The sixth stage of grief, finding meaning or purpose, was recently addressed by Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden at the national convention. An excerpt from his speech last week:
I know how it feels to lose someone you love. I know that deep black hole that opens up in your chest. That you feel your whole being is sucked into it. I know how mean and cruel and unfair life can be sometimes.
But I’ve learned two things.
First, your loved ones may have left this Earth but they never leave your heart. They will always be with you.
And second, I found the best way through pain and loss and grief is to find purpose.
This wasn’t the first time he’d said it. Having lost his son Beau to cancer, Biden wrote in Promise Me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship, and Purpose (2017): “So how do I want to spend the rest of my life? I want to spend as much time as I can with my family, and I want to help change the country and the world for the better. That duty does much more than give me purpose; it gives me something to hope for. It makes me nostalgic for the future.”
Following Beau’s death Joe Biden contacted noted grief expert David Kessler, who writes of this and much more in his 2019 book Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief. Kessler, who co-authored two books with his mentor Elisabeth Kübler-Ross (1926-2004), received permission from the Kübler-Ross Foundation to label a new stage of grief as finding meaning. Kessler, not so incidentally, also lost his adult son, a 21-year-old, several years ago to an accidental drug overdose.
Nick Owchar, Los Angeles Times, reports on Kessler’s overall view of the grief stages model:
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.’
Specifically regarding the author’s presentation of the sixth stage, Publishers Weekly states:
‘Meaning helps us makes sense of grief,’ Kessler writes, speaking both as professional grief counselor and as someone who has experienced tremendous loss…Kessler shows how large acts (starting a foundation) as well as small ones (eating an ice cream sundae in memory of a loved one as a celebration) help the bereaved to create meaning in a variety of ways.
Author Katy Butler, whose most recent book is last year’s The Art of Dying Well (see previous post) states the following in praise of Finding Meaning: “Whether our grief arises after a suicide, a difficult relationship, the death of a child or newborn, even the ambiguous losses that accompany mental illnesses and addiction — David reassures us that we can find in our deep pain an opportunity to contribute to the wider human story. Grief may not end, but David reassures us that it can change shape and be a source of generosity, love and meaning.”