Purpose in the Pain

In high school, I was first introduced to the work of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and the five “stages” of grief in the book On Death and Dying. She introduced the stages – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance – in the context of individuals who were facing their own impending death. Later, she and David Kessler published a work, On Grief and Grieving. Both books have been incredibly helpful in understanding this thing called “grief” and for figuring out what’s “normal.”

However, there was still something missing.

In his recently released title, Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief, David Kessler tackles the missing stage. Kessler acknowledges, “. . . there’s been an assumed finality about this fifth stage [acceptance] that Elizabeth and I never intended.” (p. 1). So many of us navigating this world of loss have felt this intuitively. Until recently, I couldn’t put my finger on it but “acceptance” felt like a finish line of sorts. It felt like another check mark on the grief list. It felt like another ending rather than the beginning that it should be.

Have you felt this? Has this feeling of finality held you back from coming to a place of accepting your loved one’s death? My heart has screamed against acceptance despite what my mind knows because it felt too much like “moving on” and “putting it all behind me.”

In truth – acceptance becomes the key to what hopefully becomes the longest phase of grieving – finding meaning. Don’t run away. Don’t close your browser. “Meaning” doesn’t have to be a scary thing. It doesn’t have to be a high-minded and over-the-top effort that “makes a name” for your loved one. Sometimes, it is – and that’s great. More often than not – “meaning” is found in the mundane. We can all find meaning in the ordinariness of our lives – even if it requires a little effort.

In discussing the prevalence of “post-traumatic growth” over “post-traumatic stress,” Kessler identifies five specific (and arguably mundane) ways that trauma and loss can lead to growth: we can grow our relationships stronger; we can discover new purposes in life; we can use the trauma to find our own inner strength; our spirituality can deepen; and we can find a renewed appreciation for life. (pg. 158) When I write these out in a sterile list, they punch like the platitudes that have sometimes caused us more pain than comfort in the grieving process. But trust me – Kessler’s work is anything but another platitude.

The genuine beauty of this book is that the author recognizes that tension between our craving for immediate release from the pain and the need to sit through it. He acknowledges how our spiritual desire for release and the human reality of experience must learn to coexist. Kessler doesn’t sugarcoat the pain in a sprint toward “meaning.”

As Kessler gently notes, “Healing doesn’t mean the loss didn’t happen. It means that it no longer controls us.” (pg. 19)

Wherever you may be in your grief journey – this book is a must-read. Kessler touches on concerns found in all phases of the journey, such as dealing with our loved ones belongings. He also touches on sensitive topics of finding meaning when a loved one dies from suicide. Kessler provides insight on dealing with “complicated relationships,” i.e. those individuals with whom you may find it difficult to be a part of your grief journey.

Though Kessler has made a career as a “grief expert,” his expertise on finding meaning doesn’t come from years of antiseptic research. Sadly, he’s “one of us.” Kessler’s insight comes from the very personal place of his own grief – including the loss of his son, David.

Kessler can be trusted when he invites us to be curious about the rest of the story of our lives. (p. 252)

Have you found meaning through your own grief journey? Please share in the comments. Your story of finding meaning may just spark someone else along this path.


I do not receive any payment for the links back to Amazon. Those are provided simply for convenience.

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