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David Kessler on Grieving the Death of a Loved One
Like many who’ve decided to specialize in grief counseling, David Kessler’s decision came after the loss of his mother at age 12. “Personally, I know death is never going to be good and it will always be an unwanted guest in our lives,” says Kessler. “Professionally, I want to make sure people have more permission and opportunity to deal with their losses.” A journalist and motivational speaker, he co-authored two best-selling books with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, Life Lessons: Two Experts on Death and Dying Teach Us About the Mysteries of Life and Living and On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief Through the Five Stages of Loss. Here Kessler offers advice about the first 30 days of grieving the death of a loved one.
How can one cope with the death of a loved one?
People are usually overwhelmed with emotions—and sometimes the lack of emotions is just as overwhelming. They have many feelings mixed with numbness or shock, which stay with them until they psychologically regroup. This denial helps people cope or they would be overwhelmed with emotions they’re not used to. People talk about how devastated and lost they are. I try to let people know that grief is a reflection of a connection that’s been lost, a reflection of the love and while it feels horrific, those feelings are there because they did love them and their relationship was so meaningful. In the first 30 days, people are just trying to figure out what happened. The reality is that nothing will make it better. The best thing people can do is to get through the services and figure out where they’re at—are they a single parent or a widow or maybe childless? People will try to understand the new role they’re in, but the most important thing is to give yourself permission to cry, give yourself permission to be depressed, to take off from work for a period or to go back—whatever you need. Only you know what you need right now.
What types of emotions do people experience in the first 30 days of grieving?
Depression, mood swings, sadness, numbness and a disconnected feeling. You might wonder why the world is continuing while your world is turned upside-down. It’s important to understand that no one has experienced your loss, or has had a loss quite like yours. Grief is as unique as a fingerprint. Many times, people want to run from grief and they’re just trying to avoid the pain. The only way out of the pain is through the pain. Your loved one has left emptiness and a void that has a huge wake behind it and that wake is about the love you shared. That love and relationship deserves this time. Many times, people come to me and say, “I just can’t seem to shake these feelings.” It’s unrealistic to expect to shake off and recover from a loss immediately.
Why is the process of dealing with grief so vital?
It’s a time when you’ll be at your most vulnerable and most tender. It’s probable that this will be the saddest time and the time you’ll feel most overwhelmed. The first 30 days is when you’ll begin regrouping and assembling the pieces of what happened to help you make sense of the rest of your life.
What are the most important things to do during these first 30 days of grieving the death of a loved one?
Feel what you’re feeling. Take all expectations off yourself and don’t allow others to put expectations upon you. Put off any major decisions you don’t have to make and take time to allow the dust to settle. You’re surveying a new world. Remind yourself over and over that you were strong enough to love—you’ll be strong enough to survive.
What does success look like for someone whose going through the first 30 days of grieving?
Succeeding is “just making it through”—doing what has to be done. It’s also a success to know you’ve personalized your grief for your loved one. If you feel you need to deal with the belongings in the first 30 days, then that’s what needs to be done. If not, then don’t deal with it: It’s what you feel you can handle and can do.
What phases will people who are grieving the death of a loved one go through in the first month?
Many people are familiar with the stages of grief. Many people misunderstand them, though, thinking they’ll follow the stages in chronological order. In reality, the stages reflect where we are. The common misperceptions are that the stages are linear or we experience them only once. We may go through them many times or we may be in one stage more and may not even go into each stage.
What may happen beyond the first 30 days of grieving?
Understand that we don’t recover from loss—we don’t get over them, we don’t get past them. Rather, we learn to live with that loss. It’s important to understand that we will never hurt less; we will just hurt less often. That intense pain will lessen and we will find a place for our loved one to dwell in our memories and live on in our hearts.
What is the belief you personally go to during times of change?
I try to remember that whatever it is, this, too, will pass. I try to remember the truth and love in every situation; love and memories can’t be taken away.
The best thing about change is...
…if you don’t like it, it will change again.