Life is a Circus

Finding Meaning in Loss

Making sense of suffering may be the sixth stage of grief.

Loss is an inevitable and painful part of life. But what if we could grow from finding meaning in it?

David Kessler is a psychologist, TED speaker, and author of several books on grief, including Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief, and (with Elizabeth Kübler-Ross) On Grief and Grieving. Kessler has thought long and hard about grief and the grieving process, having himself faced the terrible loss of a young child. His work is centered on the notion that finding meaning is an important part of the grieving process, and fundamental to what makes us human.

Indeed, finding meaning in loss is so important to Kessler that he believes it should be added to the five stages of grief famously defined in Kübler-Ross’s work: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance (these five stages are not necessarily consecutive). In his view, we never recover from loss, but we can live past loss in a way that honors it.

Kessler’s work with patients is based on the belief that going through this process makes us fully human. By finding meaning in loss, he says, "we can do more than go through loss, we can grow through it." Kessler argues that the decision to grow through finding meaning is based on agency – it’s something we can choose to do. In his words: "we don’t recover from loss; we learn to live with it. It’s a decision."

Kessler says the process is made easier by the fact that everyone experiences loss at some point in their lives. It is a shared human experience that we can acknowledge in others and grow together in. "The world is big enough for all our losses," he says.

In the end, the belief that finding meaning in loss is a natural and ultimately helpful part of the grieving process may change our attitude toward it. "We should move on from talking about post-traumatic stress," he suggests, "and talk about post-traumatic growth."