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Interview: ‘Suffering is optional’ David Kessler on grief, pain – and life

david kessler

“When someone tells you the story of their loss, your job is to witness,” says grief expert David Kessler.

“It can be tough for people to be present without thinking about ourselves and what we can say next.”

Counselling people at the end of life and the bereaved, the American grief expert is as accustomed to listening, as he is to public speaking – and he’ll be doing both in Australia in October 2018, on a five-city lecture tour in which he’ll be exploring healing loss.

David’s grief talks are often attended by people keen to learn how his insight can help them administer support to the bereaved. But the majority are people who are coping with their own loss and come to listen – and perhaps open up a little among empathetic strangers.

Together with esteemed psychiatrist and pioneering end-of-life expert Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, Kessler co-wrote On Grief & Grieving, which identified the famous Five Stages of Grief.

on grief & grieving

People often describe grief as a journey – and that’s how much of David Kessler’s career has been. A successful writer and familiar talking head on U.S. TV including CNN, Fox and Oprah in the wake of major tragedy, he has become an expert at the forefront of dying matters, working with hospices, social care providers, and emergency services.

On Grief & Grieving identified a grief model based around key symptoms of life-changing loss: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance – misinterpreted by some as fixed virtual stations on an emotional journey; but never intended as such.

“A lot of people have formed opinions without reading the book,” David good-humouredly observes – almost certainly not for the first time.

“The stages are not linear points of a timeline or map and are different in everyone. You may go through them many times – or some not at all.

“I now believe there is a sixth stage – a stage of meaning – we want to find meaning.”

five stages of grief model

Yet this sense of meaning is not about finding answers to questions we cannot answer, he says. “ We have to live with the why – and part of the goal of grief is to have that relationship.”

David identifies a fruitful search for meaning in terms of legacy – a connection with that person we can carry on in our own lives.

Personable – and belying a warm sense of humour – his philosophy is sincerely conveyed, but demonstrates how grief is a part of the human condition, not something rarified.

“Death,” he says, “makes life important. Death makes life valuable and how we do grief, reflects how we do life.

“I’m not here to help people grieve, the reality is, I’m here to help them live.”

david kessler

While pain is an inevitable symptom of grief, suffering is optional, he believes.

“Part of what I do in my teaching is help people experience pure grief – not suffering.”

His latest book, You Can Heal Your Heart was co-written with the late Louise Hay, a pioneer of the self-help movement who championed the wellbeing benefits of re-attuning our psyches to positive thought.

“Our minds have had a negative bias from our caveman days,” David explains.

“With positive psychology, there’s a group of people who bounce back from grief stronger. It doesn’t mean you don’t go through the pain. Every thought we have affirms something good or bad. So we need to change how we perceive loss, or else our mind will punish us.

“Grief does not occur if you do not love. I can’t take away pain– that’s evidence of love. So, pain is inevitable, but the suffering is optional.

“The first thing you have to do is really feel your feeling. You can’t heal what you don’t feel and in grief, we have trouble with this.

you can heal your heart book

“One strange thing Elisabeth and I used to talk about, is that it’s hard for us to fathom that death actually happens. So we turn on ourselves or blame others… ‘If only I’d done differently…’

“We get caught up in the pain of suffering. My role is to help tease out the suffering, from the pure grief.”

As a young writer, Kessler explored The Needs of The Dying – first book – through conversations with people living with a terminal illness. He visited Calcutta, where he volunteered at Mother Teresa’s mission for the Dying and Destitute, caring for people at the very end of their lives.

Mother Teresa herself praised the book – a mixed blessing for David – who was unsure he ‘deserved’ the plaudit, as a new kid on the dying matters block. Seeking counsel, “then earn it,” he was bluntly and sagely advised.

“I did fight it at times… I was young and there was so much success so quickly that I became known as ‘the death guy.’” he says.

“I didn’t want to be the death guy – I had a million other ideas for my second book. But I learned, and in time, I inhabited it more.”

needs of the dying book

David himself has lived through – and with – the pain of pure grief. He has borne sympathetic witness to the personal tragedies of many – and adjusted to his own.

When he was just 13, his mother was admitted to a hospital intensive care unit which would not allow visitors under the age of 14. Unable to afford hotel accommodation, David and his father had been sleeping in the hospital lobby – visiting a hotel they couldn’t afford to stay in for refreshment.

One evening as they ate, they heard gunfire – the beginning of what turned out to be a 12-hour mass-shooting. Having witnessed the horror, when it was safe to return to the hospital they headed back to the ICU. Despite his mother’s critical condition, David was not allowed in.

“And that,” he says, “was the day my mother died.

“Talk about complicated grief. So I knew as a child there had to be a better way to die than the way my mother died and I also understood how terrible the world could be. I was inoculated. I knew I could either be a victim or help people, so I decided to help.

“My dad?

“My dad was terrible! He didn’t know about grief or how to handle it. It wasn’t until I was an adult I could understand that he just didn’t know.

“We’re not taught about how to grieve well. What I’m teaching now is what our great grandparents knew how to do. Society didn’t tell them to ‘have a nice day’ – they knew how to be sad.

“Our tendency is to try to ‘fix’ grief and yet when you are in grief, you are not broken.”

counselling

David himself is grieving his 21-year old son, David junior, who died in the summer of 2016. Three weeks after his loss, he wrote a message thanking friends, family and strangers for their sympathy.

“The pain of this loss has been shattering. In my work, I deal with challenging times but nothing prepared me for the pain that is now present in my own house.”

It is a wound, he says, which never diminishes. David says he aims to live and continue to flourish in the way he feels his son would have wanted for his dad, explaining: “Our grief doesn’t get smaller: we have to grow bigger – and in a way that honours our loved one.”

David’s junior’s death, he says, has not only increased his empathy for the bereaved parents he counsels in his work, but further informed his understanding that every grief is individual. Your heart may go out, but to help other people heal, you cannot assume their pain.

“When we talk about my own son, to those parents that came to my lectures all my years... I wanted to write them a note, saying ‘I’d no idea how bad it was’. But they were also my inspiration, knowing I’d been watching them get through this for years, they’re going to hold my hands now.

“And they have.”

  • David Kessler’s latest book, You Can Heal Your Heart, with Louise Hay, is published by Hay House. David offers grief support including online grief workshops at Grief.com.

David will be visiting Brisbane, Melbourne, Perth, Adelaide and Sydney in his 2018 Australian lecture tour. You can find more details here.