David Kessler says at first, he didn’t want to become known as ‘the death guy’ – but now he’s proud to be that man.
He has become famous for reassuring people it’s actually okay to grieve – and help us all become better listeners, instead of worrying what to say.
In the wake of major tragedy or a high-profile celebrity’s death, David is often the first person that American TV will turn to, as people try to take in the news.
Grief does not occur if you do not love
“I’m not here to help people grieve,” he says.
“The reality is, I’m here to help them live.”
We grieve, says David, because we love. So naturally, the bigger the love, the greater the hurt can be.
“Grief does not occur if you do not love,” he says.
“I can’t take away pain– that’s evidence of love. But the suffering is optional.”
David Kessler was the recent guest speaker at an Alternatives wellbeing talk in London
When we are bereaved we can feel cut off or robbed, says David, who in his work with hospice patients sometimes surprises families, by asking them to turn their backs – for just a moment or two – on their sleeping loved one.
It’s so they can feel the person’s presence without seeing them. Are they still there in your heart and mind? Did the love stop?
When someone we love dies, he says, we can learn to grow around grief – and gradually learn to live the life a loved one would have wished for us. But the first thing we have to do is really feel those painful feelings – although this can be a very difficult thing.
“Our tendency is to try to ‘fix’ grief and yet when you are in grief, you are not broken,” says David.
Feeling and healing
“But you can’t heal what you don’t feel – and in grief, we have trouble with this.
“To me grief is a river. The river can take us to a new place with a person who died, yet who never stopped loving us. Some people slowly tiptoe in, as a loved ones get sicker, while others get a sudden call and are thrown in.
“The river of grief will take you to healing and a new place with that person, but society tells us to fight the current – or that you can only have three days in the river.
“We’re not taught about how to grieve well. What I’m teaching now is what our great grandparents knew how to do. Society didn’t tell them to ‘have a nice day’ – they knew how to be sad.
“Part of what I do in my teaching is help people experience pure grief – not suffering.”
The success of David’s first book, The Needs of the Dying – saw him dubbed ‘the death guy’ – but it led him to realise that perhaps there was even more to listen and write about.
David began working closely with people who are grieving and has become a respected expert in his field. He’s supported celebrities including Elizabeth Taylor and Jamie Lee Curtis, while much of his day-to-day work involves him working closely with social care providers, hospices and also emergency care-givers to support adults and children through the trauma of grief.
“I always say to people,” says David, “The worst loss is...yours. When someone tells you the story of their loss, your job is to witness.
“It can be tough for people to be present without thinking about ourselves and what we can say next.”
Together with Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, David wrote about The Five Stages of Grief in a book called On Grief & Grieving. The five stages – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, have become a famous way of identifying the major feelings we can experience when someone dies.
Of course, not everyone goes through the five grief stages exactly the same way, but it’s a ‘model’ to help people better understand emotions that can be unfamiliar, overwhelming, or even frightening to go through.
In his latest book, David, who travels the world giving talks and workshops supporting people who are struggling with grief, worked with the late wellbeing guru Louise Hay. The book, You Can Heal Your Heart, explores how the power of positive thinking can help us to live with grief in our lives.
It’s not about chasing rainbows or counting blessings, he says, but tuning out the negative thoughts that can make us suffer when we are already in pain.
“Our minds have had a negative bias from our caveman days,” says David.
“With positive psychology, there’s a group of people who bounce back from grief stronger. It doesn’t mean you don’t go through the pain. Every thought we have affirms something good or bad.
“We need to change how we perceive loss, or else our mind will punish us. We turn on ourselves or blame others… ‘If only I’d done differently…’
“We get caught up in the pain of suffering.”
As a teenager, David was unable to say goodbye to his own mother, after hospital staff refused to bend rules banning children from the intensive care unit she lay dying in.
He was aged just 13 when she died, the day after he had coincidentally witnessed a mass-shooting which claimed many lives.
‘I understood how terrible the world could be’
“I knew as a child there had to be a better way to die than the way my mother died and I also understood how terrible the world could be. I was inoculated. I knew I could either be a victim or help people, so I decided to help.”
Two years ago, David also unexpectedly lost his oldest son, David junior, a painful grief he will always hold in his heart.
“To those parents that came to my lectures all my years... I wanted to write them a note, saying ‘I’d no idea how bad it was’, he says.
“But they were also my inspiration, knowing I’d been watching them get through this for years, they’re going to hold my hands now. And they have.”
David says he aims to live and continue to flourish in the way he feels David junior would have wanted for his dad.
“Our grief doesn’t get smaller,” says David, “We have to grow bigger – and in a way that honours our loved one.”