During the COVID-19 pandemic, a lot of people have been feeling out of sorts: angry, sad, frustrated, and just plain bummed out. Part of the reason for these feelings is obvious, and part has been hard to articulate and understand.
That’s probably why a recent interview the Harvard Business Review did with David Kessler went viral when it named the issue point blank. Kessler said what we’re all experiencing is grief. He’s an expert on the subject who worked with Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, creator of the famous five stages of grief, and also added his own sixth stage to the roadmap to loss.
That interview resonated so much with me and others, that I thought it would be useful to bring Kessler on the show to talk through his perspective in a short, special episode of the AoM podcast. Kessler walks us through how the five stages of grief explain how we’re often feeling these days during the pandemic, and how we can also work through the sixth stage of grief, in order to find meaning in a dark time.
If reading this in an email, click the title of the post to listen to the show.
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- On Death and Dying by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross
- On Grief and Grieving
- Finding Meaning
- That Discomfort You’re Feeling is Grief’
- The Rationality of Emotions
- 4 Myths About Men and Emotion
- 104-year-old recovers from COVID-19
- Man’s Search for Meaning
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another the edition of The Art of Manliness Podcast. During the COVID-19 pandemic, a lot of people have been feeling out of sorts. Angry, sad, frustrated, and just plain bummed out. Part of the reason for these feelings is obvious, part has been hard to articulate and understand. That’s probably why a recent interview the Harvard Business Review did with David Kessler went viral, when it named the issue point blank. Kessler said, “What we’re all experiencing is grief.” He’s an expert on the subject, who worked with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, creator of the famous “Five Stages of Grief,” and also added his own sixth stage, “The Roadmap to Loss.” That interview resonates so much with me and others, that I thought it’d be useful to bring Kessler on the show to talk through his perspective in a short special episode of the AOM Podcast. Kessler walks us through how the five stages of grief, explain how we’re often feeling these days during the pandemic, and how we can also work through the sixth stage of grief, in order to find meaning in a dark time. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at aom.is/grief.
David Kessler, welcome to the show.
David Kessler: Glad to be with you.
Brett McKay: So you are a grief counselor. You’re an expert in grief. In fact, you’ve worked with a lot of organizations, first responder agencies during disasters to help there with counseling. How did you get involved with grief counseling?
David Kessler: Well, it’s one of those careers that you don’t choose it, it kind of chooses you. I grew up with a mother who was in and out of hospitals, and when I was 13-years-old, she was dying in an ICU. At the same time, the hotel where we were at, one of the first mass shootings in the US happened. So I was literally at 13, having a mother die, and a mass shooting. So it really gave me a glimpse, more than a glimpse. It gave me an an overwhelming view of how we die poorly in this world, being isolated in an ICU, as she was back then, as well as tragedies that happen, such as that shooting. So that’s really what got me onto this career.
Brett McKay: And in your career, you had the opportunity to work with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, which she was the individual who really kick-started the hospice movement in America, and she also came up with that idea of the five stages of grief. How did you start working with her?
David Kessler: So Elisabeth had done “On Death and Dying,” in 1969, which was a ground-breaking book. I, like many people, I was in community college, and thought I would take a death and dying class, and studied her work. Then obviously, later on, it became my career, and I was fortunate to end up writing two books with her. “Life Lessons,” and then on “Grief and Grieving.” And we, and on “Grief and Grieving,” adapted her stages of dying to stages of grief. I always point out to people, literally on page one, we said to everyone, They’re not a map for grief. They don’t have to be sequential or linear. Your grief is as unique as your fingerprint,” just so people understood that. And the stages, for anyone who might not know them are, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
Brett McKay: So we often think of grief exclusively in terms of someone dying. But you make the case that while the grief we experience over the loss of a loved one is the worst, we also experience a grief with any kind of loss, whether it’s a divorce, a job loss, and this pandemic we’re going through as well. So how do the five phases of grief apply to our current crisis?
David Kessler: Denial. “I can’t believe this is happening. This cannot be happening. I just can’t believe it.” That’s what denial feels like. “I can’t believe, in our modern world, there’s a pandemic of a virus. And I have to stay home.” Anger, anger is, “I’m furious this is happening. I’m really angry this is happening. And why wasn’t more done, or why aren’t we doing more? Why aren’t people participating more? I’m angry about that.” Bargaining is the deal-making. “Okay, let me get this straight. If I have two weeks at home, then we can go back to a normal life, right, right? That’s the deal?” And then depression, sadness, “My gosh, I think that world we knew is gone. I think our normal world has just evaporated in front of our own eyes.” And then acceptance, “Alright, the reality is, this is happening. How can I get this together? What can I do? Where can I find some control?” and acceptance is really where our power lies. That’s where we can take action.
Brett McKay: What I think it’s so helpful about thinking about what we’re experiencing in terms of grief, is that it puts a name to things that people are feeling, but maybe haven’t been able to articulate for what it is.
David Kessler: So many people during this pandemic are going, “I don’t know why I burst into tears. I don’t know why I have such a heaviness. I don’t know why I’m so angry with an edge.” And I’m like, “It’s grief, you’re feeling grief. The world we know and loved has now disappeared.” The other thing that I think we experience in our modern world, and we’re one of the first generations. It’s a bit of a by-product of the self-help movement, is we’re the first generation that has feelings on feelings. We get angry, but we shouldn’t be angry. We’re sad, but there’s people who have it worse. We shouldn’t be sad. And I always tell people, “Stay in your first generation feelings. Allow yourself to organically feel whatever you feel, without judgment.” ‘Cause the truth is, if you just feel your feelings, they’ll pass through you in a few minutes. But, we’re suppressing all our feelings, and we end up with a world of half-felt feelings.
Brett McKay: You also make the point that you can experience a particular kind of grief, which comes not after a loss, but in anticipation of a loss. Tell us about how this anticipatory grief manifests in general, and how it applies to this pandemic too.
David Kessler: Sure, we all have healthy, anticipatory grief, we know that some day when we get older, our parents will be getting older too, and some day, we’ll have to deal with the loss of our parents. That’s sort of our healthy anticipatory grief, that we’re getting ready for that some day psychologically. And then the other time it happens is a loved one gets a diagnosis, and, of course, you go, “Oh my goodness, I could lose my love one. They could die from this.” And what happens in our new modern world, with the pandemic, is we have anticipatory grief, that our mind starts showing us images of, “Oh my goodness, my parents could die. My grandparents could die. I could die.” And we have this unhealthy, anticipatory grief, where our mind is showing us all the worst scenarios.
Brett McKay: And yeah, in this… I mean, particularly, when you experience anticipatory grief, at least in my own experience, I’ve noticed that you do a lot of bargainings like, “Well, if I do this, if I do this thing, then maybe this won’t happen.” So you start making deals with God, or just the universe.
David Kessler: Right. And some of those deals can sometimes come true. “If I physically distance myself, if I wash my hands all the time, if I take appropriate measures recommended there is a higher chance that I will be okay.” So it’s important we find some reality in the deal-making and there’s some… And this is a world that, unlike appliances, does not come with a guarantee.
Brett McKay: And the other thing with anticipatory grief, that you write about, is that oftentimes that anticipatory grief comes from the idea or maybe a dream we had. We know it’s not gonna happen, because that loved one loss. I think you have an example in your book, of you had a person you were working with where they moved their mother in next door. And she had this dream of her daughter going over to her mother’s house and just this close connection, and then a few months later, she gets a terminal diagnosis, and she started grieving at that moment.
David Kessler: Yes, we all have what we call the assumptive world. The assumptive world is our parents are gonna live to 95 years old, and they’re gonna die in their sleep holding each other’s hands. And we’re gonna have a wonderful life, with kids who don’t have problems, and our marriages will be great, and we’re all gonna live to 80-90 ourselves, and then we’ll die peacefully. And what happens is, death ends up interfering with those assumptions. We don’t live in a perfect world anymore. We don’t live… Death does ruin our illusions, our dreams.
Brett McKay: And with the pandemic, I’m sure there’s a lot of that going on. People had these plans, like college students. They graduated college. I’m gonna get a job, I’m gonna get married. Or someone… They just… They started a business, and now this has happened and now there’s just… They don’t know if it’s gonna happen, if they’re gonna be able make it. And so they’re experiencing that anticipatory grief of that assumptions or those dreams they had…
David Kessler: Correct.
Brett McKay: Disappearing.
David Kessler: Correct.
Brett McKay: Well, so for tamping down this anticipatory grief, you recommend concentrating on things you can control and trying to stay in the present. Anything else people can do to get a handle on their anticipatory grief?
David Kessler: Well, I think it’s so important, as we begin to witness our mind picture the worst scenarios, “Oh my gosh, my parents could die, my grandparents could die, I could die,” to also notice the best scenarios that can happen. You know, “My parents actually might not get this. My grandparents might get this, and it might be mild.” I just saw on the news 104-year-old is recovering from the virus. So, it’s important as fear takes root to say the worst scenarios can happen, but so can the best ones.
Brett McKay: So in your book, “Finding Meaning” you make this case that there’s another phase that we go through, and it’s meaning making. When did you start formulating this idea, that meaning making was part of the grieving process? And what do you mean by meaning making?
David Kessler: Well Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and I had often talked about, what’s after acceptance? And one of the things that bothered me and her in her lifetime, was that these were becoming five easy steps for grieving, and anyone who’s had a loved one die knows there’s no five easy steps for grieving, and grief is a very organic messy process. But acceptance was taking on a finality that Elisabeth and I never intended. And then I had written a few chapters on meaning and how meaning might work in grief. And three years ago, my younger son, David, died suddenly accidentally, and it was just brutal, as you could imagine. And… Or not imagine for that matter. And I just knew after his death, as I began to toy with the idea in the months following that, “I have to find some acceptance.” I realized, acceptance wasn’t enough, I wanted more, I wanted meaning. And I started interviewing people who had had a spouse die and a parent die and a sibling die, and began to learn how they were all finding meaning. And so one of the things that I realized is that meaning doesn’t take away the pain, but it becomes a cushion for us. So I ended up writing a book called, “Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief.”
I’m so honored the Elisabeth Kübler-Ross Foundation and family gave me permission to add a stage to her iconic stages. And the meaning that we find is not in the death. Someone dying a horrible death of cancer or death by suicide or death by addiction or death by the coronavirus those… There’s not meaning in the death. But there’s meaning that we can do afterwards to honor them.
Brett McKay: That idea that people are trying to find meaning in the death. I think a lot of times when people see someone grieving, in an effort to comfort, they’ll just say, “Well everything happens for a reason.” But I think a lot of people…
David Kessler: Yeah. And my response to that is, “Yeah, what’s your reason? I could use a good reason. What you got?”
Brett McKay: So that’s not what meaning making means. It means trying to fit this loss into a larger narrative of your life story.
David Kessler: Well, meaning is the light within the darkness. I did a lot of studying of Viktor Frankl, and I was just so fascinated by how he saw, in concentration camps, light in the darkness. How could they still appreciate a sunset or a loaf of bread, when people around them were dying? And so, when I looked at that, I thought about, “What does meaning look like in grief?” And what I found is meaning can be what we do after to honor their life, what we do to make sure they’re not forgotten. It’s the meaningful moments we create with one another. It is so many different senses of meaning that helps us in that. And I think one of the things that I was really writing about was post-traumatic growth. We all talk about post-traumatic stress, but I wanted to know about post-traumatic growth. And that’s what really interests me.
Brett McKay: And how do you think people can apply the meaning making stage of grief to this pandemic?
David Kessler: It’s by recognizing meaningful moments. For us to end up after this, with post-traumatic growth, instead of post-traumatic stress, is those meaningful moments. You and I are having a meaningful moment right now. I hope people who are listening will find this meaningful. I live on a street where I’ve seen something I’ve never seen before in 20 years of living here, the yards, front yards, are full of parents playing with their children, because their children’s can’t have play dates with other children. Those are meaningful moments. Face-timing with people, those are meaningful moments. So many of these moments can be so meaningful.
Brett McKay: I love that idea of trying to find opportunities. To me, it’s kind of defiant in a way. I’m still getting together with friends on Zoom, so we can just talk and chat and…
David Kessler: Absolutely, someone I know had like Sunday night dinner with their family and they had a picture of all of them on Zoom. I thought that was great.
Brett McKay: Yeah, there does seem to be plenty of silver linings, if you look for them. I’m seeing people walking around in my neighborhood, people I’ve never seen outside their homes before. As you said, parents are outside interacting with their kids. And it does seem to be this inflection point in our culture where people have slowed down. They’re stepped outside their normal go-go-go routines, and they’re finally thinking about what’s important and whether the way they normally do things is the way they want to continue to do things. Well, David, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about your work?
David Kessler: Grief.com. They can find the book, “Finding Meaning,” on Amazon and Barnes & Noble, and their local indie book store website, it’s available. And they just reduced the price of the hard cover, which is out now, so I’m glad they did that so everyone can access it. And I also put up a special page at sixthstage.com, so people can get a free online course about how to find meaning. So lots of resources and people can find me on Facebook and Instagram and Twitter and all those things. My handle is usually @IamDavidKessler, so I look forward to connecting with people on all those virtual ways, and, hopefully, some day in person again, when I can do lectures and retreats again.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, David Kessler, thanks for this time. It’s been a pleasure.
David Kessler: Thank you so much.
Brett McKay: My guest today was David Keeler, he’s the author of the book, “Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief.” It’s available on Amazon.com and book stores everywhere. You can find out more information about his work at his website grief.com. Also check out our show notes at aom.is/grief.
Well, that wraps up another addition of the AOM Podcast. Check out our website at artofmanliness.com, where you can find our podcast archives, as well as thousands of articles we’ve written over the years about pretty much anything. If you’d like to enjoy ad-free episodes of the AOM podcast, you can do so on Stitcher Premium. Head over to stitcherpremium.com, sign up, use code MANLINESS at checkout. You get a free month trial. Once you’re signed up, you can download the Stitcher app on Android or iOS, and start enjoying ad-free episodes of the AOM podcast. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate it if you take one minute to give us a review on Apple Podcast or Stitcher. It helps out a lot. And if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you think would get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay, reminding you to not only listen to the AOM podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.