in the death itself (you will understand this if you have ever lost someone in a tragic or traumatic way.) Kessler stated,

“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.”

Finally, there is a nod to the relevance of gratitude in the experience of grief and loss. You cannot sugar coat the pain or find the silver lining. I think the heartbreak is permanent. Personally, I cannot say for sure because my own grief is too fresh and too raw. But, as a psychologist, I am pretty certain that the heartbreak is permanent – a “fracture” that heals to some degree, but you now carry with you throughout life. On the outside, you may not always see it, but if you took an X-ray, it would be there. But it coexists with immense love and gratitude. Grief is intimately tied to love. The deeper we loved, the deeper the pain. Kessler clarified that the gratitude is not over the loss or the details pertaining to it.

“So the gratitude, just like the meaning, is not in the death. It’s gratitude for the life, the person you got to know. It’s gratitude that that person got to be your father this lifetime. It’s gratitude your mother was your mother this lifetime, your husband, your wife, your partner, your kids. It didn’t have to happen that way. You didn’t have to have those kids this lifetime.” - David Kessler

Here is to the love and the light in the darkness. May we be brave enough to continue to live and to love in ways that make inevitable loss so profoundly difficult.


Link to the podcast:

Brown, B. (Host). (2020, March 31). David Kessler and Brené on Grief and Finding Meaning. [Audio podcast episode]. In Unlocking Us with Brené Brown. Cadence13.

Find David Kessler’s newest book on grief and meaning here:

David Kessler: Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief

Other resource for those currently dealing with grief:

Free online Facebook grief group – meets daily at 1 pm PT/4 pm ET for anyone who has had a loved one die.

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