David Kessler on learning to live with grief in a “grief-illiterate” culture

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The last few months of the pandemic has left many people isolated and fearful. Thousands of families have lost loved ones and are dealing with sadness and confusion. Grief expert David Kessler explains that grief is an emotion that arises out of unwanted change. He also laments that our society has become death-fearing and grief-illiterate. KCRW’s Jonathan Bastian sat down with Kessler to get his thoughts on grief and death in America.

This interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity.

For many of us the last few months have been a mix of emotions; anxiety or depressions or isolation. Are we grieving?

David Kessler: We tend to think about grief as something that lives only in the sense of a loved one dying. But grief is really about change and usually a change we did not want. It [was] really hard for us to grasp that two months ago, we lived in a world that we will never be able to experience again. You know, it's a little like we walked into the room, the door closed behind us and we turned to go back out of it and it's locked forever. And we have to acknowledge that sadness about that; we have to acknowledge how strange this is, and how people have different reactions, whether it's anger or sadness. But there is a collective grief in the air now that I don't think we felt so globally before as we do now.

Is grief an emotion that eventually goes away?

Kessler: Many people falsely think that we get over grief, we recover from grief, we recover from a loss. The reality is [that] we learn to live with it. And we're learning to live with this. Now, what is important for us to understand is: there is no night that hasn't given way to a new day; there is no storm that didn't pass. This will pass, this will end someday. But because we don't have the date it’s a very worrisome concept to our brain — but it will end at some point.

Death triggers grief but there are other types of losses from which we also grieve. Explain why those feelings are equally intense and why we’re hesitant to accept grieving?

Kessler: We're just not accustomed to the broadness of grief and we're a very grief-illiterate society that hasn’t really delved into this language. There is the death of our loved one. But a divorce is the death of that marriage. A breakup is the death of that relationship. A job loss is the death of that income, that work environment, those people you were seeing in that setting. So they all are a death of something. And we are dealing with the death of the world as we know it.

Cover of "Finding Meaning: The 6th stage of grief." Courtesy of Scribner.




Andrea Brody