Book review: Finding meaning

Written by Isabel Aldiss

Around the second week of lockdown in COVID-19 Alert Level 4 I felt a fatigue descend on me. I didn’t know where it came from. It was just a heaviness that I was not used to experiencing. I was keeping to my morning routines. I was implementing all those self-care strategies I write about, but something would not shift. When alphabetically ordering my book collection (yes OCD alert) I found my copy of Finding Meaning, a beautiful book by David Kessler. David is an expert in grief and co-authored a book on Grief and Grieving with Elizabeth Kubbler Ross, the renowned pioneer in the field. Ross’s work on death and dying was transformative in its presentation of the five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.  In Kessler’s latest work he observes that there is a sixth stage important stage in the grieving process, and this is finding meaning.

It is hard to write a review of a book about grief and the importance of finding meaning without describing the loss, and in this case this review may sound like a victim impact statement in response to COVID-19. However, re-reading Kessler’s work allowed me to connect with loss and the personal grief I have experienced through this time. I have not been able to be in England to meet my granddaughter. I have not been able to be in England and hold my elderly mother’s hand. I have had to sit with the knowledge that I may not see her again and that I may not get to take my seat, face-to-face, between the generations. I have keenly felt the loss of connection, not able to be with family; feeling the miles that separate me from my daughter, alone in Australia, unable to join her when she needed me most. Kessler’s work reminded me to acknowledge my losses and understand that my own deep sadness was indeed grief, real and profound. Kessler writes that we each grieve in our own way and that the greatest loss is indeed our own. Yes, he warns, there is suffering in the world, yet we do not need to create further suffering by comparing our losses with those of others, especially diminishing our own loss to validate another.

Connecting with my own loss, I was able to look out and hear stories of others. The cancellation of a friend’s trip of a lifetime. A friend’s loss of a family member. The experiences of another friend whose children are experiencing life threatening autoimmune responses. I began to realise that we were all in this together. Kessler points out that the stages of grief are descriptive stages, they are not prescriptive stages. They are not worked through in a linear fashion. He stresses that we can oscillate between the stages, at times getting stuck, at others being thrown around by conflicting feelings. He makes the point that it’s important to feel the pain and to be able to sit with the discomfort of grief. 

Re-reading the book reminded me that meaning is not found in the loss – whether it’s death or divorce, being rejected or made redundant. Meaning is what I make after the loss because loss happens. Kessler’s work reminds me of the metaphor of the ocean rip – in times of uncertainty, grief and loss – once I give up the struggle I can put my hand up for help and start to gently drift into calmer waters. Staying with the ocean metaphor, Kessler also reminds me that I can learn to lean into the intensity of the feeling and begin to surf the waves of emotion. Learning this art of surfing is one of life’s most important lessons. The tide of grief can be full in. I can be walking on the soft sand which is difficult. Or I can walk on the harder sand, looking up to experience the journey in a more mindful and wholehearted manner.

At this time of global grieving where there are numerous losses, I am finding meaning in the ordinary moments of my daily routine. The number of beautiful sunrises I see, the sound of the tui calling across the silence of the earth. What has helped me is remembering that I have a choice to make meaningful moments. I choose to make extraordinary moments out of the ordinary; this is within my control. Does this take away any of pain?  Not at all, however it prevents me from being stuck and start processing what is happening.

Finding Meaning is a beautifully written and very practical book which can be purchased or downloaded. Alternatively this podcast https://brenebrown.com/podcast/david-kessler-and-brene-on-grief-and-finding-meaning/ provides a brilliant overview which can help us navigate these uncharted times.

About the author

Isabel Aldiss is a Resolution Practitioner at FairWay, who specialises in mediation and Preparation for Mediation.

She is an accredited Family Dispute Resolution provider through AMINZ . Isabel is also an accredited counsellor with the New Zealand Association of Counsellors.

If you would like to get in touch with Isabel, please contact her by email at fairwayinfo@fairwayresolution.com