The tears we cry from peeling an onion are different than our tears of joy or sorrow.
“They’re 50 percent water and 50 percent love,” said David Kessler, a leading grief and healing expert who will lead daylong seminars in Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse next week.
The pain that comes with grief must be experienced to push through the process of healing. How much suffering should go with it? That’s a personal choice, said Kessler, whose first bestselling book, “The Needs of the Dying,” was praised by Mother Teresa, among others.
“You have to realize that pain of grief is evidence of love,” he said. “That pain means you loved someone, and that’s a good thing.”
His seminar, “On Grief & Grieving,” will be presented on Monday at the Mellennium Airport Hotel in Cheektowaga, on Tuesday in Rochester and Wednesday in Syracuse. The cost is $199; to register and for more information, visit pesi.com.
Kessler will visit upstate after recent publication of his latest book, “You Can Heal Your Heart: Finding Peace After Breakup, Divorce or Death,” written with Louise Hay. He also coauthored two bestsellers with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross: “On Grief and Grieving” and “Life Lessons.”
Darcy Thiel – a family and grief counselor from West Seneca who writes about the loss of her husband to cancer in her book, “Bitter and Sweet” – will introduce Kessler on Monday. Learn more about her at marriageandfamilycounseling.net/darcy-thiel.
The two shared their views on life and death, mourning and healing during a recent conference call. Below are excerpts.
Q. Can you talk about the realities of grief and some of the important things you learned about people in the midst of grieving?
Kessler: In this lifetime, we're going to deal with grief. It's not an area we think we should know anything about but it broadsides us in life and we wish we had been a little more prepared.
Our first inclination is to try to run from it and go around it. It's one of those things in life where you really have to learn to be with it. It's almost as if the only way out of the pain is through the pain. My work is about helping people get through it.
The second part that is tough is that sometimes in grief our mind can be our worst enemy. I always say, "The pain is bad enough but sometimes our mind turns on us and says, "By the way, it's your fault," or "You should have been there more often." Or "Why didn't you do this or that?" That causes us additional suffering. The thing I always say is that pain from loss is inevitable, suffering is optional.
Part of my work is to help people ease up on themselves in the suffering part.
The other component is that we have a society that says you get three grievance days away from work and you should be over it in a year and moving on pretty quickly. Grief is much more organic than that.
Q. What are the keys to addressing grief – of living a fulfilling, meaningful life despite tragedy and the loss of loved ones?
Kessler: Sometimes we have to remind people that our loved ones who have died would not want us to live a damaged life on half-throttle for the next 40 years. They would want us to be able in time to find happiness and joy again.
Thiel: It's a bit of a paradox because embracing grief – going through it – is the only way to go through it. Being willing to embrace grief is what enables you to move on from grief.
Q. Are there steps to grieving or is it different for everyone?
Kessler: I helped Elizabeth Kubler Ross adapt the stages of dying to the stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. While we like to tell people that's what sometimes people feel, we always want people to know they're not in mapped degrees. Even in the same family with siblings, the relationships with parents are different. When my parent dies, I'm going to have a different grief than my brother or sister. Our grief is as unique as our fingerprint.
Thiel: It's like when you discuss culture. There are cultural truths that you don't want to stereotype. There certainly are some generalities about grief that are helpful to understand. You just have to know everyone has their own fingerprint.
So many things people experience are commonalities. One of the things this is very helpful to people is knowing that things they're going through are quite "normal." When people connect with me after they've read books or listened to a lecture, that's what I hear: "Oh my gosh, I thought I was crazy and I'm not. Thank you for saying things I didn't think I could say out loud." There is a lot of comfort knowing that the things you are going through are common to grief.
Kessler: Another thing that's helpful to understand is that you have to focus on your own grief. Sometimes we get lost in, "My husband, my wife, my sister, this person's not grieving enough. Why aren't they crying as much as me?" Take care of your own grief.
Another thing that's helpful to remember is that grief comes in waves. You're going to have a better day, then a worse day, a better moment, then a worse moment. We don't get over it. We don't recover from our loved one who died. They weren't a cold or a flu. We learn to live with loss. We learn to tuck them in our heart.
Q. What are the dangers in letting grief fester, especially for years?
Kessler: Everyone really gets to focus on just their grief in the first year. After that first year, I suggest to people to reach out to someone else in grief. … Sometimes grief festers because we're only turned inward for years and we're not realizing this is a common human experience. I tell people we're not the first generation to go through grief. Our psyche and our soul know how to do this.
Thiel: From a therapeutic perspective, generally speaking, it's the same as any negative thing that happens. When you don't deal with it, if you push it to your subconscious, it's like energy. It can't be destroyed, so it has to go somewhere. What can happen is that the next time you experience a loss - because you will - it can be compounded if you have not allowed yourself to work through your grief. If you get stuck, for example, in the anger phase, you'll find yourself angry at all kinds of things that don't seem to make any sense. All of the energy you have to put in to suppressing your grief is draining. It will get expressed. It's just a matter of whether you want to express it in a healthy way.
Whatever space grief carves out, that hollowness, also becomes a container for the joy and other things that can come your way. The theme of what we're saying is to not be afraid to embrace grief because it's going to be there.
Q. Can you talk about how grief is a window into all old wounds – and how you should respond?
Kessler: When we feel our grief, we go into a state of vulnerability and that vulnerability isn't a weakness, it's a strength. Some of those old wounds are going to come up for healing, so we can either look at grief as a time of a horrible experience or we can rebuild ourselves. We might say, "I'm seeing some of these things coming up. I always feel like I'm the victim" or "I always feel like no one loves me. I want to take time in my grief and heal some of those old wounds so that I can have a happier life."
… After you have a big cry, you're going to feel really good that you expressed it. If you express your anger in a healthy way, once you get it out – whether you scream in your car or punch the pillow or exercise – you're going to feel better and you'll go on to the next feeling."
Q. Talk about your new book, "You Can Heal Your Heart: Finding Peace After Breakup, Divorce or Death," with Louise Hay. Are the elements of healing similar for all three?
Kessler: Some of them are and some aren't. I think what's common is that we are going to go through horrible disappointments and losses in our life. What I think we're not taught is that we can heal. Our paradigm is there's two options: You either become OK after grief and you survive or you remain broken. I think we've seen that there's much more to it. We know much more and find out from positive psychology that there's a third option: Whether you feel broken or feel like you just want to survive, there are people who bounce back stronger after a loss. That's one of the new messages, that you can become a richer, deeper, stronger person after a loss - and continue to go on to live a life that doesn't forget your loved one who died but which honors you and honors them.
Thiel: We're talking about resilience. There have been a lot of conversations about resilience in the last couple of years in psychology. People we see as resilient aren't people who hide from things. They deal with them.
Kessler: So whether it's a breakup or divorce or betrayal, there are people who get paralyzed by the loss. Part of my work is to help people not only get through it, but know it can strengthen them, and they can go on to even more meaningful relationships.
Q. What will be the focus of the upcoming seminars?
Kessler: They were designed for therapists, nurses and people who work in the medical field but so many lay people come to them. It's a mixture of lecture and discussion; a day dedicated to learning more about this process we go through and how to find our way through it. I make sure it's filled with lots of practical tips to help people facilitate helping others or themselves. ... If someone is a medical or mental health professional, they can get continuing education credits.
Q. When should someone see a mental health counselor when it comes to grieving – and why?
Thiel: Anytime. This is true about therapy in general and not just grief therapy. Not everyone needs it but everyone can benefit from it. ... Sometimes, the people who need it the most are the people who appear to be functioning the best, if they are pushing their grief down. Sometimes I worry less about the person who says, "I'm worried I'm having a nervous breakdown and am never going to get over this" than the person who says, "I'm here because people said I should come but I'm doing great."
Kessler: We're going to miss work from grief. We're going to have sleepless nights. We're going to be sad. We're going to be depressed in grief. But when those things are really interfering with your life, that is when you need professional help. Many can benefit. I think there's something primal that grief must be witnessed – by at least one other person. Sometimes everyone around us is in their own grief or thinks we should be over our grief, and we just need a safe place – whether it's a grief group or a therapist who can sit in front of us and understand what we've been through and see the love we had and the loss we're experiencing.
If you go to a grief group or see a therapist because you're in grief, there's nothing wrong with you. You don't have to have a mental illness. Grief is not a mental illness. Grief is something we experience because we love.
Q. The news has been filled in recent weeks with terror attacks and other violent incidents across the globe. How can we cope with such tragedy?
Kessler: The main thing – and it's really important we tell our young children this, because they're hearing about all of this – is that while those things are possible in our modern world, they're not probable. It's a time to be vigilant. It's a time to be aware. But it's also a time to live our life.
Twitter: @BNrefresh, @ScottBScanlon