Grief therapist David Kessler on mourning the world we’ve lost and the therapeutic value of screaming in the car. 


We are surrounded by death. This is, on the one hand, a cold statement of fact about our current moment, when a pandemic has caused the deaths of tens of thousands of people. On the other hand, death is always all around us. So is the painful end of many lesser things: a job, a relationship, a version of our life we’ve left behind. What’s unique about our current situation, then, is that we aren’t just grieving the lives lost in the daily death toll. We’re also all grieving the lives we once led, and perhaps the loss of hope that we may be able to return to them soon.

The psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross wrote her seminal text On Death and Dying after interviewing terminally ill patients about their experiences confronting mortality. At this point her five-stage model—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—has permeated through the wider culture, and the Kübler-Ross model is commonly interpreted as a template for what it means to grieve. The grief she examined was built on mourning one’s self, and the emotional path one takes in the face of death—even if, as she long maintained, grief existed apart from death itself.

After some persuasion, she teamed up with her frequent collaborator David Kessler to release On Grief and Grieving in 2005, a manual of sorts about what happens to the living who’ve lost someone. It wasn’t until the death of his own son that Kessler realized the work was incomplete. “Acceptance” was enough for those facing their own death, but the living had to move beyond just accepting it. There had to be something else in order for life to go on. So he added “meaning” as the sixth step of the model late last year. «I was so curious about how you found light in darkness,» he explains.

In our current crisis Kessler’s work has taken on a whole new, well, meaning of its own. As we try to analyze our own feelings about social distancing and isolation, we’re also searching for something beyond acceptance. That is, assuming you’ve even reached that part of the process; grieving is not linear, and Kessler says it’s important to not always look towards the future. No matter which stage you’re at, the goal is to take time to inventory how you’re feeling in the present, even if it’s uncomfortable to do so. Below, Kessler explains how to go about it, and why this emotional work is crucial for all of us, especially before we re-enter the world.

GQ: What from your methodology, or from your steps of grief, can or should apply to this moment?

DK: I think all of them apply, no judgment, no comparison. We can only witness each other’s grief. Like you said, grief is about being together and I think we want to say, «Oh, we can’t be with one another.» But yes, you can. You can FaceTime with people, you can Skype with them. We have to be careful to not opt out of being there for each other in grief because we physically can’t do it.

In this case, we are finding ourselves isolated or extremely alone, so many of us aren’t around people to process things together. That’s part of what’s been so difficult about this moment in time.

DK: Even the word “bereavement” comes from the word “robbed.” You’ve been robbed when your loved one died. But think of it: we’ve all been robbed of our world. The world we knew a month ago is gone forever and there’s a part of us that’s still sad about that, or angry about that.

What brought you to grief as a specialty?

I had a mother who was quite ill. When I was 13 she had to get moved to a hospital in the big city, which was a few hours away. She was in the ICU, so I wasn’t able to visit because I was too young. The hotel where we were staying had a fire, but when the fire trucks pulled up, shooting began. The firemen realized this wasn’t just a fire, it was a shooting. It was one of the first mass shootings in the U.S.; it went on for 13 hours and police officers and hotel guests were killed. In a matter of three days, my mother died alone in a cold, sterile environment, without me or my father there at the time of her death. And I witnessed this mass shooting. Right after the shooting, we flew home for her funeral and on the plane, the pilot decided it would be a nice gesture for me to sit in the cockpit, and he showed me how to fly the plane real quick and sat me down in his seat.

You and I know that I was never really flying the plane. But for me? I was 13, my mother had just died, I’d been through a mass shooting, and now I’ve got to figure out how to save 148 people on this plane and not crash it. It was a lot for a kid to handle. And in a lot of ways, I think I grew up to be a person who maybe could have helped that kid. All the places I felt so out of control, I tried to find some control.

The world we knew a month ago is gone forever and there’s a part of us that’s still sad about that, or angry about that.

How do you define grief or the process of grieving?

Grief is a change, usually one we did not want. Grief is the recognition of that change, but it’s also the loss of a connection. And at its heart, grief is love; it’s love for whatever we had that is now gone.

So is grief uniquely tied to death then? Or grief can more broadly be applied?

Grief can broadly be applied. For example, I talk about macro- and micro-griefs. We have large and small griefs in our life: A loved one dying is obviously the largest grief we deal with, but at the same time, our job loss is real grief, or a divorce is a real grief. A divorce is the death of a marriage, a job loss is the death of that work, so they’re all deaths in some way.

Do you teach that grief gets better or easier as time goes on?

Grief changes as time goes on. I don’t use the word better, I think it just gets different. In my new work, we added a sixth stage. One of the things I talk about is that we always think we’re supposed to make grief smaller, but the reality is: we have to become bigger. We think: how can I make this grief less? But it really is, how can we be more? There was a misconception in the world that On Grief and Grieving was the five easy steps to grief, but they’re not. Acceptance took on a finality that Elisabeth [Kübler-Ross] and I never wanted it to have. Oh, I’m finding a little acceptance. The grief is over. The grief isn’t over. A few years ago, my younger son David, died unexpectedly.

I’m sorry.

Thank you. When I was watching myself go through the stages on my own, and when I got to the beginning of the idea of accepting his death, I felt like acceptance wasn’t enough. There needed to be meaning. I had studied [Holocaust survivor] Viktor Frankl’s work about meaning. How, in a concentration camp, did they still find a way to appreciate a sunset? I was so curious about how you found light in darkness. I wanted to not just accept my son’s death, but I wanted to find meaning. And I began to talk with so many people who had a spouse die, a parent die, a brother die, a sibling die, a child die. I learned how they found meaning after tragedies. And so that became the book Finding Meaning. I was just so honored that the Kubler-Ross family and foundation gave me permission to add a sixth stage to her iconic five.

Following along with your teaching that there are macro- and micro-griefs, I wonder what you make of the grief that’s happening in this moment?

DK: People always ask me which is “the worst grief.” I always say your grief. Your grief is the worst grief. So if your grief is you’ve lost your job, that’s the worst grief. If you had your wedding canceled, that’s your worst grief. If your kids can’t have their graduation, that might be the worst grief they had in their life. One of the things I think is important to understand is that one grief doesn’t take away from another. If I’m talking to someone whose wedding that she’s been planning since she was five years old was canceled, someone might say, «Oh my goodness, David, but you had a child that died.»

Well, your wedding being canceled or you losing a job doesn’t take away from my child. Both the macro and the micro, the big and the little, all exist together. Grief should be a no-judgment and no-comparison zone. We always want to compare, and comparing is a very male thing to do. The other thing we want to do is fix it. But grief is not something we fix, because we’re not broken, we’re in grief. It’s hard for us to wrap our minds around the fact that this isn’t about doing. It’s about being. It’s not about doing something, it’s not about fixing you. Instead, how can I just be with you?

In your experience, have you found that it is harder to relay some of this information to men rather than women?

Yes, because I think men want to fix the situation. I think we want to make it better. I think we’re used to thinking if someone’s unhappy, it must mean that as the caretaker, we’re doing something wrong. The reality is, it’s a moment to just say, «Look, there is a pandemic, I can’t change that, but we’re here together.”

We get to be sad about a world that’s gone. We get to be sad if our wedding, our game, our project, our proposal, whatever it may be, has been shifted and changed or canceled.

A lot of men are going to say that they feel silly feeling sad in this moment, especially when you compare your feelings to what’s going on in the world more broadly. I wonder what you would say to some of those men.

I would say your feelings count. They stand alone. That’s nothing new. I’ve had someone whose brother died and he said, «Well look, I shouldn’t be sad. You know, kids in Sandy Hook were killed.» And I said wait, why do kids in Sandy Hook take away from your brother? You get to be sad about your brother. We get to be sad about a world that’s gone. We get to be sad if our wedding, our game, our project, our proposal, whatever it may be, has been shifted and changed or canceled.

Since you added this stage of grieving that’s called “meaning,” I’m wondering, what are the ways in which people can go about finding a sense of meaning or purpose when they are feeling overwhelmed by grief?

We get in trouble when we look at things like they are all good or all bad. This is certainly horrible, but at the same time, I live on a street where I’ve never even known any of my neighbors’ names. Now we’re on a text chain together. Now when someone’s going to the grocery store, they ask if the elderly man at the end of the block needs something. That’s meaningful. Part of the work is to name these meaningful moments. Maybe you’ve had a project that you’ve been wanting to do that you actually have time to do at home. That can become meaningful. So if we can at least name some of these meaningful moments that happen, they don’t take away the pain. Meaning doesn’t take away the pain, but it lets us know there’s more there than just pain.

More than anything, a lot of people are fed up and pissed off. What are the healthy ways for men to process anger?

I always say anger is pain’s bodyguard. Under our anger is always pain, but we don’t name that. It’s so important that we do name all these things and allow ourselves to feel them. And if you’re going to feel angry, I’d rather you get the anger out. Anger going in is a dangerous thing, so I’m always glad when men let their anger out. Talk about it, exercise, go for a run, scream in your car! Look, I have a baseball bat that I use on my bed when I get angry.

And those are all—the baseball bat, screaming in the car—healthy coping mechanisms?


This interview has been edited and condensed.

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