Lessons Learned About the Grieving Process

An Interview with David Kessler

Ryan Howes

POV_KesslerWhat 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 around the world and on disaster and trauma teams. 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.


Ryan Howes: So much of death and dying intersects with religion and theology. Do people who have a belief in God cope better than people who don’t?

David Kessler: We all have a personalized belief system shaped by our family, our life experience, whatever our religious upbringing has been. I’d say people do better when they have a sense of meaning in life, and, early on, I learned a lesson from an atheist who said sometimes people make the mistake of thinking an atheist doesn’t find meaning in life. “We have meaning,” he said. “We just don’t have God.” People who find any kind of meaning in their life, religious or otherwise, find a comfort in facing death that others usually don’t.

Ryan Howes: How can therapists best prepare themselves to work with grieving clients?

David Kessler: Elisabeth Kübler-Ross believed that how you approach a loved one’s death shapes how you grieve. Before and after is a continuum. Therapists should be aware of anything we can do to help clients be proactive and involved when a loved one is dying. We have to normalize that experience to let people know there’s no right thing to say. It’s about being present. Our life must be witnessed, our death must be witnessed, and our grief must be witnessed. It’s a primal experience.

Ryan Howes: Why do most of us avoid talking about grief?

David Kessler: We often think we’re running from grief, but what we’re really running from is the pain of loss. Actually, grief is the gift that’s been given to us to help heal.

To read Ryan’s complete interview with David Kessler from the November/December 2013 issue, subscribe to Psychotherapy Networker magazine

Topic: Trauma

Tags: grief | grieving | grieving process

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