FINDING MEANING author David Kessler, a world-renowned expert on grief, believes that there is a sixth stage of grief, and that is meaning. Here he shares his insights on the question of “why?” that haunts us after the passing of a loved one, and 5 ideas for helping us turn that unanswerable question into our motivation for moving forward.
There are many variations of the haunting “Why” question: Why did my loved one die? Why did my husband die? Why my wife? Why did tragedy strike us? Why him, or her, or them? There must be a reason. Life can’t be that cruel and random.
Many people spend years looking for a why answer that will never come. There is no satisfying answer to why your loved died. Early on, it might be okay, even essential, to put on that detective hat. Ask your questions, talk to the doctors, pull autopsy reports, and ask your friends questions.
You may think I’m asking you to find meaning in death. I am not. There is no good to be found in their death. I’m asking you to find meaning after their death. Finding meaning is still possible. You can find meaning in why your loved one lived. What did your loved one get out of being here? And what did you get out of knowing him or her? Did anything good come from the relationship?
Did anything good come out of their death? People often have a knee-jerk reaction to that question, assuring me that no good could come of their loss. But it can. Perhaps you are a more compassionate person now. Maybe the tragedy helped change the way you deal with other people who have suffered losses. Maybe your loved one’s death shed a public light on violence or brought attention to a deadly disease. Even in the worst tragedies, people are often surprised to find that some good resulted from it. That good does not erase the bad; it is in addition to it.
There’s also the “Why me?” question, which I hear a lot in my work with those grieving. In my workshops, we don’t deal with this until the second day because the answer is so challenging. I guide people gently into it. I begin asking people in the room to recount something terrible that has happened in their life. It may not be the loss that brought them there. It could be something else. All kinds of answers arise. One person talks about being bullied, the next person about being raped. Someone’s brother died when he was young. Someone else’s house just burned down. Another person dad died by suicide. A person was molested as a child. Another had an alcoholic father or a bipolar mother. All those traumatic events combined with the losses they have experienced equate to so much. The litany of physical and mental injuries and griefs goes on and includes everything from death to betrayal, miscarriage to chronic disease.
After this, we go around the room, and I say, “My guess is many of you have more than one thing. Does anyone not have anything bad that’s happened? Is there anyone here whose life has been perfect? No loss? No pain?”
No hands go up.
“There is no one who got nothing this life. Everyone has something. So no one has had a perfect past,” I continue. “Do any of you foresee a future without pain or loss?”
Again, no hands.
Then I ask them what they got out of hearing about other people’s losses. Did it affect their own questions of “why me?” Then someone will say some version of, “I guess the real question is, ‘Why not me? Why did I think I was going to get through this life without sorrow, pain, or grief?’”
That’s the deal in this life, the good and the bad. No one gets just the good.
Your loved one has died–that is the heartbreak that happens after the loss. We don’t move on from that loss; rather, we learn to live with it.
Here are some ways to help with the why questions.
- Give yourself permission to be a detective. Ask the why questions. Even if they’re things you know intellectually make no sense. For example, you might explore, “Why did I go to lunch? Maybe he would still be alive If I had been with him.” Allow yourself the magical thinking.
- You will never find a satisfying why. Even if you get medical reasons or other information that explains the death, it will still not be satisfactory. In all my decades of working with those in grief, no one has ever said, “Yes, I’m so satisfied with these answers.”
- Early grief is a time to be self-aware. It will seem cruel and personal at first, as it should. But the reality is, no one will ever understand your loss. It is your job to honor your loss, not someone else.
- Why me? becomes Why not me? At a certain point you begin to realize that the death was not done to you, even though it greatly impacts you. Death is not personal; people die at all ages, in all ways, and at all times.
- Shift from Why to How. When you realize you’re never going to find a satisfying “why,” allow your “why” to shift to how. How am I going to move forward after this loss?
For a roadmap to remembering those who have died with more love than pain, read FINDING MEANING by David Kessler.
David Kessler is the world’s foremost expert on grief. His experience with thousands of people on the edge of life and death has taught him the secrets to living a fulfilled life, even after life’s tragedies. He coauthored On Grief and Grieving and Life Lessons with Elizabeth Kübler-Ross and You Can Heal Your Heart: Finding Peace After a Breakup, Divorce or Death with Louise Hay. He is the author of Finding Meaning, Visions, Trips, and Crowded Rooms, and The Needs of the Dying, praised by Mother Teresa.
David’s work has been featured in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Business Week, and Life Magazine, and on CNN, Fox, NBC, PBS, and CBS. David has served on the Red Cross Aviation Disaster Team and has volunteed for decades as a Los Angeles Police Department Specialist Reserve Officer. He lectures for physicians, nurses, counselors, police, and first responders and leads talks and retreats for those dealing with grief.
If you found this article helpful, read: 5 Things No One Tell You About Dying