I thought I knew everything about grief, until my 21-year-old son died
My journey with grief began at 13, when I witnessed a mass shooting at the same time my mother was dying
All Souls Day is a holy day for honouring the dead. It is a day when memory becomes action. It can be the saying of prayers, or lighting candles for the departed. Some places of worship have a Book of the Dead, in which parishioners write the names of relatives to be remembered. Families may visit the graves of their ancestors. The day is dedicated to prayer and remembrance. All Souls Day brings about a connection with our dearly departed.
This time-honoured tradition also has surprising and significant benefits not just for the dead, but also for the living. All Souls Day allows us to remember with love and to reflect upon the love that we shared, the lessons we learned, and the memories that live on through us. It reminds us to bring the legacy of our deceased loved ones forward into the life that we are living today, and can help integrate the past with the present. This day commemorates our connection to those who are no longer with us.
In many ways, our modern culture has lost its connection to those dearly departed. We tend to focus on immediacy, youth, and whatever is on our to-do list today. We avoid contemplative reflection. But grief has a way of permeating our hearts and lives when we don’t give it space. Someone recently asked me how can we find time to be there for the dead when we can barely be there to support our grieving friends and family members? I wonder how we became so disconnected from death, which is as significant a human moment as birth.
Although Mother Teresa was old and frail, she was the happiest person I had ever met
My own journey with grief began at 13 years old, when I witnessed a mass shooting at the same time my mother was dying. The adults in my life didn’t model ways to grieve or show how to honour the loss. They pretended that it just didn’t happen. That trajectory led me to spend most of my life teaching physicians, nurses, counsellors, police and first responders about the end of life, trauma, and grief; and lead talks and retreats for those experiencing grief. I am teaching what our great grandparents already knew. How to be with the dying, how to grieve and how to honour the dead.
Life gives us pain. Our job is to experience it fully. In recent years when I mistakenly thought my tough losses were behind me, it was upended by the sudden death of my 21-year-old son, David. How does the grief expert handle such a tragic loss? I thought back on the five stages that I had adapted with my co-author Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. I saw myself move through the stages that many of us are familiar with – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. But when I got to acceptance, something was lacking. I knew I had to find a way through this unexpected, devastating loss – something that would honour my son. Is acceptance truly all there is when it comes to grief?
I conducted interviews and listened to the stories of many inspiring and thoughtful people who had experienced all kinds of devastating and heartbreaking losses. I began writing about my loss, my love, and my meaning as I put together everything I had learned from those who shared their own grief journeys with me. That writing became my new book.
I feel the pain of missing and grieving those who have died, but I also feel and see the meaning. Through meaning, we can go beyond that pain. Loss can wound and paralyse. It can hang over us for years. But finding meaning in loss empowers us to find a path forward. Meaning helps us make sense of grief.
The meaning that we find after a loss is as unique as your relationship was. Some people become inspired to start foundations, to inform and inspire others so they can help them not experience the same pain. Some people find meaning by honouring their loved ones through doing things they enjoyed. Some find meaning by nurturing the relationships we have with the living as we are reminded of the brevity and beauty of life. People find meaning by creating art, or helping others, or through sharing the stories of those who are no longer with us so they can be remembered. There is no end to the possibilities.
There is meaning and power in prayer as well. In the reflection and silence, we hold up those who are no longer with us. We do this to honour them, and we do this to heal ourselves and to remember all the ways that we were blessed.
I was fortunate enough to spend a little time with Mother Teresa at the Home for the Dying Destitute in India the year before she died. Although she was old and frail, she was the happiest person I had ever met. She told me, “Life is an achievement, and death is part of that achievement.” Her last words to me surprised me. She reached out gently for my hand and beckoned, “Pray for me.” I couldn’t imagine why she, who had the prayers of the Pope and millions of people, would ask me to pray for her as well. Her eyes revealed the answer. To the God she knew so personally, all prayers were equal and mattered.
Prayers for the dearly departed have come to have great meaning for me. I pray for and remember those I have loved and those who have died – my son, my parents and so many others. When I pray, I acknowledge the love and the loss. I pray for those who I have lost, and I pray to accept the pain that loss left behind.
Grief doesn’t need a lot of time, but it needs dedicated time. We often say how much we miss our loved ones, but we don’t always realise that missing them is part of remembering them. All Souls Day is a time to honour and pray for our loved ones. To pray for their heavenly existence and eternal life. It helps me feel there is more than these earthly bodies. That we truly have a life with no end, and our soul is so strong that even a little death couldn’t end it.
Finding Meaning by David Kessler is published by Rider Books on November 7th