July 12, 2021
By Johanna K.P. Greeson, PhD, MSS, MLSP
Managing Faculty Director, The Field Center for Children’s Policy, Practice & Research
David Kessler, one of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s proteges and grief expert, has written a new book Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief (2019). In 2016, Kessler lost his 21-year-old son David to an accidental drug overdose. Kessler found meaning in David’s death by writing about how meaning is the place where healing, including his own, often resides. He describes one of the many lessons he’s learned from his own grief and from working with others who are grieving,
I cannot take your pain away. It is not my place to do that. Your pain is yours. It's part of the love you feel. What I can do, however, is let you know that if you look for meaning, your pain will change, your suffering will end (p. 69).
Since 2015, I’ve been struggling to figure out how to live after loss. My mother passed suddenly and unexpectedly. I was 40 years-old. Her death profoundly impacted me. But only recently, have I started to find meaning in it.
I study young people who age out of foster care and their social support networks, with an emphasis on the protective nature of non-parental caring adults. To say these young people have experienced loss is an understatement. For a minute, imagine everything that you feel any positive, loving, affirming connection to, and now imagine all these people, places, pets, belongings disappearing and these separations happening again and again. To me, the losses are nearly incomprehensible. Then, my Mom died.
The meaning that I’m now finding in my Mom’s death makes me sensitive to the pain of others my age who have lost their parents (I have one close friend who has now lost both her parents), and to the grief and pain of young people who age out of foster care. I’m able to use the insight I’m gaining from my Mom’s death to make space for their losses. I approach my work from a place that acknowledges loss and I connect better because of it. I now accept grief as an enduring part of my life and worthy of respect, and I likewise consider the loss and grief of young people who age out worthy of respect.
Similar to Kessler and all of us who have endured losses, I feel that this wasn’t what my life was supposed to look like. My Mom and I had so much more to do together. But now instead of getting stuck here, I realize that part of the meaning and legacy of my Mom’s death is that my work is infused with an empathic understanding of the losses that young people who age out of foster care endure. This understanding makes me a better scholar, researcher, and most importantly, a better person.
We need a world where all loss is held worthy. This is the meaning I’m creating from my Mom’s death.
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