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You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today my guest is David Kessler. David Kessler is the world’s foremost expert on grief and loss. His experience with thousands of people on the edge of life and death has taught him secrets to living a happy and fulfilled life, even after life’s tragedies. David is the founder of Grief.com, which has over 5 million visits yearly from people in 167 countries. He’s the author of six books, including the new, bestselling book Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief. He’s also coauthored two books with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, including a book on grief and grieving, which updated her five stages for grief.
David comes at this conversation of understanding grief, loss and finding meaning, not just as an expert who’s worked with other people’s journey through grief, but as someone who has deeply experienced his own loss. [He] shares about it and the meaning-making process he went through and ultimately how making meaning has so much to do with grieving fully and living fully, and having and maintaining an ongoing, evolving relationship with those who have died. Here’s my illuminating conversation with David Kessler.
I’m absolutely thrilled, David to have this chance to talk to you. Thank you so much for making the time and space for this. Thank you.
David Kessler: I’m so glad to be with you today—and everyone. Very excited to be here.
TS: In learning about you and your work, one of the things I learned is that you co-wrote two previous books with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, the great psychiatrist known for her five stages of the dying process. I wanted to start and understand how you and Elisabeth Kübler-Ross first got connected.
DK: Sure. I started out—I had a mother who died when I was a child. She died when I was 13 in a hospital. At the same time she was dying, the hotel where we were, there was a shooting across the street at the hotel. It turned out to be one of the first mass shootings in the US. So, obviously, I was interested in death and dying, and when I was in community college at Sacramento City College, everyone was so excited about these two psychology classes, and the really popular one was Human Sexuality, and the second one was Death and Dying. I’m like, “That’s the one I want to go to.” So, obviously, I studied Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, as everyone else did.
Years later, after I had worked in this field for a number of years, there was an international conference in Egypt on death and dying, and the keynote speaker was Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. She unfortunately had to cancel because it’s when she had her stroke. She was the major speaker. I was wallpaper. I talked to the person afterwards who was putting on the event and said, “I’ve got to talk to her, her family, and I don’t know how she is. It’s an awkward call to make. I don’t know. How do I call her son?” It spoke to [how] I don’t know how to engage in illness and all that. I said, “Well, I’ll call and see how she’s doing,” and so she gave me the number. I called. Her son said, “Oh, here’s her number. Call her. She’s doing better.” I called her, and she was lovely on the phone. She asked me how Egypt was. We talked. Then, interestingly enough, at the end of that call, I said, in my way, “Well, I hope someday, somehow we get to meet each other,” and she said, “How about Tuesday?” That was my first glimpse of this is a woman who doesn’t [just say], “Maybe we’ll get connected.” She makes things happen.
I went to her house on a Tuesday—and she’s just a fascinating woman. She was the kind of person that—her honesty, you either admired it, or it pissed you off. I remember she said to me, when I walked in, she goes, “Let me smell you.” I thought, “Oh, my gosh, do I have a cologne on? What’s wrong?” She said, “I just want to smell if you’re a phony baloney or you’re real.”
TS: Oh, I love it. I love it.
DK: That was like, “OK, I’m going on a ride here. I’m going on a ride.” We became good friends. Going back to your first comment about her stages of dying, she helped me with my first book. She couldn’t keep her hands off of it. She made sure I was dotting my i’s and doing it right and covering everything. We had this discussion for a long time about learning about life from death, and that became our book Life Lessons. Then we would also have this ongoing conversation about how people were adapting her stages of dying for stages of grief, and they actually weren’t adapting them well. I always said, “You should write something. You should change it. You should put your voice out there at some point.”
Finally, one day, I think eight or nine years later, she called me, and she said, “OK, let’s write about it.” So, we formally adapted her stages of dying for stages of grief, and that became our book on grief and grieving. Literally, on page one, we say, “They’re not linear. You don’t have to go through them. There is no one model of grief. Grief is an organic process. There’s no map for grief.” It turned out to be her last book—and, literally, we finished it a week before she died.
TS: Wow. David, I have to tell you, I’m sort of jumping out of my skin, believe it or not, because there’s so much I want to cover with you. But I want to clarify right here at the beginning something, because I’ve heard from people a criticism of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s work. When you say her name, often this criticism comes up immediately, and people say, “Oh, those were based on interviews with terminally ill people. Don’t apply it to the grieving process. That’s an error.” Can you address that right here out of the gate?
DK: Sure, absolutely. First of all, she’s very clear. These were observations of dying, of people who were dying. What I think was so profound about her work is Elisabeth didn’t invent something. It’s like she went outside and said, “I notice the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. I notice this is what dying people go through.” She says in her first book, On Death and Dying: “This is also what people in grief often experience,” and she’s so clear. If you read the original book, there’s actually more than five stages, and she got the idea of the stages and how we go through them archetypally from Anna Freud. It’s really interesting to just notice, whether you like the model or don’t like the model. We go through the “I can’t believe this is happening.” We get angry. We go, “What if?” We get sad. I mean, they do naturally reoccur.
But, a couple of things. […] It was hard for [Elisabeth] to have her work. All of her books, I think (how many books—in the 20s, maybe 30s, of books, lectures), they kept getting reduced to five words. She said to folks, “There’s more to death and dying than these five words.” So when people say, “Oh, she denied her own work,” it’s like, I would sit with her, and here’s what would happen. A clinician would come in, and the clinician would say, “I want to tell you about this case,” and they would tell her about the case. We’d sit through 20 minutes of background. Then the clinician would say to Elisabeth, “What stage are they in?” Elisabeth would go, “Forget the stages. Just meet them where they are.”
Now as you mentioned, there’s been criticisms. We tried to address that in, like I said, page one of the book. We say all of those criticisms on page one. Elisabeth found it ridiculous that people thought there’s one model for grief. She found that concept ridiculous, that people thought she was putting out the one and only model. The truth is, as you know, the media picked up the five stages early on in Life magazine and other places, and it’s easy to talk about the five easy steps, the five this—
DK: I think we know grief can’t be reduced to five easy anything. So I think that’s important, and I’m glad you went back and noted that. Look, Yale and other places have done a lot of studies. They don’t think it’s denial. They think it’s disbelief. I look at that, and I go, “Tomatoes, tom-ah-toes.” It’s just grief denial. […] Denial, she certainly never meant—and if anyone reads the books, they see this—she never meant there’s an actual denial of death. She meant that, “I can’t believe this. I can’t believe this is happening.”
TS: Now I wanted to start with this conversation in a foundational kind of way, because what I really want to go deeply into is your book on finding meaning, the subtitle of which is The Sixth Stage of Grief. Tell me how you came to see that meaning was something that we needed to address directly, head-on, beyond the five stages that the media had been holding up as important to the grieving process.
DK: Sure. So, to connect the dots on that, acceptance, over the years, had a finality to it that Elisabeth and I never intended. There’s no end to grieving. When people say to me, “How long will my wife grieve, my spouse, my partner, my parent, my sibling?”—whoever it may be—when they say, “How long will they grieve?” I always say, “How long will the person be dead?” Because if they’re going to be dead for a long time, you’re going to grieve for a long time, hopefully not always with pain, but more with love. So, this idea of acceptance as the end of grief is nothing we ever believed.
I was so curious about meaning and obviously had studied Viktor Frankl’s work. I love that idea of “How do you find the light in the darkness?” It’s fascinating to me. When many times bereaved parents would hear about meaning, they would say, “Yeah, but Viktor Frankl lived, and my child died.” So, I was curious about, how do we put meaning and grief together? I wrote a couple of chapters about it, and as you know, sometimes when you write, you put things aside. You wrote them. You’ll look at them later and see what you think. So, I wrote these chapters. Then, at a certain point, I got a call five years ago out of the blue that my younger son, David, had died. The pain was so intense, I wanted to write a note to every parent I had ever counseled saying, “I’m sorry. I didn’t realize how bad the pain was.”
I canceled all my lectures, everything, and I came home, and I had to do all the things I had told people to do. I wondered if everything I had said would be true. Had I been giving the right advice all these years? I had to go to a counselor, a grief counselor. My grief needed dedicated time. I said my pain was big enough that no one person in my life could handle it. I needed to spread it around, and I needed a grief counselor. I also went to grief groups, and, literally, I had to walk in, took my contacts out, put glasses on, put my cap on, and I had to sit in a grief group with literally my books on a table four feet away. As much as I wanted to be the grief expert, I had to be the father that had buried a child.
One day, at this very desk I’m sitting at now, I literally was sitting at home, in pain, wondering what to do. I picked up these couple of chapters on meaning, and I looked at them, and I threw them down, and I went, “Yeah, like that’s going to help with this pain.” Then I went back about a week later, and I started reading them. It did not take away the pain, but it gave the pain a cushion, and I became curious. How does meaning relate to grief in a deeper way? I began talking to people who had children who died, spouses who died, about meaning, horrible tragedies. How did they find meaning? How did people find meaning after trauma and abuse and death in all these situations? I began hearing their stories, and I thought, “This is a book.”
I began writing it, and it was such a powerful experience. Also, I just couldn’t help but take a few moments and, in the beginning, also address some of the misconceptions about Kübler-Ross’s work, because I was curious. “Am I going to notice going through these stages? Do they still work?” Of course, there would be days, I’m like, “Yep, I’m in anger. Yep, I’m in bargaining. There I am.” But as I danced with acceptance, I couldn’t stop there. I needed more, and that was meaning. Someone said, “Well, that’s the sixth stage.” I was so shocked. The Kübler-Ross family has just been wonderful to me over the years. They gave me permission to add a sixth stage to her iconic stages. So, the book just—literally, when I finished it right here, I burst into tears, and my prayer was, “I hope it helps other people as much as it helped me.”
TS: Can you share with me a bit about your own journey of meaning-making with the loss of your 21-year-old son?
DK: Sure. There are a few things. Writing the book, for me, was about making meaning. One thing I always want to say to people upfront that I think is confusing, when you see the title Finding Meaning, people go, “I’m not there.” I go, “Oh, 95% of the book is about excavating the pain to find the meaning.” So it’s not “Here’s the meaning”; it’s how to get there through the pain. But one of the big things I had to learn in meaning-making was that it’s not about the death. There is no meaning in the horrible death or a cancer death or a pandemic death or however people die, or a murder or a tragedy or trauma. Meaning is in us. Meaning is what we do afterwards.
There are a number of things that were meaningful for me. One, my son, when he was in kindergarten, they gave out trophies to everyone. He got the trophy for the most likely to become a helper, and I toyed in his young life with whether it was medical school or nursing school, or he was becoming a paramedic. He never got to be that helper. I hope now with this book, he gets to help people throughout the world. That’s part of my meaning. This book is about the death of a child, but also the death of a parent, the death of a spouse, the death of a sibling, the death of our parents. It really helps people in all walks of life, even with trauma. I always say, all grief does not have trauma, but all trauma has grief. So part of the work itself is my meaning, and getting to talk to him today. Today he comes alive with you and this podcast. He gets to be with me. That’s meaningful. People think sometimes about meaning as, “I’m going to start a foundation, or maybe I have to write a book,” but it’s also small meaningful moments, like getting to name them. This is a meaningful moment you and I are having.
TS: Now I want to read, David, a quote from your book Finding Meaning, and then we can talk about it together. It’s a beautiful quote. You write: “People often think there’s no way to heal from severe loss. I believe that’s not true. You heal when you can remember those who have died with more love than pain, when you find a way to create meaning in your own life in a way that will honor theirs. It requires a decision and a desire to do this, but finding meaning is not extraordinary. It’s ordinary. It happens all the time, all over the world.”
There are two parts of this that I want to pull out and have you comment on. One is: “I believe that it’s not true. You can heal from severe loss. You heal when you can remember those who have died with more love than pain.” That was the first point I wanted to talk about. How can you help people make that shift? Right now they’re listening and they say, “Right now, I have more pain. The pain is bigger.”
DK: So, first of all, I often talk about the stories in our mind. People hear the word “healing,” and they sometimes think healing means forgetting, and it does not mean forgetting. Healing is when the loss, the trauma, the damage no longer controls you, and this idea that there is a small voice in us that sometimes whispers, “Life can continue.” Then there’s often a louder voice, sometimes our old wounds that go, “No, life is over. It’s done. You’re stuck, and you’re never getting out of this.” I always say, whether we talk about it as our ego or our old wounds, it always speaks loudest, and it speaks first.
I remember maybe a month or two after my son had died, a friend, Dianne Gray, called me, and she said, “I know you’re drowning, and you will be drowning for a long time. At some point, you will hit bottom. When you hit bottom, you will have a decision to make. Do you stay there, or do you swim again?” I think we all have that decision. Most of us do it unconsciously. Do we live again after loss? Is there life after loss? Is there life after trauma? Sometimes when I would work with people, I would ask if I could put my hand on their wrist. I would feel their pulse, and I would go, “Your life is continuing, whether you think so or not. Do you want to just be alive, or do you want to really live, and live a life that doesn’t dishonor our loved one, but actually honors them?”
My life, every day, honors my son. It keeps him alive. Someone wrote to me, and you can understand this. You actually talked about this. We chatted beforehand. After I started lecturing again, I was doing in-person lectures, and there was a brochure that went out. A number of people wrote in and said, “David’s smiling in his picture. First of all, he’s a grief expert, and second of all, I happen to know his son died. He should not be smiling in a picture.” I thought about that, and I thought, first of all, number one, do we want our grief experts to look like they’re at the end themselves and they can’t find their own smile? Two, I always tell people, “What you think about my grief is none of your business. My son loved my smile. My son would want me to smile. What you think of my smile is just none of your business.” So we have to get rid of these old images of living again as disloyal. It’s not true.
TS: Now just to clue our listeners in so you’re not left out, before our conversation, I commented to David that I thought he had a beautiful smile. He was like, “Oh, when I was young, I was actually teased about that.” I said, “Oh, I’m commenting because I’m trying to develop and let bloom a natural smile in me that’s not fake at all.” So, I’ve been looking at smiles that I love that seem really heart-connected. So that’s it. I love your comment.
DK: I want you to know, as I look at you, Tami, there’s a sweet smile in this moment.
TS: Oh, good. That’s wonderful.
DK: It’s a very heart-connected one, so—
TS: That’s good.
DK: —you’ve achieved that.
TS: But the thing I want to underscore in the quote, and you brought it out too, was this word “decision,” this decision to live and participate in life and how this requires us to step into it, to say yes to this decision. It was a very, very powerful part of your book Find Meaning for me, because I thought to myself, “Gosh, a lot of us, even if we aren’t in the midst of something we would identify as a grief journey, are kind of not really deciding that we want to be alive.” We’re like, “Yes, I guess, this is happening; this life thing’s kind of happening,” but we’re not deciding to live. So I want to understand more about that and this decision, how you made this decision, how you help other people who find themself in that sort of vague place of “I don’t know, maybe? Do I have to?”
DK: Horrible things happen to us in our life. People have suffered severe abuse, rape, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, physical abuse, death, loss, tragedy. We often don’t know how to find our way out of the darkness. I think that decision—sometimes it looks like “I don’t know how to live again, but I’m willing.” It also requires a bit of taking back our power, that I don’t want this perpetrator or this person who created this trauma to have power over me. So, I want to make a decision to find life beyond that. It does start with that decision. Once you make the decision, everything unlike it will come up in its path, and you’ll have to wrestle with that. A lot of times, what happens is our old wounds come up. We feel like there’s no way to live again, and I think that’s why it’s so important we talk about meaning and we have voices. I hope I’m one of those voices that says, “No matter what you’ve been through, I’m not diminishing it any way.” This loss is brutal. The death of my son, the trauma people go through is brutal. There’s no negating or pouring pink paint on it, but there is a life beyond it that we deserve to find.
Just to unpack that a little bit more, there was a time in our society where you wore black for a year when someone died. There was a distinctive moment that you could choose to continue wearing black at a year, but women would talk about taking the widow’s weeds off, that there was a moment that you were told, “You have done your year.” It doesn’t mean the grief is over, but you have permission to live again. There is no moment in our society now that we say that grief will always be there, because the grief is the love. But you do have permission to live again. I think that’s a little bit of what that decision is about, giving ourselves permission to live after loss and trauma.
TS: Now you mentioned that you found it very meaningful—it made a lot of meaning for you—to write the book on the sixth stage of grief. You were able to share your experience of David’s death. You also talk about how writing, and whether it’s writing or just telling stories, is a powerful part of meaning making. You write, “Meaning both begins and ends with the stories that we tell.” I’m wondering now for that person who’s telling a story. They’ve been telling the same story over and over. It’s not necessarily generating a whole lot of meaning for them, the way they’re telling the story. In fact, they’re just telling the story. They’ve heard it over and over, and it just hurts. How can they reframe their story so that it’s a meaning generating story?
DK: That’s complex—you’ve said a lot in that question. So, first of all, we have to tell our stories. Our stories are important, and we are our stories. They’re the essence of us. We want people to know our loved one’s life mattered. What happened to us mattered. This death mattered. So we need to tell our stories. We have a society that’s very grief illiterate that often says, “Don’t tell your stories. We heard it. Be quiet now.” We often don’t have enough permission to tell our stories.
Now, as you also said, it’s interesting—there can come a time that we get stuck in our story. Here’s the thing about grief. Grief must be witnessed. We need our grief witnessed. We’re not meant to be islands of grief. We need others to witness our grief. I have an online group that I do, and in the online group, we have check-in Monday. One of the things that’s interesting that I have people do is we have to learn to actually be in this moment. We all know, “Oh, be in the now, be in the moment.” It sounds great, but we actually don’t know how to do it. We say to one another, “How are you today?” We actually have to find our feelings. What happens is, when you say to people in grief, “How are you today?” They’ll go, “Oh, my gosh, I keep going over again, five years ago, my son died.” We immediately go into the past and the story, and we don’t know how to find ourselves in this moment.
Now the reason why that’s so important is, as you mentioned, some of us get stuck in the story, and we’re repeating it constantly. It becomes this ruminating thought. We think we actually need the story and the details witnessed. We actually don’t need that the phone rang at 4:00 pm witnessed. We need the feelings in the story witnessed. That’s why being in the now is so important for us to find those feelings in this moment and have the feelings of the story witnessed, as much as the details.
TS: That’s very helpful. Thank you for untangling that. Now you mentioned that our society is grief illiterate. I think that’s true, so I have a couple of questions about this. One is, what would a grief literate society look like in your view?
DK: We would talk about our loved ones. We would include them. We would not make them a downer to talk about. They would remain alive. I mentioned the idea of grief must be witnessed when I was touring Australia a couple of years ago. There was a researcher who told me how she researches these small villages, and they said, “The night someone dies in this village, everyone in their home has to move something or, in their yard move something.” The researcher said, “Why the night of the death do you have to move something?” They said, “Because the next day, when the family wakes up, we want them to understand, now that their loved one has died, everything has changed.” In our society, your loved one has died, and we tried it like, “Yep, you’ve got three days. What else is new?” It isn’t that easy […].
In the book, I ended up researching buffaloes. I never thought I would research buffaloes in my life. Buffaloes, when they sense a storm coming, they run into the storm, minimizing the time they’re in the discomfort. On the other hand, we want to keep the pain of grief a mile behind us our whole life, instead of engaging with it. A grief-literate society would engage. There’s this idea of what we avoid pursues us; what we face transforms us.
TS: In describing a grief-literate society—we would talk about our loved ones—you said, “They would remain alive.” I thought, “Now that’s really interesting.” What does that mean?
DK: I try to do it. Listen, I just went to my goddaughters wedding, Marianne Williamson’s daughter’s wedding. I was to give a toast, and it was very important to me that David be there. I’m at a wedding, so I don’t want to go into my grief in a wedding. It’s a happy moment. But my older son who lives in Arizona was actually unable to make it. So, I did, in my toast, start with, “I know both my sons would physically want to be here today, but they’re unable to, but I bring them here both in spirit.” It was a way for everyone at the wedding to know, who knew that my son had died, that I was bringing him. Other people just thought, “David’s two sons couldn’t make it.” But I brought him there. I brought him. I don’t leave the dead behind.
A lot of times when I do trauma work with people, so many times we try to get the person out of the traumatic moment, and we leave our loved ones in the trauma. I’m like, “No, you’ve got to go back and get your loved ones out of the trauma too.” When we get our loved ones out of the trauma and out of the death, then they can move forward with us in life.
TS: There’s a lot more about that particular topic that I want to circle back to in a moment, but I want to ask you one more question about grief illiteracy and grief literacy by contrast. I notice I feel somewhat grief illiterate when I’m encountering someone or calling someone on the phone or writing someone a note who’s suffered a serious loss. I could say, “I’m so sorry for your loss.” I remember, though, when a being close to me—it happened to be a four-legged being—died, a 17-year-old deep best friend, I got probably about 100 cards that all said, “I’m so sorry for your loss.” By the time I got the 99th card, I just tore it up. I was like, “Everyone’s sorry for my loss. They all took the same Hallmark line and sent me a card. None of it was penetrating.” Even though part of me appreciated that they wrote, another part of me was [upset].
So, help people like me who aren’t quite sure. I want to say something helpful, benevolent. I want to reach this person’s heart. I don’t know what they’re going through right now. It’s beyond my capacity potentially to know. How can I be literate in the face of someone’s loss?
DK: First, I have to start with your four-legged being. Tell me your four-legged being’s name.
DK: Jasmine—because I always want to name the loss. It’s easy for us to talk about, “I had this loss or that loss,” but it’s Jasmine. When I think about pet loss, I always say, “If the love is real, the grief is real.” As we look at that idea of what to say […], it’s so sad to me when you look on people’s Facebooks after they’ve had a loss or their Instagram. You see, “So sorry for your loss. Thoughts and prayers.” I get that same feeling you had, like, “Thoughts and prayers, thoughts and prayers.” It’s like, enough with the thoughts and prayers. Anyone going to pick up the phone and call them? I think it is a little bit more of taking action, and I think it’s OK to say, “I don’t know what the right words are, but I’m here. Can I stop by? Can we have coffee? I’m going to be in your neighborhood. I’m dropping something by.” I think we’ve gotten lost in the words are enough, and I think we need to find more action. A grief literate society, to me, would have less words, and more action. It would be showing up and being with that person or walking with them.
TS: Now you’re an expert at this, being with people when they’re really grieving. For those of us who aren’t experts and, in fact, feel more like we’re approaching this at the beginner level, what are the capacities or the inner posture, attitude we need to cultivate so that we can take that action? We’re like, “I can do it. I can go have coffee and hold space for this person”
DK: The first thing to normalize is it’s OK that you don’t know. My website’s Grief.com, and the most visited page on it is “The Best and the Worst Things to Say to People in Grief,” because we don’t know. We make the mistake of thinking, “Oh, if I don’t know the right words, I should say nothing,” and that is a mistake. The second piece you want to know is that the person is not broken, so release that feeling inside of you that it’s your job to fix them or make them feel better. Your job is to show up and sit with them in the pain, and that might be really hard for you. Now, I teach people in grief, “Look, there is your friend that always went deep with you in your conversations, and there’s your other friend that was your tennis friend or your bridge playing friend. Their gift was they played great bridge with you. Their gift was they played great tennis with you. Don’t expect the tennis player who you never had a meaningful talk with in your life to be the most meaningful person all of a sudden. Sometimes we have friends that their gift is activity. Sometimes we have friends that their gift is going deep with us. Don’t confuse the two.
If you are the tennis player, say to them, “Listen, I’m here. I love you. I don’t know when you’re ready to play tennis, but I’m ready and willing whenever you are. I’m stopping by to say hello,” and to just allow yourself maybe even to be in the awkwardness of you don’t know what to say. And make that be OK.
TS: Just before we move off this topic, what are the few things that are clearly in the “Don’t do this” column?
DK: We “bright side” people. The other person I was privileged to work with, a good friend of mine for decades, is Louise Hay. We wrote a book together, You Can Heal Your Heart. Louise was the queen of positivity, but she was also clear on—we don’t want to have toxic positivity. You don’t want to bright side people. […] I always tell people, don’t start any sentences with the word “at least”: “At least they died quick. At least they’re not sick anymore, because you’re not witnessing the pain.” You’re telling people to skip around it.
It’s really to just be. It goes back to there’s no fixing. This is just a horrible situation. To say, “It’s a horrible situation. There are no words. I can’t fix this, and I love you, and I’m here with you.” Don’t try to find the good in it, because the person has to find their good and their meaning in their own time, but they’ve got to walk through the dark night first.
TS: I want to track back to our conversation about having an evolving relationship with the person who’s died, not leaving them behind in some way. This was so powerful to me, David, in your book, Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief, this notion that our relationship with the person who’s died can potentially keep evolving. I want to understand more about that, and to begin, address the person who says, “Look, so-and-so died. They’re dead. How could that relationship keep evolving? They’re gone.”
DK: Well, psychologically, there was even a blip when we thought there should be closure and an ending of the relationship with the person who died. Immediately, we saw that was not the case, that it was important to have what’s called continuing bonds, and that the relationship continues. I always say, “Don’t give death any more power than it already has. Death has the power to take our loved ones physically, but it doesn’t have the power to end our relationship, and it doesn’t have the power to end our love.”
There is a saying, “Grief is love with no place to go,” and I understand the saying. At the same time, I send my son love every day. I don’t quit loving him just because he’s dead. I still parent him in my heart. I still love my parents. I wonder what it would be like if I could talk to my mother in this moment or my nephew in this moment or my son in this moment. Sometimes I’ll have conversations with them. There are people listening for whom maybe the end did not come well. Maybe they had a tough time. Maybe both people were wounded and speaking from their wounds. I’ll often tell people, “Your loved one has died, and I bet that’s matured you and helped you evolve. Can you imagine that your loved one, if they spoke from their wound, wherever they’re at now, they’re evolving and maturing probably more than we are. So can we give them the grace to know that we’re both still changing and evolving and try to have more evolved conversations as we can?”
TS: Let me ask you a question about this. Let’s say someone says, “I’m having an ongoing relationship with this person who died, and I fear it’s all in my head. I’m making it up. I’m making up this evolving relationship. Maybe on Monday and Wednesdays I believe it’s actually happening, but the rest of the days of the week, I think it’s just a fiction inside my brain.
DK: I would say, what does it matter? What does it matter? Look, let me tell you, this kind of relates to what I think about the afterlife. To me, there’s three options for the afterlife. This is just my belief. Option one, our loved ones have gone to the afterlife, heaven, whatever you may believe. Option one, they know what’s going on with us. They know what I’m doing every day. My son, my parents are keeping up with me. That’s option one. If that’s true, I want them to see me grieving fully and eventually living fully.
Option two is, they died, and they’re in a place where they’ve got bigger fish to fry than what I’m doing. They’ve got interesting things in the cosmos that I can’t even begin to understand. They don’t have any idea what’s happening on Earth. In that case, I want to grieve fully and live fully. The third option is the atheist view. When you die, there’s nothingness. Your consciousness ends, and your story is over. If that option is true, then at some point my story will end, and my consciousness will end. So I want to make sure, while I’m here, I grieve fully and live fully.
So no matter which it is, it comes back to grieving fully, living fully. If that includes a relationship for me with my loved one that’s meaningful, it only has to be meaningful to me. Whether it’s meaningful to someone else is kind of irrelevant. I get meaning out of continuing a relationship with my son, with my parents. I don’t have any illusions. No one’s sitting in a chair next to me. No one’s in the kitchen cooking or picking me up at noon who’s dead. I have no illusions, but I have a heart connection that lives beyond death.
TS: Those three options, I like that. It’s all very logical and makes sense to me in an analytical way of looking at things. But it seems pretty clear, David, that you, in your own experience, and this is yours, believe that there is continuity after.
DK: I do.
TS: I’d be curious to know what gives you that confidence.
DK: Well, a couple of things. I did research years ago for my work in end-of-life care. I wrote a book about the research called Visions, Trips, and Crowded Rooms: Who and What You See Before You Die, and it was about deathbed visions that we have when we’re dying, how our loved ones come to greet us. The stories were just remarkable and consistent, despite your religion, despite where on this planet you were. It seems that there’s something that happens at the end of life. That veil comes down, and our loved ones greet us. It’s so powerful, and I just saw it. In the book, I made sure I interviewed—because I wanted it to stand up credibly—I interviewed doctors, nurses, paramedics, psychologists, priests, rabbis, ministers, that I wanted their experience of the dead coming back to greet the dying at the end of life. So that really gave me a sense that something happens. You know what? If decades in the future, long after I’m dead, my older son is on his deathbed, I’m going to come and greet him. It’s such an amazing phenomenon. That really gave me a grounded sense that something is there. Something is there.
TS: The notion [of] vision trips, crowded rooms—the crowded room part is that there are beings that have already passed over that are crowding the room to—
DK: [Yes, these] phenomena that people have is they have visions of their loved one coming to greet them, and they have a sense of they’re going on a journey, a trip. Even the word “hospice” comes from an old Latin word that means a way station where you rest before your final journey. People will have imagery of death is really the trip of a lifetime, and they’ll talk about crowds of people. They’ll say, “Who were all the people visiting last night?” We write it off as hallucinations, and in the book I tease out scientifically the difference between hallucinations and deathbed visions and how they’re very different experiences. Those really helped me.
I’ll tell you, my own father, when he was dying, was so sad and depressed and hopeless, and then maybe a day before he died, he shifted. I said, “Dad, what happened?” He said, “I realized I’m going to a place where your mother already is and that I’m going to see her again, and we’re going to see you again, even though we’re gone.” My father was the biggest skeptic in the world. There is something that happened. He said, “She came to me.” It’s powerful.
TS: Now I want to just understand a bit more this statement you made that “let’s not give death more than it’s already taking from us. Death doesn’t need to be the end of our relationship with this being, this person.” To that listener who says, wow, I actually was living as if death had ended a huge part, at least, of the relationship. Maybe I kept the love in my heart, but I didn’t feel I was in relationship any longer with this person. What would you say? They’re like, “Oh, I want to see what kind of a relationship can we be in.” How would you help someone open to that and start discovering things about that?
DK: Well, I think the first thing is to realize the stories we have either as a society that we’ve believed in our own mind that “it’s over, it’s over”. I don’t think it’s over. It continues. To release the story in your mind that the relationship did have to end, to release that story and just be like, “Look, I don’t know what that looks like.” I’m not someone who gets a million signs from my son. I’m not someone who—I don’t feel like I’m seeing things all the time or visions or whatever. But do I have a sense in my heart that our relationship continues, and my love continues? Absolutely. I remind people, we don’t have a broken mind; we have a broken heart. If we can come from our heart and let the love continue—when people say, “I miss them,” I’ll say, “Miss them then.” “I love them.” “Love them then. Continue.”
TS: How has your relationship with your mom—you mentioned that she died when you were just 13. How has that evolved over time? How would you describe your relationship with your mom now?
DK: Well, there were times I would go, when my son was alive, “Wow, mom, you never got to meet my kids. I wonder what kind of grandmother you would be.” Then sometimes I imagine, “Oh, she would be like this, and she would think this.” I’m not hearing her voice talk to me. I’m not saying that, although people do feel like they get a sense sometimes of a loved one saying something to them.
Then when my son died, I’m like, “Well, mom, you physically are meeting him now. You physically are together. Mom, I hope you were there to meet him and take him in and make sure he’s OK.”
TS: Have you felt any ongoing relationship with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and your work in publishing now the sixth stage of grief.
DK: I have dreams about her, and I don’t know when we have these dreams if it’s just a dream or it’s them visiting. I mean, I think nighttime is a time that our beliefs go down, and we’re more open to connections. She certainly lives in my dreams, and I certainly feel her in my work. Sometimes I get voices of Elisabeth saying, “Oh, ask them about this,” or, “Tell them about that.”
TS: Now you write in Finding Meaning something that I found very beautiful. You write, “We often believe that our grief will grow smaller in time. It doesn’t. We must grow bigger.” I thought that was gorgeous. I do think people are like, “I just—ah, my grief will grow smaller in time.” Tell me instead what it means to grow bigger.
DK: I think that the grief is the love, so I don’t want it to get smaller. I don’t want to get rid of it. It’s part of who I am, and I want to accept all the parts of me, the good, the bad, the ugly. I want to accept all of the parts of me. So my goal is to grow around the grief, and the story that I told in the book was, when I was in Germany lecturing, I went to Hamburg. I had been to all these European cities, and they’re all so old and gorgeous. I live in Los Angeles where an old building here is 1949. Then you go to a place like Germany and Europe, and you see buildings from hundreds and hundreds of years ago. I get to Hamburg, and it’s this brand-new city. I was a little illiterate in my history, and I said, “Why is Hamburg so new?” They said, “Oh, it’s because the Americans and the British bombed us in World War II.” They said, “You need to go to St. Nikolai.” So I went to St. Nikolai, which is this beautiful church in the center of Hamburg, Germany. This whole city has been so gorgeously rebuilt, and here sits this church, completely bombed. It’s never been rebuilt. It stands there ruined. But there’s something about it being there in the heart of this new city. It really makes me think how our transformation is in the ruins.
The death of my son is a little bit like that church, that there is a part of my heart that will forever be devastated and in ruins around his death. It doesn’t mean, just like that city, I can’t grow a huge, full life around that wound, and to transform it from my traumatic wound to my cherished wound. I think we all have the ability to do that.
TS: Very, very beautiful statement, to transform it from our traumatic wound to our cherished wound. I’ve been speaking with David Kessler, a beautiful human, beautiful writer. He’s the author of the book Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief. You mentioned your sons in the book as a helper, that this book will be a healing agent, a helping agent for people, and that is definitely happening. It’s on, David. Thank you so much. Thanks for the conversation.
DK: Thank you. I really appreciate it. Thanks so much.
TS: Thank you for listening to Insights at the Edge. You can read a full transcript of today’s interview at SoundsTrue.com/podcast. If you’re interested, hit the Subscribe button in your podcast app. Also, if you feel inspired, head to iTunes and leave Insights at the Edge a review. I love getting your feedback, being in connection with you, and learning how we can continue to evolve and improve our program. Working together, I believe, we can create a kinder and wiser world. SoundsTrue.com: waking up the world.