Finding Meaning: Why The Sixth Stage of Grief is an Important Step

If you’ve been grieving, you’re probably familiar with the ”Five Stages of Grief,” and hopefully they’ve been very helpful to you! You can experience them one at a time, all at once, backwards, forwards, or in whatever order they come to you, and that’s okay! The five stages are: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. But what if you get to that fifth stage of acceptance, and you still don’t feel closure? What if you feel like you need something more to help you move forward after a loss? Well…

A New Stage of Grief

In March of 2020, grief expert David Kessler spoke with Brené Brown on her podcast Unlocking Us about his important work with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, who famously coined the “Five Stages of Grief.” Kessler worked closely with Kübler-Ross for many years, and after the sudden loss of his own 21-year-old son, he experienced years of intensely painful grief of his own. His reflections on the loss ultimately led him to approach Dr. Kübler-Ross’s family about adding a 6th Stage of grief to her widely respected work. They approved, and in 2019 he published his book Finding Meaning.

Though the original five stages of grief aren’t the only way that experts have tried to explain the phenomenon that we experience after a loss, they are famous for a reason. When you’re going through the pain of losing a loved one, whether that be through a death, breakup, or moving far away, it can be helpful to research your grief as a way to make sense of it. Dr. Kübler-Ross’s original five stages have now officially added a sixth stage, finding meaning.

What “Finding Meaning” Actually Means

At first glance, the words “finding meaning” could make you feel angry. How could there be a meaning behind this painful event? What good could possibly come from having something you loved ripped out of your life. These are totally valid feelings! Take a deep breath, because Kessler makes it very clear that he does not believe that “finding meaning” in his son’s death means he will reach a place where he thinks his son’s death was a good thing. Loss is, frankly, terrible. The death of his son was tragic and sudden, and despite all the hard work he’s done to process his grief, he will always want his son back.

But in a world where the sad reality is that his son is gone, he must continue to live life, and the truth is that there are things in his life to be grateful for that never would have happened without the loss of his son. It has given him a renewed passion for learning and teaching about grief so that others can heal! It’s resulted in a new book, new psychological research, and new ways for others to find hope in their own losses. Though tragic, and though he’ll never get his son back, Kessler’s loss has brought a new source of meaning into his personal and professional life.

How You Can Find Meaning in Your Grief

Once you’ve reached a place where you can sometimes feel that “acceptance” stage kicking in, consider how the “finding meaning” stage could play a role in your healing. Where do you see that possibility in your loss?

Maybe you lost a parent. That is heartbreaking, and you may always wish you could have them back. But as you move forward, how can that loss inform your decisions, your goals, your dreams, and your direction? Perhaps your parent was an incredible cook, and you could find a connection to their memory in practicing your own cooking. That’s meaning.

Perhaps you lost a friend. Perhaps their death was caused by drunk driving. Though you can’t go back and change the event itself, and though your friend will always be gone, what can you take away from the experience? Certainly, you’d rather have your friend back than “learn a lesson” from their death, and that’s completely valid. However, time and your life will move forward regardless. How will the experience of this loss inform the way you choose to live from here on out? Maybe you become a crusader for the campaign to end drunk driving, or maybe you become the designated driver who makes sure your friends always get home safely. That’s meaning.

Whatever or whomever you’ve lost, ask yourself, “How can I meet my pain with love today? How can I honor ___ even though they’re absent?” You can start small! At first it may be that you take your grief on a 5-minute walk outside, even if you know you’re going to return to the couch and curl up with a blanket immediately afterward. Eventually, you may find the desire to think bigger. Maybe you can honor the lost person by turning their old bedroom into a craft room so that you can feel close to their memory as you make art. Maybe you start a club at school that centers on doing something you used to enjoy with that person. Maybe you apply to a college they attended, consider majoring in something they studied, or pursue a career they were passionate about (as long as these things are also honoring to you at the same time as they honor your loved one). Day by day, finding meaning is about looking for ways you can start to feel joy again, honoring those you’ve lost, and loving yourself through the grieving process.

Hope in the Darkness

Just as David Kessler would probably give up his new book, even his entire career, if he could have his son back, you may always have that longing, deep down for the return of what you lost. Finding meaning in the midst of grief does not negate that feeling. Instead, finding meaning is how we can feel connected to the person we loved, how we can live our lives in honor of that love, and how we can find joy in our lives again, even as our grief remains a part of us.

The most important thing to take away from anything you read about grief is that, though there are big similarities like the six stages, we all handle it differently. Loss is devastating. You’ll feel so many feelings that it will be hard to keep track of or identify them, especially in the early days after the loss. As time goes on, you may notice that one or two strong feelings linger while others get quieter. You may have days and weeks where you feel okay, then suddenly get hit with a wave of heartache out of nowhere. Be patient with yourself–grief is hard.

Christ Himself dealt with intense grief when He experienced loss… you are not alone in this feeling, and He has an intimate understanding of your pain. Don’t suffer in silence! We encourage you to talk to someone as you grieve. It can be really helpful to have someone from an outside perspective empathize with and encourage you! If you don’t know who to turn to or how to find meaning in your situation, please reach out to a Hope Coach today. We are always here to listen without judgment and share the hope you can know even in the darkest times.

We also have a partner, GriefShare, who is a caring support group of people who will walk alongside you through one of life's most difficult experiences.

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