Making Meaning Out of Grief
“Loss is simply what happens to you in life. Meaning is what you make happen,” the author of a new book says.
It’s been nearly a decade since my husband died, but every detail of the day remains etched in my mind as if it were yesterday. I remember the call that came from the hospice facility at 2 a.m., then talking to the funeral parlor that was to retrieve his body and transfer it to the medical center where students could learn from it.
Not five hours later I was on a plane to South Carolina, where I’d been scheduled to speak on —– of all things — end-of-life issues. When I said in the course of my talk that my husband had died that night, a man in the audience was incensed. How dare I? he challenged. How could I just up and leave on the day my spouse of 44 years had died?
I admit that it can strike some as uncaring, even cold-hearted. But what that man didn’t know is that weeks before he died, my husband asked me not to cancel any professional commitments for his sake. What I was doing by speaking in South Carolina that day was respecting his dying wish and honoring his memory.
We both had known his death was imminent, and I suppose I had experienced the acute stages of grief in the weeks prior. I felt lucky that I and my sons, daughters-in-law and grandsons had a chance to say goodbye and tell him how much he was loved and admired.
My getting on with the business of life after his death was what he expected of me and what I was pleased to be able to do. Respecting his wishes, and not capitulating to the expectations of outsiders who might behave differently, was my way of finding meaning in the wake of my loss.
In a new book, “Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief,” David Kessler, a grief expert who himself needed to find meaning following the sudden death of his 21-year-old son, writes that “meaning comes through finding a way to sustain your love for the person after their death while you’re moving forward with your life. Loss is simply what happens to you in life. Meaning is what you make happen.”
In the best example I know personally, following the devastating loss of her 12-year-old son, Sammy Cohen Eckstein, who was killed by a car in front of his house, Amy Cohen co-founded a group called Families for Safe Streets to combat dangerous conditions and reckless driving on New York City streets. This Brooklyn mom has worked tirelessly to promote slower speeds and expanded use of speed cameras to spare other families such tragic losses.
It took seven years, but last May, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed a law that will increase the number of speed cameras in school zones to 750 from 140 “so that other mothers will get to raise their children, so that other children can grow into adults themselves,” she said.
Mr. Kessler had worked with Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, who in 1969 immortalized what she called the “five stages of grief” in her best-selling book “On Death and Dying.” Then, with Mr. Kessler in 2004, she wrote a second classic, “On Grief and Grieving,” discussing how we deal with those five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and finally acceptance.
In his new book, Mr. Kessler said that following the death of his son, “I knew I couldn’t and wouldn’t stop at acceptance. There had to be something more.”
That “more,” he concluded, is meaning. He calls it “the sixth stage of grief, the stage where the healing often resides.” It can take any one or more of many forms. It can, as Ms. Cohen has done, strive to keep others from being killed by a vehicle, or in Mr. Kessler’s case, from dying of an accidental drug overdose like the one that killed his son.
Some people find meaning through belief in an afterlife; for others it comes from recalling fond memories of the loved ones they lost. In my eulogy at the funeral for my father, who died of a heart attack in a Brooklyn supermarket in 1982, I said, “He died with his boots on, doing what he loved the most: shopping for food.”
Although there were many things wrong with how my mother’s death was handled 34 years earlier, this then 16-year-old found meaning in visiting her in the hospital every afternoon after school and being at her side when she took her last breath.
For Harriet Klein, a retired speech-language pathologist in New York, meaning came by compiling a book of poems called “Mourning Muse” she wrote following the death of her husband of 50 years. Likewise, Leslie Gerber of Woodstock, N.Y., immortalized his partner’s loss with a book of poems he called “Losing Tara: An Alzheimer’s Journey.”
Many families take great comfort in being able to donate organs of their deceased loved ones to save the lives of others. In his book, Mr. Kessler describes an extraordinary coincidence: The man who came to paint a family’s apartment turned out to have received a life-saving kidney from the family’s 17-year-old son, who had succumbed to spina bifida four years earlier.
Mr. Kessler, who works as a grief counselor, speaker and author, wrote: “I found great meaning in knowing that I had turned my loss into a vocation that helps thousands survive the worst moments of their lives.”
This is not to say that being able to find meaning can erase grief, merely that it can assuage the anguish of grief and help people move forward. The pain of grief is a natural reaction to the loss of someone you love. But, as Mr. Kessler points out, suffering “is what our mind does to us,” and it can be mitigated by finding meaning in what we’ve lost.
Sometimes people whose child or pet died are reluctant to have another for fear that history and its resulting pain will repeat itself. Ms. Cohen and her husband, Gary Eckstein, took a more courageous, rewarding and meaningful route. Several years after their son’s death, they adopted two boys from China, giving these children a far better life than they had in their native country.
Perhaps the most challenging loss to live with is a death by suicide. Grieving survivors typically receive far less support from others than if the death had occurred as a result of cancer or a traffic accident, for example.
Too often, suicide is viewed as a death people bring on themselves and thus less worthy of being mourned. But that hardly makes the loss less agonizing for their survivors. Suicide is usually the result of a severe mental disorder — think of it as Stage IV brain disease — and no less worthy of empathy than a fatal accident. Survivors of suicide victims sometimes find meaning by participating in suicide prevention programs or raising awareness of its warning signs.
Correction: Nov. 4, 2019
An earlier version of this article misstated the number of years that passed between Jane’s mother’s death and her father’s death. It was 24 years, not 34.
Jane Brody is the Personal Health columnist, a position she has held since 1976. She has written more than a dozen books including the best sellers “Jane Brody’s Nutrition Book” and “Jane Brody’s Good Food Book.”
A version of this article appears in print on Nov. 5, 2019, Section D, Page 5 of the New York edition with the headline: Making Meaning Out of Grief. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe
By Jane E. Brody