Finding meaning in the life of a loved one who dies is part of grief

We’ve all lost so much through the pandemic, but by making sense of it we can look forward

‘We’re grieving the world we have lost.’


Death came early into David Kessler’s life. He was just 13 when his mother died, and her loss prompted his decision to forge a career working in palliative care. He went on to collaborate with psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, a central figure in the field, who devised the five stages of grief. In lectures he would talk about his mother’s death and remind his audiences that no one is exempt from loss; and yet, he says today, in his heart he believed his personal experience of devastating grief was behind him, rather than ahead.

And then, four years ago, another tragedy hit his family. Kessler was totally floored by it. He discovered it was one thing knowing the landscape of mourning, and quite another travelling through it. But his journey, hard and long as it was, had an important by-product: he realised that the seminal Kübler-Ross inventory was not complete. To the five stages of grief she described, he was able, with the permission of the Kübler-Ross family, to add a sixth. And now, in the midst of the pandemic, he believes that the sixth stage will be as important in our universal experience of grieving as it is in individual lives hit by loss.

The tragedy in Kessler’s life came out of nowhere, as tragedies so often do. He was on a lecture tour when his son Richard, the eldest of two boys he had adopted in 2000, phoned to say his younger brother David, 21, had been found dead. As children they had a traumatic past life. Kessler says this had come back to haunt David and that he was using drugs at the time he died. In his book, Kessler describes feeling, on hearing of the loss of his son, as though he had fallen into the deepest part of the ocean. What’s more, he knew he would have to stay there for some time. He knew he would experience the stages outlined by Kübler-Ross – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance – and he knew these would not necessarily be linear, that there was no “right” time frame and that he would oscillate between the different stages.

But what he hadn’t realised until he experienced it for himself was that there was a sixth stage. “I discovered there was something else, something beyond acceptance,” he tells me on a call from his home in Los Angeles. “It was finding meaning: the possibility of being able to discover something meaningful in my grief.”

He’s not saying, he stresses, that there was anything meaningful to be found in David’s death. “It’s not about finding meaning in the death – there is no meaning there. What it’s about is finding meaning in the dead person’s life, in how knowing them shaped us, maybe in how the way they died can help us to make the world safer for others.” Finding meaning, in other words, is something the bereaved can do after the death of someone they loved very much. It’s how those who are left can fold the existence of the lost individual into their lives, how they can allow it to change them, and how they can behave in response to it.

Much of what is experienced on an individual level in grief is echoed in what we’re collectively experiencing because of Covid, Kessler believes. “Many people say they are feeling a heavy sadness – and what they’re describing is grief,” he says. “We’re grieving the world we have lost: normal life, our routines, seeing our friends, going to work. Everything has changed. And change is actually grief – grief is a change we didn’t want.”

Just as with individual loss, at the moment the whole world is going through the stages Kübler-Ross documented. Some people are denying what’s happening; others are angry about it; some are trying to bargain; many are depressed; and eventually, there will have to be an acceptance of what we can never go back to. But also, there will have to be the sixth stage: a search for meaning – and indeed, the stages of grief aren’t chronological or linear, and we’ve been seeing signs of that search from the earliest days. But certainly when it’s over, says Kessler, we will need to find meaning in what we’ve been through. “We are going to say, what was the meaning? What post-traumatic growth can we take from this?” And, crucially, finding meaning is “the stage where the healing often resides”.

Kessler thinks Kübler-Ross, who died in 2004, would have agreed. The two of them met in 1995 and went on to collaborate on a book called On Grief and Grieving, in which they talked about how the stages of grieving were being misinterpreted. But as Kessler sees it now, it wasn’t until he experienced the loss of his son that he was able to finally get to the root of what they had grasped.

All of this matters, he says, because the global north is grief-illiterate. “The things I’m teaching are things people’s great-grandparents knew very well,” he says. “There are people today who think grieving takes three months, or even three weeks.” In the past, he says, you could mourn for as long as was needed – and in truth the fallout of grief never ends, it only changes. “But we live in a time when we’re told we should feel like this for this long, and then you’re done.”

One of the things we risk losing, in our grief-adverse society, is the personal growth it can enable. “We all talk about post-traumatic stress, but I’d say post-traumatic growth happens even more.” He believes we need to acknowledge that loss can have this spin-off and understand what it can do for us.

This makes perfect sense to me. I’ve often noticed, when I’ve interviewed people who have experienced bereavement, that they’re in a better place psychologically if they have taken what Kessler would describe as meaning from it, or when they’re upfront about how it’s changed them. And I know my own life has been radically changed, and achieved meaning, because of the loss of my sister when we were both children – I simply can’t imagine the other person I would have been without that experience.

Which brings us to another point: guilt. Because surely if we as bereaved people are gaining from loss, we will at some point feel guilty about it. Yet we should not, says Kessler, because we’d never have chosen to lose the individual we cherished. Their death is something we can’t change, but what we can change is how we live in the now, without them. We’d all give up, in a blink of an eye, the growth we’ve experienced if it would bring anyone back; but the point is, that’s the one thing we absolutely can’t do. And we have to remember, too, that the person who has gone would have wanted us to find meaning in our lives because of them. “My son was proud of what I did, and he’d be pleased that my work has found a new dimension because of him,” says Kessler.

The bottom line about grief, says Kessler, is this: there’s no wrong way to do it. Grieving is as individual as each of us; our grieving needs are different, in every case – and that seems to be true of how we’re coping with the grief of the pandemic, too. It’s also incredibly lonely: people who haven’t experienced grief before imagine that other family members will be able to help. But, in fact, when everyone is grieving it’s often not possible to reach out to one another, all you can do sometimes, as a grieving person, is survive.

One question he’s often asked, says Kessler, is which kind of loss is the worst. “People ask, is it worse to lose your child or your spouse? And I always say: the worst grief is yours.”

But if that’s the case, the positive message of Kessler’s book is that the best gain can also be yours. He tells me a story: he was speaking at a conference in a big hotel, and there were other conferences going on in the rooms around his. “Afterwards a member of the hotel cleaning team came up to me and asked: ‘What were your group working on? Because so much laughter was coming from your room.’” The reason, says Kessler, is that people who have been in the deepest depths of despair have the broadest bandwidth when it comes to enjoying life: “When you’ve travelled through the deepest valleys, you surely appreciate the views from the highest hills.” And right now, as we all travel together through the deepest of valleys, that’s a very good message to hear.

Complete Article HERE!

Upon the riverbank of memory

Mourning is important. Mourning is necessary. Last rites, farewell rituals; now I understand the magnified conventions of burials and vigils….

By Asna Safdar


Mourning is important. Mourning is necessary. Last rites, farewell rituals; now I understand the magnified conventions of burials and vigils.

When a life comes to an end abruptly, without due decay of age and illness, when youth is disgraced by an unceremonious death, then the loss becomes perpetual, the mourning is eternal, and sorrow is born. Like an infant, it needs to be tended to, weep to maturity, until it becomes an existence in itself, to fill the void left by the untimely demise of its origin. Then, perhaps, the debt is paid. Then, perhaps, the order of things is spared of merciless trauma.

It is not just humans that are living. The bonds between them have lives of their own. They, too, have natural courses of life and death. They, however, can be killed off with bloodshed, buried without trail, drowned in the dead of the night.

And that is what makes feelings dangerous: our self-deceptive ease of their denial. That is what makes them terrifyingly powerful.

When you love in silence, you do not yet know – you one day might have to mourn in silence, too. You might have to deny yourself the faintest whisper of devastating pain. And one day, you wake up to find it gone. And you embrace your newfound faith in the miracle of forgetfulness, the numbing balm of time.

But that’s the thing about undocumented assaults – you fling the evidence of your crimes into a river and walk away and one day find yourself under trial for a dead body that washes ashore on the riverbank of memory.

You wonder if the bitterness ever goes away. You think abandoning a feeling would make it wither, until one night, there is again poison trickling down your insides. All you asked was not to be the harbour where bitterness comes to find anchor. All you ever asked was to become the ocean itself.

Your deeds, your excesses, your injustice, your trauma, your unwept tears, your unspoken pains – everything catches up with you like mad hounds you couldn’t throw off your scent.

It is immensely naïve and profoundly ignorant for man to believe that the laws of universe are null and void in the empty spaces between each of our lives. How is that, an action has to have a reaction, but that human action has no consequences? That the things we do to each other deflect into some dark black abyss from where nothing ever returns? Do we actually believe that if we manage to inflict pain upon someone who does not have it in their power to claim retribution or recompense, the scores are settled? Accounts balanced? Charges dismissed? Case closed?

It’s the people who leave you for dead. Or those who drive you to the edge of cliffs and turn back just in time to avoid having to watch you fall. Somehow they think, not being a witness to the crime mitigates their culpability, diminishes their responsibility, validates their denial.

If it is ignorance, it is blind; if self-deception, destructive. Nothing ever really goes away. We do, and we will; but the legacy of endured, undeserved pain, stays.

The laws of the universe are not null and void – they are in vicious motion. It is only a matter of time. Time: the unknown variable, the great equaliser, the unrelenting ombudsman.

Complete Article HERE!

15 Helpful Ways To Support Employees Returning From Bereavement Leave

Grieving the loss of a loved one takes time and care. Employees who take a few days off to make arrangements and attend services will still be tending to their grief when they return to the office. As a leader, you have to learn how to support your team members as they deal with difficult losses, especially during a global pandemic when many lives are being lost each day.

That’s why we asked members of Forbes Coaches Council to tell us how leaders can best support team members who are dealing with grief. Here’s what they suggest you do to truly “be there” for your employees after they return to work from bereavement leave.

1. Get To Know The Elisabeth Kübler-Ross Grief Model

I’d suggest becoming familiar with the Elisabeth Kübler-Ross grief model. Recognize that there will be good days and bad days, and people can wobble back and forth. Be present and just listen to the individual. Allow them opportunities to share memories, should they choose to do so. Allow the person to take time off so that they can take care of themselves emotionally, physically and spiritually. – Christie Cooper, Cooper Consulting Group

2. Pay For Therapy Sessions

If you can afford it, help them pay for a certain number of sessions with a therapist who specializes in loss. Be lenient if they need to take off an hour here and there to go to therapy. You could also help them find resources, such as books and support groups, or assign them a “buddy” in the office who will regularly check in to see how they are doing. – Maria Ines Moran, Action Coach

3. Learn About The Five Stages Of Grief

Leaders need to recognize that their team members will need their support in one way or another, even if they do not express it. Leaders would benefit from learning about the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Leaders would also benefit from understanding that individuals do not go through these stages in a linear way and may go in and out of each stage multiple times. Remember to practice compassion. – Michelle Braden, MSBCoach, LLC

4. Practice Empathy

Instead of rushing to fix, we must learn how to listen, and then just be. Most often, in loss, we think we are being helpful when we tell the person grieving that we are there and ask for them to reach out if they need something. Not only do most people hate to ask for help, but we are also putting the onus on them. Instead, acknowledge the loss and remind them that you’re there with them. That’s empathy. – Jen Croneberger, JLynne Consulting Group

5. Ask Them What They Need

Welcome them back and ask them what they need. Ask them if there is a particular way they want to engage when it comes to their loss. Are they okay with others asking them about it? Do they prefer that everyone just act as if it’s business as usual? Coming back after a bereavement can be awkward without that understanding. – Mike Ambassador Bruny, No More Reasonable Doubt

6. Offer To Listen

Check in with team members who are dealing with bereavement. When doing so, simply offering to listen to anything they wish to share can go a long way toward providing them support. Offering a specific suggestion about how you can be supportive beyond that will open the door for them to reach out as they need. – David Yudis, Potential Selves

7. Adapt To Changing Needs

Remember that grief is not always just an emotional response. There may be physical and mental symptoms as well. People will have different needs as they move through the grief process. Routinely check in with them without focusing on their loss. They will appreciate a slower than normal pace upon return, a gentle tone when being spoken to, as well as understanding and patience as they heal. – Lindsay Miller, Reverie Organizational Development Specialists

8. Be Flexible

Ask them what they need and be flexible. Rather than assume you know what the person needs, ask them. The person may see work as an emotional escape. Others may have a hard time concentrating and need some slack, whether that is a reduced workload or more time to complete work. Some people may want to talk. Others may need time off. Being flexible will go a long way toward supporting the person. – Julie Kantor, PhD, JP Kantor Consulting

9. Develop Situational Awareness

Grief is a process that takes time, and people handle it differently. Support your team members with empathy and situational awareness. And do not try to be their therapist or friend. When my mother died (I was 28), my managers let me continue to work, but they knew that I was not at my best. When I was upset, they supported me; but when I was not, they supported my focus on work. – Bill Berman, Ph.D., ABPP, Berman Leadership Development

10. Be Real

Don’t avoid the person. Don’t dance around the reality of the situation. Be compassionate and up front with the person to see how they are doing. Ask if they need support. Check back in every so often. Be authentic. – Dan Messinger, Cream of the Crop Leaders

11. Help Them Navigate Sources Of Support

Listen and try to offer the support they need, which might be very different over time. Everyone grieves differently; ask what they need and how you can help. Offer personal support and flexibility. Be prepared to help them navigate other sources of support that would be available to them. And give them the gift of space. – Rebecca Lea Ray, The Conference Board

12. Empathetically Acknowledge The Loss

Empathetically acknowledging a colleague’s loss is vital. Even if you will not see them in person, you can do this by a phone call or a message. Ensure that you offer your time, space and an empathetic ear. Even if this offer is not taken up, it will provide reassurance and comfort that support from colleagues is there and available. – Simi Rayat, Wellbeing Face Ltd

13. Don’t Take Any Behavior Personally

Begin by connecting with genuine care and empathy. Express support by being aware, checking in and offering a private and peaceful moment to share. As they journey through their grief, do not take any of their behavior personally, nor allow their behavior to negatively define them. Once resiliency is restored, engagement returns, and most often, a newfound motivation and drive leads the way. – Lori Harris, Harris Whitesell Consulting

14. Accept Emotions As They Are

Let them acknowledge feelings. Sadness is normal and can even be healthy. Research has shown that it is essential for mental well-being to have mixed and negative feelings. People who apologize for their feelings or suppress them actually intensify these negative feelings. Try to acknowledge emotions without judging. Accept emotions as they are instead. This helps you to cope with them. – Cristian Hofmann, Empowering Executives | SUPERGROUP LTD

15. Provide Space And Psychological Safety

Listen with a compassionate ear. This is not a time to address or resolve any of the emotions or thinking your employee is processing. Provide the space for them to grieve and the psychological safety to express themselves, and then support them with resources as appropriate. – Sheila Carmichael, Transitions D2D, LLC

Complete Article HERE!

Grieving Before A Death

— Understanding Anticipatory Grief

By Litsa Williams

I spent a lot of time with my grandmother when I was growing up. When I was young, before I started school, my grandmother watched me while my parents worked. I have many fond memories of walking the alleys by her house to the playground, helping her stuff grape leaves and roll cookies, playing the piano, painting our nails together, watching All My Children, and eating her delicious lentil soup.

But let me back up a bit. Long long before that, when my mother was just a twinkle in her father’s eye, my grandparents emigrated to the United States from Greece. They did what most good Greeks did: they opened a restaurant and they had children. But life did what life does sometimes – it took my grandfather way too soon, leaving my grandmother a widow with two elementary-school aged children. My grandmother ran the restaurant on her own, raising her two children in an apartment upstairs. A vision of the American Dream, she sent her children off to college, one to the Ivy League, and one at the top of her class through college and pharmacy school. In her retirement my grandmother moved to Baltimore. She stayed busy as a church volunteer and as a babysitter to her grandchildren. In her eighties she was still spending twelve hour days at the Greek Festival making loukoumades and selling pastries.

In her late eighties my grandmother had a stroke. The years that followed brought dementia that slowly took away the fiercely independent woman we knew. She was a version of my grandmother, a woman who was still kind, who still prayed, and who still loved having her nails painted. But this version of my grandmother spoke less and less, came in and out of awareness, had to be reminded who we were, and could no longer care for herself.

When my grandmother died just shy of her 95th birthday in 2004 I am not sure I had ever heard the words ‘anticipatory grief’. And yet I remember so well thinking that we had been saying goodbye over the past six years, as she had slowly slipped away. Though she had still been with us in body, we had been slowly mourning the loss of her personality, her independence, her memory, and her awareness for years. Remembering who she had been, it was like we had been watching her fade away.

Anticipatory Grief: the nitty gritty

Here is the thing about grief – though we think of it as something that happens after a death, it often begins long before death arrives.  It can start as soon as we become aware that death is a likelihood. Once death is on the horizon, even just as a possibility, it is natural that we begin to grieve.

Though this is different than the grief that follows a death, anticipatory grief can carry many of the symptoms of regular grief – sadness, anger, isolation, forgetfulness, and depression. These complicated emotions are often coupled with the exhaustion that comes with being a caregiver or the stress of being left alone when someone goes to war or is battling addiction. We are aware of the looming death and accepting it will come, which can bring an overwhelming anxiety and dread. More than that, in advance of a death we grieve the loss of person’s abilities and independence, their loss of cognition, a loss of hope, loss of future dreams, loss of stability and security, loss of their identity and our own, and countless other losses. This grief is not just about accepting the future death, but of the many losses already occurring as an illness progresses.

When we know a death is imminent our bodies are often in a state of hyper-alertness – we panic whenever the phone rings, an ambulance must be called, or when our loved one deteriorates. This can become mentally and physically exhausting.  The same is true of watching a loved one suffer, which is almost always part of a prolonged illness. Caring for them as they suffer takes an emotional toll on us. These things (and others) can contribute to a sense of relief when the death eventually comes, and a guilt that can come with that relief. These feelings are common and totally normal when someone has experienced an anticipated death. And yet we feel guilty for this relief, thinking it diminishes our love for the person. It doesn’t, of course, but this relief can be a confusing feeling. We sometimes need to consciously remind ourselves that the relief does not change the deep love we had for the person, rather it is a natural reaction to the illness.

There have been numerous studies showing that anticipatory grief can reduce the symptoms of grief after a death but, as always with grief, there are no rules. There will be times that anticipatory grief may reduce the intensity of grief following a loss, then there are many times that the grief following a death is not impacted at all. For a great review of the research on anticipatory grief (and understanding of why much of the data conflicts), see this article by Reynolds and Botha. What is important to keep in mind is that if you are grieving with less intensity or for shorter duration than other losses because of the anticipatory grief you experienced before the death, that is totally normal! On the flip side, if you do not feel your grief is diminished despite it being an anticipated death, that is totally normal too! Convenient, eh? There is no formula for how an anticipated loss will impact us because we all grieve differently.

Things to Remember When Dealing with Anticipatory Grief

  1. Accept that anticipatory grief is normal. You are normal and feeling grief before a death is normal.  You are allowed to feel this type of grief. Seriously. This is a common phenomenon that has been documented for nearly a century.  You are not alone!
  2. Acknowledge your losses. People may say annoying things like, “at least your mom is still here” that minimize what you are experiencing. Allow yourself to acknowledge that, though the person hasn’t died, you are grieving. Consider journaling, art, photography, or other creative outlets to express the emotions around things like acceptance of the impending death, loss of hope, loss of the person you once knew, loss of the future you imagined, etc. Explore mindfulness (we have a post on that here) as a way of being present and aware of the many emotions your are coping with.
  3. Connect with others. Anticipatory grief is common among caregivers, but unfortunately when all your time is consumed with caregiving you may feel totally alone and isolated. Seek out caregiver support groups, either in your area or online, so you can connect with others who understand the challenges you are facing, including anticipatory grief. There is an online anticipatory grief forum that is active here if you are looking for online support.
  4. Remember that anticipatory grief doesn’t mean you are giving up. As long as you are there for support, you are not giving up on a family member or friend. There comes a time where we often accept that an illness is terminal and that recovery is no longer a possibility. Though it is a reality, there can be a feeling of guilt that comes with that acceptance. Focus on what you are doing – still supporting, caring, loving, creating meaningful time together, etc. You are shifting your energy from hope for recovery to hope for meaningful, comfortable time together.
  5. Reflect on the remaining time. Consider how you and your loved one will want to spend that time together. Though what we want may not always be possible, do your best to spend your remaining time together in a way you and your loved one find meaningful. If your loved one is open to it, you may want to discuss practical matters, like advance directives and funeral arrangements to ensure that you are able to honor their wishes (rather than being stuck having to guess what they would have wanted).
  6. Communicate. Just like we all grieve differently, anticipatory grief is different for everyone. Expect that everyone in your family may be experiencing and coping with anticipatory grief in different ways. Keeping the lines of communication open can help everyone better understand one another. If you are planning for the remaining time to be meaningful and comfortable, make sure to include all the important family members and friends in those discussions.
  7. Take care of yourself. I know, vague and way easier said than done!! But it is true. Check out our posts on self-care (for normal people), yoga, and meditation for some ideas of ways to take care of yourself. Remember the old cliché, you can’t take care of others if you don’t take care of yourself.
  8. Take advantage of your support system. Caregiving and anticipatory grief can be a long road. Do an assessment of your support systems so you know which people may be able to help you out (and who you may want to avoid!). We have a great support system superlative journaling activity to help you out with your assessment here.
  9. Say yes to counseling! I know, there are still some of you out there who may think counseling is just for wackadoos. I am here to tell you that is just not true! Counseling is helpful for normal, everyday people who just need a place to process complicated emotions and have some you-time. So just say yes to counseling if you are feeling overwhelmed with the feelings of anticipatory grief. You can check out our post on finding a counselor here.
  10. Relief is normal. In the case of anticipated loses there can be months, years, and even decades of caregiving that can be overwhelming and exhausting (though adjectives don’t even seem like enough!). When someone dies there can be a sense of relief that is completely normal, but that can also create feelings of guilt. Remember that feeling relief after an anticipated death does not mean you loved the person any less. It is a normal reaction after a stressful and overwhelming time in your life.
  11. Don’t assume. Just because your loss was an anticipated loss, do not assume this will either speed up or slow down your grief after the death. We have said it before and we will say it again: we all grieve differently.

Make Space for Grief After a Year of Loss

by Gianpiero Petriglieri


This pandemic year, grief is everywhere but we have nowhere to mourn, except online. There have been lives lost, and also jobs and the closeness of relationships in daily life. Those combined losses can put us at risk, and they require managing. First we need to understand the ways that work used to help us with our personal griefs, and why virtual work doesn’t have the same effect. Then managers need to do three things to give employees the space to mourn: Begin by acknowledging that things still aren’t normal. Then offer truth: Take people’s questions and give honest answers — or acknowledge that you don’t have the answers. Finally, provide concrete goals and guidelines for work. All of these actions help to ground your colleagues in reality and orient them to the present, rather than the lost past or an unknown future.

For nearly 20 years, after his first heart attack, I feared losing my dad from a distance, without being able to comfort him or to say to goodbye. And then one day I did.

He died suddenly on a September morning. I flew back to my childhood home that afternoon. He was still there yet gone — his body resting, as they say, or rather, spent. A small crowd of familiar faces hovered as I walked in and hugged him, reaching for what I will always miss most. He was a great hugger. I was too late.

I fell into a pattern in the week that followed. The days were frantic. There were rituals, visits, arrangements to be made, hours of intense sociality and sorrow. The nights were still. When the commotion ceased, I sat at my dad’s desk, opened my laptop, and caught up with work. I found it soothing, as I found getting back to the office soon after. Duties, deadlines, and colleagues simultaneously gave me a break and made me feel my dad’s presence. Work was the place where I had seen him most alive, after all. The place where I could always find him.

I return to those memories often in these days that are so full of loss — of loved ones, of work, of proximity, of a way of life. This year, grief is everywhere, and though it’s been written about and discussed, it’s still going to be felt more acutely at year’s end. Hearing a holiday song, someone told me the other day, brought them to tears. I’m not surprised. “All I want for Christmas is you” takes on a different meaning when you have suffered a loss.

Yes, this year grief is everywhere, but we have nowhere to mourn, except online. With social and working lives going virtual many have lost access to familiar customs, gatherings, and routines that used to comfort the bereft. Those combined losses can put us at risk, and they require managing. A different kind of managing than that we have long been accustomed to.

Complicated Grief

Grief is the personal experience of loss. Mourning is the process through which, with help from others, we learn to face loss, muddle through it, and slowly return to life. Last year, after reading her poignant book Grief Works, I interviewed British psychotherapist Julia Samuel for a piece I wrote with Oxford professor Sally Maitlis about mourning in the office. Samuel had impressed upon me “how physical the experience of loss really is.” Grieving is something we do with our bodies and with each other. It takes stamina and space.

She had also stressed that, for many people, as was true for me, working — and the workplace — can be one of those spaces that help with mourning. Work can offer a sense of stability and predictability, the office some comfort and respite. Routine is soothing. Caring coworkers, at times, can be as valuable and less demanding than family. We hug colleagues who have lost a loved one; our team sits together when facing the loss of one of its own; or we just work quietly next to others and get a reprieve from grieving.

So what happens now that we are besieged by grief while we work and live at a distance for many, many months? “A lot of grief will remain frozen,” Samuel told me recently, “because many people won’t have enough support, enough ritual, to grieve.” Those are circumstances in which the normal and healthy experience of grieving can take a debilitating turn known as “complicated grief.” The term refers to the persistence of acute pain, apathy, and disorientation long after a loss. Reports of exhaustion, angst, and numbness are now beginning to emerge in the workplace. Those experiences are often understood as symptoms of burnout after a burst of panicked productivity earlier in a nine-month-old crisis. But in a year of many losses and much distance, those experiences might well be expressions of a collective bout of complicated grief.

Even those of us who embrace virtual work, I suspect, are struggling with virtual mourning. Recently, for example, I learned that LinkedIn data revealed a change of mores. In 2020, people have been discussing being bereft with their networks in far greater numbers. Those virtual exchanges might be touching, so to speak, but they don’t quite work like actual touch, according to Bill Cornell, an American psychotherapist and author who specializes on the embodied nature of relationships and losses. Cornell advocates using the word remote rather than virtual work to remind ourselves that working this way involves a loss too, that of physical proximity.

Once we acknowledge our remoteness, we can try to understand its impact, Cornell argues. The fatigue that we feel after a video conference, for example, might stem from the fact that each Zoom meeting subtly reminds us that even if our colleagues are very much alive, there are ways that we have lost each other, too. In the same spirit, Samuel reminded me that losing the camaraderie and routines of office life does not end our relationships with work and coworkers. But finding new ways to muster presence, patience, and support requires making room for loss.

How to Make Room For Loss

Many losses cannot be undone, but spaces for mourning those losses can be rebuilt at work. And managers are best positioned to do that. Those who can hold people through loss, whether it involves death or work or proximity, will help them stay healthy, loyal, and productive.

This is how to go about it.

First, acknowledge that people will be anxious, vulnerable, and disoriented — and so are you. Don’t just pretend that things are normal: Share your experience, invite people to share theirs, and make that behavior normal. Even just sharing what you miss most of your old working days at the office, and how you are struggling to learn how to deal with it, might be liberating.

Second, right after sympathy, offer truth. Here is the data. Here is what we are dealing with right now. Take questions. It will soothe people’s anxiety to be heard, even if you don’t have answers to their queries. If it is hard to make long-term predictions, better not make any. Sharing your company monthly revenues and your plans to deal with a steep drop, for example, will be more honest and useful than giving people a pep talk about how bright the next quarter will be.

Third, simplify the work. Make it more manageable. When we are anxious and remote, it helps to focus on clear and concrete goals, to know what is expected and what is enough. Such clarity is ever more important as people return to the office, but not to old normality. Knowing where, when, and how long people are expected to work, for example, is grounding. Grief hijacks the imagination, filling it with catastrophic projections. Just like mourners can find some comfort focusing on their breath, a meal, or regular exercise, there is value in manageable work. Grief erases our sense of agency, and work can help restore it. “Having a task that you can complete when you feel powerless is very helpful,” Samuel advises.

All of these actions help to ground your colleagues in reality and orient them to the present. That is the best work can offer: Reminding us that we are here for now. We often tell those who manage and lead to portray confidence, spark the imagination, and focus on the future. That future orientation is “all well and good,” Cornell cautions, “but it’s difficult when you are sitting with people who have no idea what next week will be like, let alone the future.”

I do not mean to say, with all this, that we need to just get on with an ill-defined “new normal.” That would be like telling those who have lost a loved one that they “will get over it.” We never do. But staying in the present, focusing on the reality of uncertainty and remoteness, can keep us going and connected as we learn to live with loss and maybe, slowly, grow through it.

For managers to make room for loss, however, they must brave a loss of their own: of principles and prescriptions that have long oriented them. By turning from the future to the present, from a sparked imagination to a held heart, from confidence to care, a manager can help us regain our footing and, slowly, some hope. Letting those old prescriptions go, I have written before, might help us humanize management. Likewise, these months in which we have lost each other might end up humanizing work. If it reminds us that we need space to share and soothe our grief, remoteness might even bring us closer. That might be a hopeful ending for a year of loss.

Complete Article HERE!

He Thought We’d Be ‘Better Off’

Two years ago, my husband of 18 years took his life. I’m still coming to terms with why.

By Jennifer B. Calder

My charming, brilliant, handsomely dimpled, fun-loving husband of 18 years and father of our three sons, ages 12, 13, and 16, killed himself on July 2, 2018.

He was 46.

Was it situational depression after nearly a year of unemployment following previous decades of professional ups and downs? Was it undiagnosed mental illness? Was it noble devotion? Sacrificial, as his letters suggested? Was it desperation?

Or was it, as our oldest son, Logan, said, “A lapse in judgment?”

Or, as our middle son, Grady, asked, “Did Dad love us too much?”

I think it was some combination of all of these.

How much is the life of a father of three boys and a husband worth? Is there a number that makes sacrificing oneself an acceptable, “viable” idea?

Of course not. It’s absurd.

But this is the scenario in which we find ourselves. Trying to make sense of the nonsensical.

On that terrible day, our family became part of a grim national statistic. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as of 2018, suicides not linked to a known mental condition comprised 54% of those who take their lives. Suicide rates, overall, are up 30% since 1999, with the highest increase and greatest number among those in middle age — a demographic my husband had just entered.

My husband now occupies a sliver of the pie you see on those impersonal fact sheets, the 16% who take their lives due to financial or job problems. We are now a family reduced to a mom and three sons desperately absent a husband and devoted father, trying to untangle this messy knot.

I watched my blue dot move closer to his on the Find My Friends app as I made my way through Watchung Reservation outside our hometown of Westfield, New Jersey.

His dot — the icon a tiny photo of him laughing, taken years ago on a “date night” — had been stationary for nearly an hour. I’d first activated the app around 3:45 p.m.

My last text from him was at 1:25 p.m., when I asked for reassurance that he’d seen my previously ignored text about taking our youngest son, Beckett, to guitar lessons at 4:30 p.m.

“K” was his response.

Not unusual. His messages were often terse. We joked, the boys and I, that it made him feel hip to use the minimum number of letters.

A little before 4 p.m., I checked and saw his photo near a winding road carving through the woods and assumed he was making his way home after spending the day driving Uber, which he was doing to make additional money while job searching.

I returned to writing the story I had due the next day.

I refreshed the app again at 4:20 p.m. or so. I wanted to see how close he was, to see if I should tell Beck to get his shoes on, but his icon had not moved.


I called. I texted. I wondered. No response.

He never showed

So I dropped our son at his lesson and made my way toward him — thinking, assuming, hoping he had taken the extra few minutes between Uber runs to catch a quick nap.

I felt anxious enough, however, not to take the extra moment to IM my boss and tell her I was leaving early

I just wanted to get to him.

He was a big napper

When he worked in New York City, he routinely slept through his train and bus stops on the commute home, texting me to say he was now several stations past our town and making his way back to us.

My most nefarious thought was that he’d picked up some psycho Uber client who had robbed or hurt him.

As I drove, I called my youngest sister in Michigan and one local friend, two of the only people who knew about his attempts to make extra money in this manner (his insistence), and both did their best to quiet my concerns.

“He’s just sleeping” was the mantra I repeated over and over, but as I drove, I scanned oncoming traffic for an ambulance. Something — it was elusive — but something about our last interaction that morning bubbled up and ignited worry in me

I woke earlier than normal and heard Matt come and go from the back door near the garage. I asked about the commotion he was making, and my voice seemed to surprise him. “Oh, you’re up early. I just forgot something,” he said, and he went to leave

I called out in an annoyed, sarcastic tone, “Um, okay. See ya?!” and he stopped and asked me what I’d said.

I heard him take a step toward me in the hall as I was pouring my coffee. I repeated my comment, tossed over my shoulder, because in my pre-caffeine grouchiness, I thought, “God forbid he come and give me a proper goodbye

He hesitated for a moment — a long, silent moment — then turned and left, which I found strange. Normally, a passive-aggressive comment at least got me a kiss on the head.

I forever will be tormented by wondering what might have happened if I had called out an “I love you” instead of a snide comment.

I shrugged and went about my day, thinking of how best to structure my story and hoping the boys would sleep late enough for me to get a good handle on it.

It wasn’t until later that night, after this happened, that I came across our life insurance policy in the “mailbox” we keep at the top of the basement stairs for important bills. And, in the middle of the basement floor, pulled from the dregs of boxes stored in the back closet, I found our bin of important files — birth certificates, marriage license, social security cards, passports, and so on.

The commotion I’d heard earlier came into clear focus.

Matt had been prepping for what he was about to do that day, and when I woke earlier than expected, it interrupted him. A friend graciously theorized that had he come to me and said a proper goodbye, it may have broken the spell of what he had planned

As for me, I forever will be tormented by wondering what might have happened if I had called out an “I love you” instead of a snide comment

Or, conversely, if my bitchy tone made his decision all the easier.

As I drove, I mumbled promises. If I found him unhurt, I would be nicer, kinder

Our marriage had become strained under the stress of yet another job loss, at least the ninth in 18 years of marriage. While polite, we were nearing a breaking point

My queries about a Plan B—a “what do we do next?”—were dismissed.

“It’s under control” was his common refrain, which irritated me, yet none of that mattered as darker thoughts flitted through my mind. I vowed to be a better, more encouraging wife — after, of course, I gave him hell for napping through our son’s guitar lesson while I was on deadline.

I underestimated him.

I underestimated his desperation.

I underestimated our debt to the IRS.

I underestimated his devotion to our boys and his willingness to sacrifice his joy in watching them grow up in order to provide them, in his mind that terrible day, with a potentially stable financial future at the expense of a mentally secure one

I underestimated how much my disappointment with his consistent job losses over the past nearly two decades may have destroyed him.

I underestimated so many things, and for that, I don’t know if I will ever forgive myself.

What if I had been less exasperated? What if I had been more supportive?

What if? What if? What if?

He knew I was nearing the end of my rope. We’d danced this dance numerous times. I’d pull in from grocery shopping or school pickup and see his car in the driveway in the middle of the day. Let go again from whatever job, usually through no fault of his own.

The life of an options trader on Wall Street is precarious, and opportunities grew more scarce as the years rolled past.

We lost our home to foreclosure, along with so many people across the country, after the financial crisis in 2008. A year before that, I went out one morning to drive the kids to school, and my Suburban was missing from our driveway, repossessed for delinquent payments

I went back to work full-time as a writer, but my contributions barely covered the boys’ hockey fees, groceries, the occasional dinner out, and our health insurance.

He refused to talk about the details of our financial life as his unemployment ticked by, month after month.

“I am handling it,” he would say.

And, since he worked in the financial industry, I trusted he did have it under control. This was his area of expertise.

But it angered me. I wanted and expected to be a full partner. It wasn’t that he didn’t know this about me. I didn’t need protection. I have many faults, but being materialist is not one of them. I believe he simply did not want me to worry.

I offered to sell my valuable engagement ring. He wouldn’t hear of it, and that also made me mad.

So, I determined to take the pressure off him and look for a more prestigious, well-paying job. He counterargued that my current arrangement worked well for our family: I was able to work from home unless traveling on assignment, and I had no costs. I never missed a school concert or hockey game, and I made decent money.

His evasiveness and obstruction about our financial position pissed me off. But by that point, nearly everything pissed me off. I didn’t want to create more discord, so I didn’t push it.

“He gave us a great life,” I thought a month or so before this happened, as I looked around our lovely house filled with lovely things, and I wanted, I thought, to tell him this. But I was stubborn, annoyed, and fed up and couldn’t bring myself to thank him.

I also thought, this go-around, tough love might be better.

I was frustrated.

I was frustrated by the consistency of his car showing up back in our driveway during the workday.

I was frustrated by the thought of college in two years for our oldest son while we struggled, renting a house.

But I was mostly frustrated by his refusal to talk about other options, his stonewalling, his insistence that he had things under control.

And now, I guess, it seems he had a plan all along.

When we had our kids, we decided my job would be to stay at home with them. Which I absolutely loved. Not that life wasn’t challenging with a newborn, one-year-old, four-year-old, and neither help nor relatives nearby. It was much more difficult than my previous job running a gallery in New York City. Although I have a master’s degree in art history, my salary would have barely covered daycare for our three boys, and this privately thrilled me.

I was disillusioned with my career by that point. I loved my artists, but I’m more academic in temperament and not a natural salesperson, which made me ill-suited to the commercial art world.

But in hindsight, it seems silly.

Worse than silly — tragic. Placing our family’s entire financial burden on him was ridiculously unfair

After drinking too much wine one night, I told him how proud I was that he was driving Uber while job hunting.

He told me he didn’t want to talk about it.

Maybe he thought I was being sarcastic, but I wasn’t, and I hope — I truly hope — he knew I was sincere

I found him honorable

I encouraged him to tell our boys the truth, but he refused. He felt ashamed and told the boys he was “consulting.”

Worst-case scenario, I thought our marriage might not survive, although all the solutions and future plans I suggested — moving somewhere cheaper, a new career of teaching and hockey coaching for him — involved the five of us.

I wanted us to go to marriage counseling once he found a new job. I didn’t want to pile onto what was already an emotional and stressful time by doing it earlier.

We were a great family, the five of us. Even when our marriage was challenging, as a family unit, we were fantastic.


We truly loved being together. Maybe it was because we had no family close by, but any discord we may have felt with one another as spouses evaporated when the five of us were together. Which was constantly.

We had a blast. The jagged edges of my bossy, Type A personality were rounded out by the easygoing nature of his.

Well, at least in the beginning of our relationship.

Over the years, his inability to walk away from an argument, his inflexibility — although he was often right — was tempered by my more level-headed outlook, and I advised him to better pick his battles (not that he listened much). Still, he could make me laugh at myself and vice versa.

And we laughed a lot.

We joked and teased and made incredible memories together, creating a family shorthand only we understood: random words referencing an entire vacation the summer before, “Choo Choo byeeeeeeee,” and so on. We were an affectionate family, hugging and kissing and sharing “I love you’s.”

Although life at the moment muddied the waters, I believed the detritus would eventually settle. I thought we would return to clearer waters.

Divorce was my worst-case scenario. Our endgame. Not this.

He broke the deal.

On the map, my blue dot eventually, finally, gratefully overlapped with his as I spied my car and pulled into the tiny parking lot on the edge of the woods.

I was in his small BMW, which we’d bought in 2000, before we had our first son, and I parked next to my truck. He earned more money driving Uber in a larger car, hence, he’d taken over my 2006 Suburban.

I immediately knew something was wrong.

He was not in the car.

Either someone had hurt him or he’d gone into the woods to use the bathroom and had a heart attack. The app told me the car had been parked in the same spot for more than an hour, and it was so very hot that day.

Either way, I knew I needed help.

I got out of his BMW and began to dial 911, my heart ticking up in beats, thumping in my ears.

Then I heard the engine of my truck running.

I tried the driver-side door, and it was unlocked. I disconnected with 911 before anyone took my call. Opening it, frigid AC blasted me, a stark contrast to the 105-degree real-feel temperature outside.

I glanced into the back seat and had a moment of pure, gloriously unadulterated relief.

His legs.

They are seared into my mind, no matter how many times I shake my head to clear the image. His legs, crossed at the ankles, socks and sneakers and, farther up, his khaki shorts and a gray souvenir T-shirt from Anna Maria Island, where we had spent our last spring break.

In half the time it takes to exhale, I felt such extreme happiness and a smidge of annoyance.

Yep, napping.

He missed taking our youngest son to guitar lessons because he was sleeping while I had a story due, and now he’d made me drive into the middle of the woods to find and wake him.

But almost simultaneously, I saw an enormous brushed-aluminum cylinder tipped on its side. It took up most of the space between the two captain’s chairs in the second row. I would later learn it was a helium tank from a nearby party store — used to make balloons for children’s parties, not death.

I climbed through the front seats and onto his body, following the tube taped to the tank.

I didn’t see his bag-covered head at first; it had tipped back behind the seat as if asleep. A mask over his mouth connected to a tube under the bag, a bag you would use for a roasting turkey, and its string was pulled tight around his neck. I easily ripped it off and slapped his face, his head hanging back and his brown eyes half-opened while I screamed, “No! No! No!”

I could still hear the hissing of gas.

The force of my hand repeatedly striking his face moved his head back and forth and, for a grateful moment, I mistook this as responsiveness.

But then I saw his left arm resting on the canister. The top was yellow and, along the bottom, gravity had pulled the blood down, turning the entire length of it a mottled red.

I redialed 911, screaming, got out of the car behind the driver’s-side door and moved around the back of my truck to the rear passenger door nearest him. I did not feel a pulse but knew I needed to try CPR.

He was so heavy, and although the seat he was in was reclined, it was not flat. I knew that in order to administer CPR, he had to be flat. I tried, but I could not budge him out of the car on my own. Although we were in the woods, we were near a street. I stood in the middle of the road, my hands up, still connected to 911 and implored, screamed for people to stop and help me.

No one did.

As the mom of three boys, I have become, over years of many, many injuries, unnaturally calm in moments of crisis.

But not now.

Precious minutes ticked by as car after car swerved around me, no doubt frightened off by my panic.

The 911 operator kept admonishing me to calm down, repeatedly asked for my location and scolded me for my hysteria. But I had no idea where we were, having taken an odd, circuitous route through the reservation.

My inability to tell them our location only increased my desperation and the sheer horror I felt.

I continued to fail him.

Finally, an older woman with short gray hair and wearing a floral scrub top stopped, took the phone out of my hand, and directed them to our position.

Then another car stopped. And another. I remember one woman had a small child in the back seat, visible through the open window, and I shouted at her to stay in her car. I didn’t want her child to witness this.

The ambulance seemed to arrive quickly. They immediately pulled Matt’s body out of our car and onto the the uneven gravel of the parking lot. No one would let me near him. I can still feel their hands on me, holding me back.

I texted my sister, who had been calling repeatedly and getting my voicemail, two words: “He’s dead.”

She thought I meant it figuratively, that I’d found him sleeping and was irritated to have left my workday while on deadline only to find him napping. She called again, and apparently I answered. She recalls hearing nothing but my screams.

With uncontrollably trembling hands, I called my friend and asked her to gather my boys from their various positions around town. Her hysterics matched mine, and she later said I told her to knock it off, to pull herself together, hide her emotions, and get my kids home, words of which I have no memory.

She did. How, I have no idea, but she did.

I watched them working on Matt on the rock-strewn ground of the parking lot, weeds sprouting behind him, cutting his T-shirt to expose his chest. His body violently lurched over and over from their efforts, but I knew he was gone.

I knew he was gone from the moment I saw his arm in my car.

I had a fleeting hope that they could revive him, at least long enough for the boys to say a proper goodbye in a hospital. I asked where they were taking him and if could ride in the ambulance.

I then had the fear that he would be brought back enough to survive but not enough to actually live, and I didn’t know what to wish for in that moment.

I sat on the bumper of his car, my legs bouncing in hysteric motions mimicking my insides, drinking water a kind bystander had pushed into my hand.

I tried to focus on the bystander, on her commands to take deep, slow breaths, but I couldn’t make my body obey.

I saw Matt through the side door of the ambulance, his body now on a gurney. By this point they were working on him in the rig. His handsome head, with his salt-and-pepper hair, was perfectly framed by that door, like in a movie.

Then, suddenly, they stopped.

Snapping off their plastic gloves, they all stepped away, and he was alone.

It was then, for certain, I knew he was gone.

A howl that did not sound human escaped my body. I remember the noise startled me and it took a moment to realize I was the one making it.

It was 5:19 p.m.

Time of death: a little over a half-hour from when I’d called 911 at 4:46 p.m.

In the car were three letters: one to me, one to our boys, and one to his parents. I hadn’t noticed them during the chaos and my panic. They accompanied his birth certificate, passport, wallet, cellphone, and copies of various bills. From this evidence, I can only assume he never expected I would be the one to find him.

We talked often about odd people he picked up and stories on the news of Uber drivers who had been hurt. I believe he thought I would call the police to check on him before going out to the woods alone, which in hindsight is probably what I should have done.

I’m forever grateful I didn’t go out there with one of our kids.

But it hurts to think he assumed I would not search for him, that he would need various forms of ID for police to tell us he was gone. If it were reversed, he would have hunted for me, and it destroys me that he did not consider I would do the same.

After, I could not speak.

I rotted my throat with my screams for help. Crackly, gaspy sounds were all I could make for days. A bruise covering my entire upper thigh appeared the next day, visible proof of my efforts to drag his body out of our car. I caught myself staring at that bruise over the following days, trying, unsuccessfully, to convince myself there was nothing more I could have done to save him.

I have no idea how much of this is my fault.

The letters, which I was not allowed to read on-site for reasons that still baffle me, were paraphrased by the kind, on-scene chief after I begged and pleaded for some insight.

Not that it helped.

I mean, when I finally read them, word for word, days later, it did.

I understood how he got from A to Z in his mind.

Sort of.

I understood the sliver of the prism through which my husband viewed our lives and future, but I remain perplexed by his inability to recognize how distorted his theory became as it passed through this spectrum.

While he potentially fixed our financial problem, he created a million more that splintered off in bouncing, inaccurate, agonizing directions that were infinitely harder, if not impossible, to solve.

And this makes me so angry. We created three amazing boys who are all on really incredible paths, and I don’t know how I will forgive him if this knocks them off track.

Or myself.

They are this way because they had a dad who loved them so very much, who spent time with them, had conversations with them, valued their opinions. He coached all three of their hockey teams, spent years making memories together with them on the drive to and from chilly rinks.

While unemployed, he dropped them off and picked them up from school, went to the grocery store, and cooked dinners. He played video games with them, tossed a football, made huge breakfasts every weekend.

He adored them. Plain and simple.

He loved them more than anything.

Kids aren’t supposed to be your best friends, and Matt was good at not blurring those lines. He was a disciplinarian, but they secretly were his best friends.

In his letter to them, he oddly signed it “Matt and Dad.” A friend theorized it was because he truly thought of them as his friends, not just his children.

How can your dad taking his own life so that you may have a “better” future not screw you up? The night before he killed himself, we had a family movie night.

The pick, A Quiet Place, was a random selection.

Prior, Matt went to the store to buy microwave popcorn for the boys and made each of them specialized milkshakes. In the movie, at the end (spoiler alert), the dad sacrifices himself to keep his kids safe.

Our boys were upset by this, but we explained that’s the job of a parent. That either of us would do anything to keep them safe in a similar situation.

I have no idea if that triggered a plan he’d long had in the making, but the timing doesn’t make sense to me otherwise.

As dumb as it sounds, he had just received a new batch of plastic cups for his iced coffee. We’d talked about either a beach day or an amusement park for the Fourth of July and had two family vacations planned. This may have been his fallback plan, but I believe its implementation was set into action after the movie that night.

I later learned from the police that Matt rented the helium tank at 8:30 a.m. He was still alive at 1:25 p.m. when he texted me.

This tortures me.

I cannot envision the pain he was in, the courage he was trying to muster, the possible debate he was having with himself, knowing what a horrific idea this was, the damage it would inflict on all of us — but believing without his life insurance policy, our lives were doomed. He thought he ran out of road, which is nonsense.

There is always more road.

He made the choice to kill himself not because he wanted to — if we were financially stable, he would still be here. He didn’t suffer from chronic depression. He sacrificed himself so his family might, in his twisted view on that terrible day, have a chance of a more secure future financially — but a severely diminished one in all the ways that truly matter.

He believed we’d be better off without him.

He also robbed his parents of their only child.

How wrong he was.

In his letter to the boys, he wrote, “You will get past this, you will go to college, fall in love and marry and have families of your own. I hope you can forgive me and understand.”

With every fiber in me, I hope he is right, although I know that is an impossible request.

A loving, present dad is unquantifiable.


The worst moment of my life, finding my husband dead in our car, would be eclipsed by something even more horrific: having to tell our three adored sons he was gone.

The officer, who held my hand the entire ride home, dropped me off down the block, at my request, so the boys wouldn’t see the police car.

Every step I took up our driveway made my legs quake, knowing, as I got closer to our front door, that I was about to cross a line separating “before” and “after,” and nothing would ever be the same.

I have no idea how much of this is my fault.

It could be most of it. It could be if I had been kinder, more supportive, more encouraging, we would not find ourselves here.

It could be the opposite, that nothing I could have said would have swayed him off this course.

It’s all too fresh. I don’t have any answers. And maybe I never will.

All I know for certain is that I am now the solo parent to three extraordinary boys.

Boys who were shaped by a loving and exceptional father.

Complete Article HERE!

When Grief Has a Seat at the Holiday Dinner Table

Grief expert David Kessler on the power of finding meaning during the COVID holidays


How can emptiness be so oppressive? Absence hangs darkly in the air, a steadily descending, suffocating pall of grief threatening to choke out the joyous light of life. Obligatory smiles are forced around the family dinner table. Tears are not, falling unexpectedly with flash images of happier times. Death did not take a holiday this year.

This Christmas, the families, friends, and loved ones of the more than 9,000 people who’ve died from COVID-19 in Los Angeles County will struggle with the grief. Loss upon loss upon loss—not only death but job loss, the loss of financial and relationship security, the loss of feeling in control of one’s own life—suffered in silence creates a numbness that can make even the simplest task a struggle.

David Kessler understands and wants to help. During the height of the AIDS crisis, Kessler, the gay founder of Progressive Nursing Services, helped care-providing friends of those dying from the stigmatized disease cope with their fears and grief, later cofounding Project Angel Food with his friend, former presidential candidate Marianne Williamson. Kessler subsequently teamed up and wrote two books with his mentor, psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, who pioneered the concept of the five stages of grief in her ground-breaking book On Death and Dying. After the 2016 accidental overdose death of his 21-year-old son during the opioid crisis, Kessler wrote Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief, about “remembering with more love than pain.” On his website, Kessler posts helpful videos, including one in which he shares how to heal the five areas of grief, as well as resources and help with myriad feelings not generally associated with grief. He also started a free Facebook group so people can connect virtually.  

“It’s really important that we name our feelings because you can’t heal what you don’t feel,” Kessler tells Los Angeles. “People don’t realize that grief is exhausting and that heaviness you’re feeling, that sadness, that lack of motivation—there’s a good chance this time it’s grief. And when we name it, we no longer feel we’re crazy or something could be wrong with us. Grief is a reflection of what’s going on in our life and in the world. And how many losses are there right now?”

Every day in L.A. is a 9/11. “The problem is we can’t see this,” Kessler says. “Because it’s everywhere and there’s no funerals and there’s no visuals. Our mind can’t comprehend what’s really happening. When you look back on the AIDS crisis, the Vietnam war, 9/11—there were caskets and nonstop funerals. We are not seeing that. Now we’re at home. Funerals are rarely happening, and if they are, they’re on Zoom.”

Meanwhile, the comfort of physical contact with loved ones who live outside our households has been temporarily taken away. And we’re subconsciously mourning little things every day. Even discovering that a beloved neighborhood restaurant has shuttered can trigger grief.

So what do we do?

“Part of our work is to try to find a meaning. Now, meaning isn’t in the pandemic. There is no meaning in a horrible death or a pandemic. The meaning is in us,” Kessler tells Los Angeles. “I live on a street here in Los Angeles where I never knew my neighbors. I mean, I kind of waved at the people to my right and to my left, but I didn’t know them. During the pandemic, all of a sudden, we got a whole text chain where we started texting one another. Someone was going to the grocery store. Check on the elderly man at the end of the street because he may need groceries. That was finding meaning. All of a sudden, I saw kids in the front lawn playing with their parents. I’ve never seen them play with their parents. That’s meaning. We’re suddenly, ‘well, it’s so horrible, we can only connect on news.’ But suddenly, we’re talking to people around the country, around the world on Zoom.”

Kessler hopes that people find a lot of new meanings. “Maybe part of the meaning is that we take our government personally. Maybe we make sure that we’re fully in line with our government and the future and that our government really represents us,” he says.

And what of finding meaning during a holiday season in which cheer seems like an insult?

“Love is still important,” Kessler says. “Even if I just have conversations with people I love. Even if I realized that this is going to pass. Sometimes some of those worst moments become the meaningful ones when we’re no longer having superficial conversations with each other. I can’t tell you how many people have said, ‘I just can’t go commercial on a lot of gifts or do that whole thing this year.’ It’s going to be more love than commercial gifts. Maybe we’ll be a little more meaningful this year.”

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