Grief Expert: “We Are Grieving the World We Have Now Lost”

Grief is a natural part of the human condition. Amidst the pandemic, many people worldwide are united in their sadness. David Kessler, author of “Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief,” is one of the world’s foremost experts on loss and healing. He tells Michel Martin about how we can share our pain across these new boundaries.

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CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: Grief, as we know, is a natural part of the human condition, and around the world today, people are united in their sadness, as family members and friends die of coronavirus, sometimes alone in isolation or ICU. David Kessler is one of the world’s foremost experts on loss and healing. He’s author of “Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief.” And he tells our Michel Martin how we can share our pain across these new boundaries and what he learned from the loss of his own mother and son.

MICHEL MARTIN: Mr. Kessler, thank you so much for joining us.


MARTIN: I keep hearing anecdotally, and I’m pretty sure if there’s research on this, it would be borne out, but a lot of people are just feeling something right now. And you say that what we’re feeling, beyond the discomfort, beyond the inconvenience, you say what we’re feeling is grief. Talk more about that. Why grief?

KESSLER: It’s interesting. What I’m hearing from people is, I woke up with this heavy sadness, or I was going to bed with this heavy sadness, or I just feel this heaviness. And, really, when I hear what they’re saying, they’re describing grief. We are grieving the world we have now lost. Our normal life, our routines, seeing people, our work, everything has changed.

MARTIN: I take it that a lot of people are uncomfortable with that. They’re uncomfortable with the fact that they feel so disoriented. Do you agree with me? And, if so, why would that be so? Why would we be so impatient with ourselves that we’re feeling this?

KESSLER: Well, we’re a society that always wants quick fixes. So, we want this to be over quickly. And this is looking like our world has changed. And I think it’s sinking into us that, next week, the world is not going to go back to normal. In fact, that normal world is probably gone forever. And change is actually grief. And grief is usually a change we didn’t want. This is clearly a change we didn’t want, the same way we talk now about, do you remember, before 9/11, what airports were like? I think we’re going to have discussions about, do you remember what the world was like before the pandemic? Do you remember how we used to shake hands? Do you remember how we used to do this and that? I think we’re seeing a loss of our world, and we are feeling the grief that goes along with that.

MARTIN: Is there some benefit, do you think, toward naming it as grief? If we were to all — I’m not quite sure how we would do this, but, as a society, as a country, just acknowledge that we are all grieving, do you think that would be helpful?

KESSLER: Yes. And I think there’s something so important. We had to do this with 9/11, but it was a moment that we could see. We don’t even know how long this moment is going to last. But I think if we acknowledge, this is grief, this is loss, we haven’t dealt with a lot of people dying yet, and I hope we don’t. My guess is, that’s coming. But, right now, our world as we knew it has died, and we’re feeling the sadness. So, if we name it, it allows us to be sad, to cry, to feel those emotions, because, in a strange way, our emotions need motion. We need to feel them. Suppressing them isn’t going to work. Work.

MARTIN: You have talked about our sense of communal grief, the fact that we’re all experiencing something, and you would like to help us name what we are experiencing as grief. But there are some who know that they are grieving, because they have lost someone, they are about to lose someone, someone might be quite ill and is — they’re unable to visit that person. We know that a lot of facilities, nursing facilities, are in lockdown, for perfectly good reasons. But do you have some words for people who they’re experiencing kind of a private grief that everyone knows, but they can’t — they can’t address it in the way that we normally would do? I mean, what would we normally do? We would take a person food. We would go sit with them. We would visit with them. And, in some cases, this is not possible.

KESSLER: You’re so right, because grief is about being with someone, not doing them. And we have to look at it differently to find creative ways. So we are having to say things like, I’m going to the grocery store, I bought some fruit and some vegetables, and I left it at your door for you. We’re not able to bring the food in, but we still can leave it for people. As you mentioned, for the first time in our history — we have had so many tragedies, but we never had tragedies that you cannot have a funeral, a memorial. That is something we have never had to deal with. So, people have had tremendous losses and are completely isolated. And I’m encouraging people to have virtual funerals, if they need, for now, because I’m afraid we are going to see a lot of loss. And there is something about a death that it needs to be marked when it happens. If we’re all brutally sad right now that our aunt has died, this week we should have that virtual funeral. I would never have suggested that in my life, but that is the world we’re in today.

MARTIN: We have seen that the president in particularly has — seems to enjoy this metaphor of fight. This is an enemy and we’re fighting this enemy. What do you think of that?

KESSLER: Well, it is an enemy. I get concerned that we’re fighting this enemy not medically as much as we should, but more economically. And it is truly a medical fight we are in. This is 100 percent a medical fight. The economy is the symptom of the problem. You can’t cure anything by being in the symptom. You have to go to the medical aspects of this. So, that’s my concern around that.

MARTIN: David, I’m asking for a value judgment here, but do you think that, in some way, Americans are in denial about how serious this is, apart from the politics of it? Obviously, there are certain people very eager to get people back to and get the economy moving again. But you also see stories about people being unwilling to upend their rituals, despite pleas to do so. Do you think that Americans are in denial about how serious this is?

KESSLER: That is my fear. My fear is very much that we think we have gone through the five stages and we have now got to acceptance and bring our life back. My fear is, we are still in the first stage, that we are in denial. And as I talk to people around the country, and they’re like, you’re in lockdown, why would your government do that — and when you talk to people in Italy or China or other places in the world, they are begging us to take this seriously.

MARTIN: So, let’s talk more about what steps do you think that we could be taking to address our grief. I mean, I think — what I think I hear you saying is, the first thing is to name it, name it as grief.


MARTIN: Now that we have done that, what else?

KESSLER: The next thing to do is to stay in the present moment. The reason why this is so important is, we have what we call anticipatory grief. That’s the anxiety of the future. We begin to picture everyone we know sick. We begin to picture people around us possibly dying, and we see a horrible image of the future. And we have to bring ourselves back into the moment and go, we’re healthy now, we’re safe, we have got enough food, everything’s OK in this moment. The next tip is to understand what you have control over and what you don’t. And take control over, I can stay six feet from people. I can wash my hands. I can use sanitizer. I can stay at home, absolutely, unless it’s, you know, very, very essential. That’s what we can take. If your neighbor isn’t doing it, then you just need to find your control and stay away from your neighbor.

MARTIN: And what about people who don’t have everything that they need, who are genuinely frightened? There are people who are living on fixed incomes who did not have the opportunity to stock up, as other people with more means may have, people who have lost their income suddenly. I mean, they have legitimate reasons to be concerned, to be anxious, to be frightened. Do you have some thoughts for them?

KESSLER: This is really a time for us to truly become a community. You know, my street that I live on, we all for the first time were on a text together. Does anyone have extra toilet paper? Oh, I know there’s an elderly person in that house. Let’s go knock on their door, and step back six feet, but make sure they have what they need. This is a moment to truly become our brothers and sisters’ keeper. I had the privilege of spending time and working with Mother Teresa. And one of the things she was asked once about the poverty in her country, and she said, you know, sometimes in America, you have a poverty worse than ours. She said, in our country, if someone has one banana, they share it with everyone. So many people in your country have so many bananas, they won’t share any of them. This is a moment for us to share what we have.

MARTIN: I know one of the reasons that you are quite well known around the world is the work you did with Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, the stages of grief. And you have also written about what you call a sixth stage of grief. And forgive me from pointing out that this comes from losses that you have experienced yourself personally.


MARTIN: And I’m so sorry for those losses, the loss of your son in particular most recently. Can you just talk about that?


MARTIN: And why is it important to acknowledge what you call the sixth stage of grief? First of all, what is it, and what role does it play in our lives?

KESSLER: Sure. The sixth stage, I believe, is meaning. So, many people know Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ stages that I was privileged to work with her on, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. They’re not linear. They’re not five easy steps. Our grief is as unique as our fingerprint. There’s no map for grief. Everyone does it differently. And Elisabeth would have told you that herself had she been here. And, as you mentioned, my younger son died a few years ago, David. And I found acceptance wasn’t enough. I needed more. And that more for me was, how can I make meaning? And so the book is “Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief.” I believe, after this, when this is over, when this subsides, we’re going to go back, and we’re going to look and go, what is the meaning? What can we learn from that? What post-traumatic growth can we find? My hope is that we do this in a way, compassionately, lovingly, where we come out with post-traumatic growth and not post-traumatic stress. And that will be the meaning.

MARTIN: Let me just say — I apologize if this is a sensitive subject, but you’re so generous in sharing your own feelings and experiences with us, and I appreciate that so much. You wrote that, when your own son died, that you learned things that you had not known, even though you are an expert in this area. Can you share what some of those things may have been?

KESSLER: Well, being a grief specialist for decades, I had thought my losses were long behind me. I had gotten into this work because of my mother dying while there was one of the first mass shootings in the U.S. So, coming from such a traumatic childhood, I thought, that’s all behind me. There was no part of me that was prepared for my son to die unexpectedly. And it really reminded me of how painful grief can be. I wanted to write a note to every parent I have ever counseled saying, I had no idea how bad the pain was. But I knew, for all of us, we can’t let people die and not find something honorable to bring forth to the future about them. And that was the meaning. You know, my son, in kindergarten — and he died at 21 years old — when he was in kindergarten, they gave out little trophies and awards for everyone, as we do. And he got an award for being the most likely to become a helper.


KESSLER: David never got to become a helper in his life, but in his death now, with the new book and my work, he is helping so many people around the world he will never get to meet. And that’s my meaning in his honor.

MARTIN: I wonder if you have just some words of — to help us find the compassion that you say we so desperately need, because I do think there are people who are very — people are still going through all the — they’re going through all the feelings, right?

KESSLER: Right. Right.

MARTIN: People are all different places. They’re angry. They’re angry at other people. They’re angry at the situation. They’re frightened. They’re all the things. So, is there a way you can help us?

KESSLER: Yes, to remember the worst loss is yours. If your teenager is suddenly out of school, that is their worst loss. So, we have to recognize these are losses for each of us. The other thing, as we judge, our neighbor, our friend or co-worker, to remember, oh, I have made mistakes too. And the third thing — and this is a really — this really guides my life – – everyone is fighting battles you know nothing about. We get into arguments with people, and, later, we find out their wife was leaving them, something horrible was happening, they had an ill child. You don’t see the full picture in anyone, sometimes even our spouses. Everyone is struggling in ways we don’t always understand, so we should try to be kind.

MARTIN: Well, David Kessler, thanks so much for talking with us. Before we let you go, how are you doing?

KESSLER: I’m doing all right. You know, one of the things, that I have received thousands of e-mails from people who can’t go to their in-person grief support groups, or they just had a loved one die and can’t have a funeral. So, on Grief.com, people can find a daily free online grief group that I’m doing to make sure people in grief get taken care of during this difficult time.

MARTIN: Well, thank you for talking to us.

KESSLER: Thank you.

About This Episode EXPAND

Dr. Senait Fisseha, chief advisor to the director-general of the World Health Organization, tells Christiane how global leaders should be working together to fight COVID-19. A special report from PBS’ FRONTLINE tells the story of the fight against Ebola in Africa. Grief expert David Kessler joins Michel Martin to explain how the pandemic is triggering a grief response across the world.