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How to move forward after loss

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  • We’re all grieving after a year of pandemic losses, says author David Kessler. But there are ways to deal with your grief.

It’s been a year of profound loss.

To process our grief—both big and small—we need to find meaning in what we lost, says author David Kessler.

Mr. Kessler has written six books about grief, including his latest, “Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief." He has counseled health workers and first-responders about handling trauma. During the pandemic, he has spoken to staffers at companies, including The Wall Street Journal, about coping with loss.

Mr. Kessler’s own life has been marked by grief. When he was 13, he witnessed a mass shooting at the hotel he was staying in—across the street from the hospital where his mother was dying. And in 2016, his 21-year-old son died suddenly.

Here are edited excerpts from my conversation with Mr. Kessler.

Are we all experiencing grief, even if we haven’t lost a loved one?

Mr. Kessler: Yes. Everyone has lost something this year: The world we knew, the rituals we used to have, the events that got postponed, a loved one who died. Often, people tell me they are “crying for no reason." They may not understand that the heaviness they are feeling, the sadness they woke up with, the irritability or anger they have is grief.

Do we all have PTSD?

When we talk about PTSD, we talk about post-traumatic stress. But we aren’t in the post part yet. We have traumatic stress. This is still going on. This is one of the biggest experiences in our lifetime. You don’t recognize the enormity of what you have been through until much later.

What is the sixth stage of grief?

Meaning. I think of meaning as what we create afterward.

We have the false idea that our work is to make grief smaller. Our work is to become bigger and grow around the grief.

Sometimes, when people hear me talk of meaning, they tell me there is no meaning in a murder or a child dying of cancer or a brain tumor or a pandemic. I say: “Correct. The meaning is in us and what we do after."

Meaning occurs in the small moments. Maybe you become a more generous person. Maybe you become a more determined person. Maybe you become a kinder person.

It can be finding a way to commemorate or honor your loved one.

How can we find meaning after loss?

Meaning is relative and personal. It takes time. You may not find it for months or even years after loss.

Meaning does not equal understanding. When you find meaning, it doesn’t mean you will understand why someone died. The example I give is the founder of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Her daughter was killed by a drunk driver. She has gone on to find great meaning and save thousands of lives. It doesn’t mean she will ever understand why her daughter died.

Even though you find meaning it is not worth the cost of losing someone. But in time, meaningful connections may replace painful memories. You will be able to focus on the meaning rather than the horrible aspects of a loved one dying.

Your loss is not a test, a lesson, something to handle, a gift or a blessing. Loss is what happens in life. Meaning is what we make happen after loss.

Is anger a part of grief?

Absolutely. Anger is pain’s bodyguard. People seem to lean into sadness or into anger. We all have our go-to emotions. But the person who is crying and the person who has anger have the same pain.

What is your advice for people who feel guilty because they haven’t lost a loved one this year but still feel bad?

Sometimes we’d rather feel guilty than helpless. Everyone suffered loss. We are all a part of the collective grief that is happening in the world. Just because you have been spared enormous loss doesn’t mean you have no grief.

If you are someone who has felt minimal loss, great. And if you are feeling guilty perhaps that is a voice knocking on your door to say, “Great, you lucked out, how is everyone around you doing?" Can you find some meaning by helping those who didn’t have a good year?

How can we best help someone else who is grieving?

The first thing we want to do is witness their grief. Listen to understand, not to respond. We need to sit with them. Say: “I don’t know what it is like to lose a loved one, especially during this time. But I am here for you."

We have the illusion that people might forget their loved one has died. We think that if they are not publicly crying, if they look fine, they are OK. We don’t want to ruin their good mood. The truth is no one forgets a loved one has died. We won’t ruin their mood by bringing it up. In fact, we help them by bringing it up and saying that we understand their grief still exists.

What about children?

With our kids, we so want to fix their lives. As a parent, I don’t want my child to be in pain. I don’t want them to have a horrible year in a pandemic. They say: “I am so sad I can’t have my playdate with Sue down the street." And we say: “Honey, you have to understand it’s a dangerous world and we can’t get together." Instead, we should say: “Oh honey, you must really be missing Sue right now." Or: “It must be really hard, Billy, that you aren’t on the baseball team." Kids need to have their feelings seen, just like we do.

Now that we can start to see an end to the pandemic down the road, will we start seeing public grieving rituals?

People have enormous pent-up grief they want to share. I am afraid that when things open up and people announce they are going to have funerals, others will say: “The person has been dead awhile; do we need to do that?" I say yes. Because their grief has not been witnessed. Their grief has been left alone in isolation. We need these rituals. A funeral is a marking of a life.

Does grief ever go away?

We have this expectation that you finish with grief at some point. You never finish with it. But that does not always mean pain. If we show up for our grief, in time we will grieve with more love than pain.

Showing up means not avoiding it, not pushing it away, not trying to bright-side it or find the silver linings. It goes back to taking the time to sit with it. In time the pain diminishes.

I think we have an unrealistic timeline of grief. I use the term “early grief." People think this would be the first week or month or year. I tell people my definition of early grief is the first two years.

How can we go forward?

People often say we have to move on. I prefer “move forward with it."

A few years after my son died, I was doing a lecture tour in Germany. I went to Hamburg. It was completely bombed in World War II. In the center of Hamburg, they have a church, St. Nikolai, which sits in ruins and was never repaired. It stands in the heart of this beautiful new city, completely devastated. I thought on that lecture tour about how to hold the loss of my son. And I thought of St. Nikolai. There is a part of my heart that will forever be devastated by his death. But it does not mean I cannot build an amazing city around it.

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text.

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