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Grief as a Gift:  Carrying on the Legacy of Kübler-Ross

By Ryan Howes

What do you say to someone who’s lost a loved one, or is facing the terrifying imponderables of a terminal illness? How do you choose the right words, find the right tone? How do you make your way through the fear of saying the wrong things to offering something that truly feels supportive and helpful?

Not surprisingly, most people shy away from emotionally fraught subjects like death and grieving, but best-selling author David Kessler has spent his life becoming an expert on them. Why? As he reveals in the following interview, one fateful day in his childhood forced him to confront death on many levels, and led him to spend years working in hospice centers and on disaster and trauma teams around the world. Kessler, known for his collaboration with the legendary Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, coauthored two best-selling books with her: On Grief and Grieving and Life Lessons. Over the course of his career, he’s helped thousands of people deal with the end of life and the grieving process. Here, he discusses lessons he’s learned.

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RH: How did you become interested in death and dying?

Kessler: You don’t choose to work in this field: it chooses you. In my case, it chose me in a really dramatic way when I was 12. We lived in a very small town, and my mother, who’d been ill with kidney disease, had gone to a big-city hospital for dialysis, which was a brand new treatment back then. My father and I were staying in a hotel directly across from the hospital, and I woke up one morning to discover that a sniper had taken over the hotel and started shooting people. Some people were killed in front of us, including several police officers, before they finally shot the sniper. After a long, terrifying delay, when my father eventually got me over to the hospital to see my mother, the nurse enforced a “you must be 14 years old to visit” rule. So I didn’t get to see my mother, who died the next day. Later, when I flew back home, it was my first time on a plane, and as a way of doing something special for a kid whose mother had died that day, they let me ride in the cockpit. They tried to give me some fun experience, I assume. It was a life-changing day, full of mixed emotions, to say the least.

RH: What a bizarre, traumatic introduction to death and dying!

Kessler: It led me to become a thanatologist, someone dedicate to the field of death and dying and grief and loss. I believed I had to go wherever death was. That’s why I became a specialist reserve police officer and worked with the Red Cross on their mental health team and aviation disaster team. I got my pilot’s license, became a paramedic and a nurse, and even got my masters in bioethics. It was only later that I started to realize how clearly I was a product of that one day when I was 12. By getting my pilot’s license, I learned what to do if a plane was going down. I got a masters in bioethics to learn about the people who decided on my mother’s dialysis. I got my nursing degree, ran a hospital, became a healthcare executive, and even became a cop. In all these choices, I’ve gone back and replayed that day on many levels.

RH: As if you were trying to create better outcomes?

Kessler: Right. And I hope by this point I’ve learned enough to have a gift to give to other people.

RH: How did you and Elisabeth Kübler-Ross get together?

Kessler: I was attending an international death-and-dying conference in Egypt where she was the keynoter. At the last minute, we got notification that she’d had a stroke and wouldn’t be there. After the conference, I wanted to check on Elisabeth, so I called, and we had a nice little chat. At the end, I said I hoped someday our paths would cross again. She asked, “How about Tuesday?” So began our relationship.

RH: She wasn’t one to just let fate be in charge.

Kessler: She was a woman who made things happen! Meeting her was a humbling experience, to say the least. She was still sick, and she was angry about her stroke, which had left her paralyzed on her left side. As I joke, I sometimes say, “I’m Jewish, so anger doesn’t bother me.” Years later, she told me I showed up just as many people were abandoning her because of her anger. At the end of our first meeting, I said, “If there’s anything I can do, if you need someone to talk to, whatever you need, please let me know.” And she said, “I need my air conditioning filters changed the next time you come.”

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