- While losses can occur at any time of life, part of the challenge of aging is to cope with multiple losses at once.
- Finding meaning in a loved one's death allows us to transform grief into something else, something rich and fulfilling.
- Research has found that those who sought meaning and expressed their grief through writing had fewer physical illnesses and better mental health.
When my cousin Frank died recently, it came as a shock even though the death was expected. He was the first of our cousins’ group to die. I said to myself, “It’s the beginning of a long winter of loss.”
As a women in my 70s, I’ve realized that learning to cope with grief and loss is an essential skill. While losses can occur at any time of life, part of the challenge of aging is to cope with multiple losses at once. I could foresee that my cousin’s death might be the first of many losses to come—deaths of relatives or friends, declining health, and, of course, one’s own death. I wondered: How could an older person—or anyone facing a loss in the near future—cope best with an inevitable landslide of emotional, mental, and physical blows?
As I scanned the books in my study for help, my eyes happened to light on a volume I’d bought some time earlier and never opened: Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief by David Kessler. By the title alone, I knew instantly that I’d found what I was looking for.
David Kessler was a collaborator with Elisabeth Kubler-Ross (1926-2004), famous for describing five stages of grief in those who are dying, coping with another’s death, or, eventually, coping with any loss. Those "stages" are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, but they don't necessarily proceed in an orderly sequence.
Kessler currently conducts grief workshops, provides counseling to survivors of disasters, and teaches first responders and health care providers about the grief process, among many other projects.
Of the stages of grief, Kessler wrote:
Over the years I came to realize that there’s a crucial sixth stage to the healing process: meaning…if we allow ourselves to move fully into this crucial and profound sixth stage—meaning—it will allow us to transform grief into something else, something rich and fulfilling.2
Though I’ve written many times about the value of having a purpose in life (here and here, for example), Kessler made several critical points that were new to me about how the search for meaning can transform pain into purpose.
Here are a few of his many helpful insights:
- Take your time. Allow yourself to “fully experienc(e) all the stages of grief, which means feeling the depths of pain and taking the time to live there for a while.” Accept your feelings of sadness, anger, and depression, as well as other difficult feelings that might be there.
- Make the decision to heal. The healing process doesn’t just happen. We have to be intentional about it. The idea of making a vow to “create a life worth living” despite grief and loss can keep us moving forward.
- You don’t have to be an optimist about what happened, but you can be an optimist about your future. The loss you’ve suffered is real and cannot be minimized. But in making meaning from that loss, you can figure out how to transform your own life. In time, you can not only survive but thrive after a loss even though the grief will never disappear.
- Realize that no person can avoid the pain and losses of life. A question that Kessler poses in his grief workshops is: “Why did I think I was going to get through this life without sorrow, pain, or grief?... That’s the deal in this life, the good and the bad. No one gets just the good.” I find that normalizing life's “sorrow, pain, and grief” is strangely comforting.
- There are an infinite number of ways to create meaning after a loss. Kessler’s book is filled with inspiring stories of people who found purpose after loss. While it’s tempting to focus on those who did big things, like creating foundations and organizations in honor of loved ones, Kessler emphasized that small ways of creating purpose can be just as meaningful to those who are grieving.
Some examples of meaning-making, both large and small:
- Writing or telling stories about a loved one. Kessler cited the work of James Pennebaker and his associates, who researched the value of writing about traumatic experiences. Those who expressed their grief through writing had fewer physical illnesses and better mental health.
- Honoring a loved one’s struggles by starting an organization or foundation to make life better for others with the same challenges. Example: Candy Lightner founded Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) after losing her daughter in a drunk-driving incident.
- Donating to your loved one’s favorite charity or volunteering. Not everyone has the financial resources to start a foundation, but anyone can donate a small amount to a charity as a tribute. As for volunteering, I was particularly moved by the story of a bereaved father in Mumbai who decided to fill potholes in the local roads to prevent accidents like the one that killed his son.
- Create personal rituals to remind yourself of your loved one. Did your loved one enjoy ice cream? Have some on his birthday. Did she enjoy a certain TV show? Watch it and connect.
- Connect with loved ones that remain. Tell them you love them, early and often.
6. Be open-minded about what others find meaningful. If someone believes in Eternal Life, great. If they don’t, that’s fine, too. Now is not the time to judge yourself or others for a valued belief.
7. Even in your grief, allow yourself to "take in the good" by appreciating the beauty of nature, of other people, and of your life. The quote that most exemplifies this insight for me is from therapist Mary Pipher: “As we walk out of a friend’s funeral, we can smell wood smoke in the air and taste snowflakes on our tongues.” Or, as Kessler summed it up, “Grieve fully, then live fully.”
Can we use these insights to prepare for losses and recover from them? I believe we can. If we become determined to live a life of purpose now, we will acquire the health, happiness, and resilience that enables us to bounce back from losses and crises.
From a winter of loss, we can plant seeds for a spring of hope.
(c) Meg Selig, 2022.
Kessler, D. Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief (2019). New York: Scribner.
Selig, M. Silver Sparks: Thoughts on Growing Older, Wiser, and Happier (2020). St. Louis: JetLaunch.
Pipher, M. "The Joy of Being a Woman in Her 70s." New York Times, 1.12.2019.