David Kessler, Author of “Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief” talks with Christy McDonald about understanding and identifying feelings of grief during the Covid-19 stay-at-home orders.


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Christy McDonald Joining me now is well-known author and lecturer on grief and death, David Kessler. He co-authored with Elizabeth Kübler-Ross “On Grief and Grieving.” He’s helped thousands of people face death, dying, grief, working in hospital systems on the Red Cross disaster team. His latest book is “Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief.” David, thanks for joining me. It’s good to see you.

David Kessler, Author, “Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief” Good to be with everyone.

Christy McDonald You know, at this time, where I think we’re all trying to label I think what we’re feeling, whether it’s anxiety, whether it’s sadness. Is it grief that we’re feeling?

David Kessler It is. So many people have shared that they’re just sad at night or they woke up with this heavy feeling. And I think it’s important we name it as grief. You know, we think of grief as when someone dies and that certainly is the worst grief we have. And yet, at the same time, canceling a wedding, your kids not being able to have their play dates and this sort of the world we knew a month ago is gone forever. And we’re grieving a lot.

Christy McDonald As a society, though, are we comfortable with the word grief? It doesn’t seem like we are though sometimes.

David Kessler Not at all. And it’s important we label it because if we don’t, we’re just pushing these feelings down. I’m not going to feel sad because no one died in my life. I’m not going to be angry because I have enough food and we end up being this culture of half-felt emotions.

Christy McDonald That almost seems like a shame, like grief, shame. Like I said, my feelings aren’t valuable enough to feel them.

David Kessler Correct. We go, oh, you know, we try to tell our kids, you know, this is a virus don’t be sad that you have to do this and not understanding they’re sad. They’re sad. You know, people always ask me, which is the worst grief? Is it a death? Is it a divorce? Well, you know, what’s this collective grief for feeling? I say the worst grief is always your grief. Big or small. Whatever yours is, is the worst grief for your kids. They can’t have a play date. That’s their worst grief.

Christy McDonald  So how do we I guess because we’re always trying to make people feel better. We’re trying to make sure our kids are happy or if they’re sad, cheering them up or how do we make this situation better or you read on social media, oh you guys have got this. Just keep up the positivity. What do we do to step back and give ourselves that grace of saying it is okay to feel this?

David Kessler I think if we just feel those feelings, if your kids are sad, they don’t have play date, you go, of course you are. It is so sad. The world is sad now. And you’ll notice once we allow whether it’s the sadness or anger, we’ll feel it. We’ll have that feeling for a few moments and then it will move through us. So just allowing it. Naming it changes everything.

Christy McDonald Do we get a little impatient? Do we want a time limit on it? Do you want to say, David, tell me that this is going to be–tell me my grief will be better in two weeks. And the benchmark of 1 month. There is no limit on grieving. But I think sometimes we search for it.

David Kessler Absolutely. And whether a loved one dies, you’re going to miss them for the rest of your life. I always say the goal is to grieve with more love than pain. And we’re gonna miss this world we knew. You know, the world is gonna be different in the future. And so, we’re going to have moments of the nostalgia and sadness. That’s going gonna be part of our life from now on.

Christy McDonald Here in Detroit we’ve had a staggering number of deaths. And I’ve heard from so many friends that say I go through my Facebook feed and it’s like an obituary page. And it becomes overwhelming. And being able to grieve as a community physically in the same space together is so important. And we don’t have that right now. What would your, I guess, what would your advice be or talk to us a little bit about how people can handle the fact of not being able to be physically together to grieve someone who is gone.

David Kessler That’s what’s so extraordinary about this. We’ve dealt with 9/11. We’ve dealt with the AIDS crisis, Vietnam War. We were always able to gather, to bury our dead, to have a funeral. In this, we’re not. In grief in a normal world is isolating. And now people are isolated in their isolation. One of the things that we’ve done is we’ve set up an online daily grief group that people can join. You can find information at grief.com, because we want to make sure that no one is sitting at home in grief. Now, if you have a friend who’s in grief alone, you may not be able to go over and bring them a casserole like you normally would, but you need to FaceTime them. It needs more than a text. You need to call them. You need to FaceTime them. You need to Skype them or Zoom them and really connect with them. You know, grief is not a time to be alone.

Christy McDonald  Sometimes people describe waves of grief, that things come over to you at certain times, and I think when I talk to people about living in the circumstance, we are. You take it hour by hour or even a half hour at a time. What would your suggestions be to people who feel these waves of uneasiness of grief on a daily basis? What can we do with that? Where can we take ourselves and mentally? How can we help ourselves move through it?

David Kessler Well, feelings need, Moesha. You know, our emotions need motion. Safely take a walk when you’re feeling these things. Talk to someone about it. We have to acknowledge them and they will move through us. So you can’t heal what you don’t feel. So we do have to feel these things.

Christy McDonald How do you think this pandemic will change the way we think about grief, will change the way we validate the feelings that we have and even talking about mental health moving forward, because I feel that we’ve been forever changed by this. And maybe as a society, we’re not totally equipped to say, all right, well, let’s talk about this. It’s just like, Okay, we’re fine. Let’s just keep moving forward.

David Kessler And that’s so important, because every tragedy like this epidemic, pandemic, war, whatever it may be, we come out of it with some people having post-traumatic stress. Some people come out of it fine. My goal is to help us come out with as much post-traumatic growth as possible. And while it’s important we name the feelings of grief, we also need to name the feelings as we find meaning, because meaning is what helps us get closer to that post-traumatic growth. There’s meaningful moments occurring. I studied Viktor Frankl’s work I was so curious about how do you appreciate a sunset in a concentration camp? How do you find the light in the darkness? And even now I live on a block with 30 homes. I didn’t know any of my neighbors. We’re now on a text chain. Someone is going to the grocery store. The guy at the end, the elderly man. What can we get him? Parents are in front of their house playing with their kids like they’re having a playdate with their own kids. Those are meaningful moments. You and I, are having a meaningful moment. Now, if we named these meaningful moments, that will help us grow through this and not just go through this.

Christy McDonald Is it as simplistic as saying appreciating more of the little things or appreciating the things that are directly in front of you?

David Kessler Or at least naming them as meaningful. I had a phone call the other day with someone across the country who I like only have a minute to text with usually. We had a 20-minute conversation. I realized, Oh, I can FaceTime this person at any time. I should be connecting. One of the things that’s becoming meaningful is we’re learning how to do this or, you know, our technology is raising and that’s becoming meaningful. We’re becoming a world.

Christy McDonald I think what’s interesting, too, is that you’re saying it’s OK, it’s okay to feel this way, and for a lot of people they’ve felt that they haven’t had the grace to be like, yeah, it’s okay. It’s okay to feel this way. So people are finding you, grief.com and also David you said on Facebook. What are some people sharing?

David Kessler, Author Well, we have people who have been struggling with older losses, but we have a lot of people who were in the group with COVID-19 and or their loved one just died from COVID-19. And they have nowhere to go, no one to talk to. They’re isolated. So, we have a place for them. Even some of the people who have been in grief for a while are helping the new people. So, whatever your loss is, everyone’s welcome there because grief must be witnessed.

Christy McDonald David Kessler, thank you so much for joining me. A great conversation to have that’s really important at this time and I so appreciate it.

David Kessler Thank you.