When David Kessler stood before a Los Angeles audience recently to lead a grief workshop, he didn’t address them simply as an expert in the field for more than 30 years.
Kessler is also a survivor, and his own loss is still raw. His son, David, died three years ago of an accidental drug overdose at 21. The agony and paralysis that he felt — being a grief expert doesn’t exempt you from the pain — thawed eventually, and he’s helping other survivors again.
“I’m in awe of you,” he told the 75 attendees. “It takes so much courage to walk in here and talk about your pain. For me, helping is healing. It’s a selfish reason why I do these things.”
Helping others is one way to heal; that’s a message readers will find in Kessler’s new book, “Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief,” published this month by Scribner. The book contains many messages about the nature of grief and how society supports, or doesn’t, the basic human need to mourn.
“We live in a world that doesn’t want to allow you to experience grief,” he says on the phone a few days after the workshop. “We live in a society that wants you to just get over it and move on.”
“Finding Meaning” is Kessler’s poignant response to society’s insensitivity. Just about everyone has had some form of loss — a death, divorce, betrayal, end of a career — and though he never intended his book as a memoir, “Finding Meaning” draws much of its power from Kessler’s own despair after David’s death.
“It’s the deepest I’ve ever dug, the most personal, and the book is what it is now because of that loss,” he says, “but I would make it all disappear in a nanosecond to have David back.”
“Finding Meaning” is a how-to in the very best sense: We learn to replace clichés the next time we face a survivor and don’t know what to say. Every person grieves in his or her own way — some with dry eyes, some with floods of tears. Don’t hurry them through it, he advises. Instead, he writes, “there is no greater gift you can give someone in grief than to ask them about their loved one, and then truly listen.”
Kessler illuminates the nature of grief with compelling stories: from everyday people’s losses to the sorrow of Joe Biden, struggling after the death of his son, Beau, who had a brain tumor. His insights are often expressed with the simplicity and elegance one finds in poetry or a book of aphorisms. It doesn’t matter if you are mourning a parent or a pet, for example, “if the love is real, the grief is real.”
With an accessibility reminiscent of author and neurologist Oliver Sacks, Kessler writes of how our brains are wired for grief — how survivors often become trapped in guilt and relive their loved one’s final moments without remembering happier times too.
“Our hearts know how to grieve,” he says. “But our minds work against us. Wouldn’t it be great if we felt more love and compassion for ourselves in grief? Instead, our minds tell us ‘it’s all your fault’ and fill us full of regrets.”
That is why finding meaning in the healing process is so slow, uncertain and especially messy, which is what his friend, mentor and co-author, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, thought.
Together they wrote two books, “Life Lessons” and “On Grief and Grieving.” In the second book, they applied her well-known five stages of dying — denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance — to the grief process.
Kessler says he’s grateful to her family and the Kübler-Ross Foundation for permitting him to add a stage beyond acceptance in his new book. Accepting loss is essential, but what comes after? To live on after tragedy requires more than acceptance, and Kessler says he hopes the book will help correct the public’s long misunderstanding of Kübler-Ross’ stages. She never intended them as a simple, clear progression, he says.
“All these years later the public, the media especially, still misinterprets her five stages as a map, as a rigid linear rule to follow,” he says. “That would have appalled her, and it bothers me to no end. People will often complain to me, ‘you’re trying to fit our grief into five neat categories, five tidy boxes,’ but there is nothing about grief that’s tidy or neat. There was nothing about my son’s death that was tidy or neat.”
Much of “Finding Meaning” is told by Kessler as the seasoned expert, but this figure gives way to the personal account of a father trapped in his own tragedy. It is harrowing to read about this man, who has been our steady guide in the first 250 pages, on the floor of a Baltimore hotel room in the fetal position after learning his son is dead. Kessler was with his partner, Paul — the creator of grief yoga, which is incorporated into the workshops — to give a lecture when he received the news from his older son, Richard, and spent an agonizing night waiting for a flight home to Los Angeles.
Kessler’s descriptions of his vulnerability in the weeks after was necessary, he says.
“I thought people needed to know that I was just as authentic about my grief as I’m asking them to be about theirs,” he says.
In addition to a multi-city tour for “Finding Meaning,” Kessler says his lectures, workshops and the new book have become a way to honor David. The pain isn’t gone, but it is balanced more by love now. When he enters a workshop or lecture, he feels his son’s presence.
“This wasn’t what my life was supposed to look like, but I faced a decision that everyone faces in grief,” he says. “Is this just hideous, or can it be part of my son’s legacy and meaning that he comes with me to so many cities to help people?”
Owchar is executive director of advancement communications at Claremont Graduate University.