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About the guest

David Kessler

David Kessler is the world’s foremost expert on grief and loss. His experience with thousands of people on the edge of life and death has taught him the secrets to living a happy and fulfilled life, even after life’s tragedies. He is the author of six books, including the new bestselling book, Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief.  His books and work have received praise by so many, including Saint (Mother) Teresa.

David’s personal experience as a child witnessing a mass shooting while his mother was dying in a hospital helped him begin his journey. For most of his life, David has taught physicians, nurses, counselors, police, and first responders about the end of life, trauma, and grief. He facilitates talks, workshops and retreats for those experiencing grief. However, despite his vast knowledge on grief, his life was turned upside down by the sudden death of his twenty-one-year-old son. It inspired him to write his newest book, Finding Meaning.

David’s volunteer work includes being an LAPD Specialist Reserve for traumatic events as well as having served on the Red Cross’s disaster services team. He is the founder of which has over five million visits yearly from 167 countries.

Show notes

Finding Meaning by David Kessler

Life Lessons: Two Experts on Death and Dying Teach Us About the Mysteries of Life and Living by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and David Kessler

On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief Through the Five Stages of Loss by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, David Kessler, et al

On Death and Dying: What the dying have to teach doctors, nurses, clergy, and their own family by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross MD

Free online Facebook grief group – meets daily at 1 pm PT/4 pm ET for anyone who has had a loved one die.

Production by Cadence13


Brené Brown: Hi everyone. I’m Brené Brown and this is Unlocking Us.


BB: I’m in conversation today with David Kessler. David is one of the world’s foremost experts on healing and loss. In addition to working with thousands of people on the edge of life and death, David was protégé to psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. Now, if you’re not familiar with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, in 1969, she wrote a ground-breaking book called, On Death and Dying, where she identified five stages of dying: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Elisabeth and David became good friends and co-authored two books together. Their second book together, On Grief and Grieving, was Elisabeth’s last book. Elisabeth and David worked together because they had really observed that the dying process was very similar to the stages of grief.

BB: After Elisabeth’s death, David continued to work in grief, as he has for decades, and really took the last and fifth stage, acceptance, and dug in deeper based on his own experiences, and again, his experience is working with thousands of people, to push it out further, and to talk about a sixth step in grief and grieving, which is: finding meaning.

BB: In today’s podcast, we’ll talk to David about grief. We’ll talk about individual grief and we’ll also talk about collective grief. And I think what a lot of us are living through right now in the COVID-19 pandemic. And we’ll talk about what meaning is and what finding meaning isn’t. I love this part in his new book, Finding Meaning, where he said that “These steps are not a method or process for tucking messy emotions into neat packages. They don’t prescribe, they describe. And they describe only a general process. Each person grieves in their own unique way. Nonetheless, the grieving process does tend to unfold in stages similar to what we’ve described, and most people who have gone through it will recognize them.”

BB: So, join me for this conversation. I have to say that I think I spend most of this podcast basically saying, “Oh my God! Can you say that again? Oh my God! Can you say that again?” Or, “Oh God! What does that mean?” Grief is a tough subject, and I’ve just had very few people who had the ability to take my hand and walk me through it in a way like David has. So, take a listen.


BB: Okay, first let me just say, David, thank you so much for spending this time with me today and spending it with my community of listeners on the podcast.

David Kessler: Thank you so much for doing this and allowing me in. I appreciate it so much.

BB: Okay, so here’s what’s funny, I don’t know if it’s like… This is my nervous laughter already. We’re like 20 seconds in and I’m in my nervous laughter about grief. You would think as a shame researcher that I would not be afraid of any kind of affect or emotion, but I am. I’m grief-afraid a little bit, so I’m going to start with that. I’m going to start by saying that Elisabeth Kübler-Ross… My whole training is in social work, and so we studied Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ On Death andDying, and then we studied your work. And as much as I try to make those steps linear and a little convenient pocket to put things in, I had a great teacher who would not allow me. Tell me about your work with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, tell me about what you did together.

DK: So, as you mentioned, Elisabeth first did what’s called the “stages of dying” in 1969 in her book On Death and Dying.” And she identified these patterns that she would see and common issues that people would go through as they were dying. Decades later, and I went to community college and took a Death and Dying class and learned about Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and never thought in my wildest dreams I’d be ever meeting her. So fast forward years later, we had met, gotten to know each other, I had made my career, same as her, studying death, studying grief, and we did this book together called Life Lessons. And I would always say to her, “People are really butchering your stages. They are really turning it into something,” and Elisabeth didn’t feel like she wanted to go back and revisit the stages. For her, if you can imagine, writing, I don’t know, 26 books, thousands of lectures, and people constantly trying to reduce your work to five words.

BB: Right.

DK: It was such a challenge for her. And so, we had talked about should they ever be adapted for grief, and I would say “People are adapting them for grief, whether you like it or not, pretty poorly actually.”

BB: That’s right.

DK: So one day she called and she said, “Okay, I want to write the book.” On page one, and she asked me to do it with her, which I was so honored. On page one, the book is called On Grief and Grieving, we say, “They are not linear, they are not a map for grief, do not reduce people to this, do not reduce our grief to this. These are not prescriptive, they’re descriptive, and they only describe general patterns.” Despite us putting it on page one and talking about it, it just seems like they kept… And still to this day, get reduced to five easy steps for grief. And as we all know, there’s no easy steps to grief, and I’ll tell you, so much on my Facebook and Instagram, someone will write, “You and Elisabeth Kübler-Ross are just trying to neaten up our grief and make us follow your rules,” which shocks me. Because Elisabeth was a rule breaker. No one broke rules like Elisabeth. Elisabeth would tease me about, “Quit trying to color in the box.”

DK: And so, her actual work, all her writings have just gone to Stanford University, where they’re going to be housed there and people will be able to research her work directly. And it’s interesting, they showed a clip I had never seen of Elisabeth. And it was this clip from the late 60s when there were only three networks. And in this clip, the host of this talk show says to Elisabeth, “Elisabeth, so glad you’re on the program,” he says, “America, we have an important program about death and grief today. You may want to change your channel, but do not change it. You must listen to what we have to say.” And he said, “We have Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. She wrote the book, On Death and Dying. Elisabeth, look right in the camera and tell everyone why they should not change the channel.”

DK: And Elisabeth looked in the camera and goes, “If you want to change the channel, it’s okay, maybe you are not ready. We’ll see you another time. Bye-bye.” And the host was horrified, but that’s who Elisabeth was. This idea that there’s five stages, and it’s interesting. It is actually more a professional debate, when I talk to people in grief, I would say 99% of them are not discussing which grief model is correct. 99% of them are discussing how much they’re missing their mom or their brother or their sister. But this notion we have that there’s one grief model is just such a ridiculous notion and grief is so organic, there’s no one right model or one right way to do it, so I’m glad you opened with that, to clear this up for people.

BB: Well, it’s important to me, because as someone who tried to make both death and dying and grief and grieving linear, because I don’t like vulnerability, ironically. I had a teacher that just pushed back and pushed back, and she would say over and over “descriptive, not prescriptive; how can this be helpful, how can this be useful?” But I guess also as a shame researcher where I see my work out in the world, and I see “three easy steps to never experiencing shame again.” Where I put on page one:There’s no such thing. when we lose our capacity for connection, empathy is the only way to lose our susceptibility to shame. So, I really relate and get to it. And I have found so much healing, help, understanding in Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ work and your work combined. And of two people who I think embraced messiness. I don’t know anyone that embraces messiness like y’all do. Y’all are messy.

DK: Gotta love the messy, gotta love the messy. And I’ll tell you, I want to be an organized person, but I’m just naturally not. Yeah, I can be very messy.

BB: I love messy.

DK: I embrace my messiness. I embrace it.

BB: When we think about grief and grieving, you have written a book, Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief. Tell me how this came about. Tell me how you started writing about the sixth stage and how that worked with… When did Elisabeth Kübler-Ross die?

DK: 2004.

BB: 2004. So, tell me about this book, post her death.

DK: So, Elisabeth and I had conversations about, “is there a sixth stage? Is there more stages?” We would talk about, meaning, hope, purpose, things like that.

BB: Yeah.

DK: But she obviously didn’t really want to go near the stages that much. And so, what had happened is, I had over the years, also been fascinated by Viktor Frankl’s work.

BB: Oh gosh, yeah.

DK: And this idea of meaning and how, in our darkest moments, do we find the light? Does the light exist in the darkness? And so, I thought about meaning and grief. And I wrote probably a couple of chapters on it, and I wrote a couple of chapters on meaning, and I had to start lecturing or something, and those chapters got put away. And they were somewhere on my desk. We are now talking about 2016, so many, many years after Elisabeth had died. I have two sons, and I was lecturing on the East Coast, and got a call that my younger son had died. It is the worst call you can ever get. At least it was for me. It was my worst call I could get.

DK: And my son, David was gone; I couldn’t believe it. I got home and cancelled everything and just tried to survive. It was just so heartbreaking and still is. And so, as I was dealing with that, I was putzing around just trying to survive and breathe and figure out what to do. The pain was so great. I said I wanted… because I’ve had a career. 40 years of counselling parents. I wanted to write them all a note and say, “I had no idea how bad your pain was.” So, one night I’m sitting out in my office, lectures are cancelled, everything’s over, in my mind anyway. And I run across these chapters on meaning. And I held them up and I went, “Yeah, like that’s going to help.” And I threw them down. And then a couple of weeks later, I saw them again and I started reading them, and I was shocked, the idea of meaning did not take away my pain, but it gave me a cushion that I had not noticed before.

DK: So, I began thinking more and more about meaning, and asking people about meaning, and talking to people who had had their spouse die, “how did they find meaning?” Their sibling, their parents, their pets, “how did you find meaning?” And it became a life raft for me, and I also noticed at the same time because there was the father. So many people said, “How does the grief expert deal with the death of his son?” And my answer was always, the grief expert wasn’t dealing with the death of his son, the father was.

BB: Yeah, of course.

DK: I had to bury my son. And so, when I thought about that. I would notice… That part of my brain was still the grief expert watching, and I would notice, Oh, I’m in some stages here. Yep, I’m in anger. Yep. No, I can’t believe it. I’m in denial. Yeah, I’m going back, what if I could’ve done this differently, might he still be here? I’m bargaining. Certainly sad, depressed. And then as time went on, when I began to dance with the concept of acceptance, I thought, “This can’t be it.” I had noticed one of our fights about the stages were that, people thought there was an end to grief, and that you would get to acceptance and be done. And I just thought, acceptance is not enough. I need to find meaning. I need to find meaning for my son.

DK: And so just in talks all of a sudden my publisher was like, “This is a book. You’ve got to write it.” I talked to the Elisabeth Kübler-Ross Foundation and her family, and I said, “This is what I want after acceptance. I think this is what our world needs now.” And they were so amazing that they gave me permission to add a stage to those iconic stages. I think for people in grief who don’t care about which model is the correct one, the stages are a little scaffolding that just helps you know there is something. There’s some sort of structure loosely that will be there for me, and I wanted them to know, as you deal with acceptance, there is meaning, their life mattered, their death mattered, and meaning can be how we mark it.

BB: When I read the story about David and Richard, your other son, well, first of all, I couldn’t breathe. It is the call that all of us, I guess, fear more than anything, and that’s one of the later chapters in the book. But I thought about it from my most empathic place, and I don’t think acceptance would be enough for me, either.

DK: Right.

BB: Here’s the thing, we want it to be linear, we want acceptance to be the end because we want it to be over, but you make so clear that hearts stay broken.

DK: Right.

BB: And this piece about meaning just unraveled me in a really powerful way, so I just have to say, thank you. It’s pretty bold to say, “Hey, I’m going to add a sixth stage to this model.” And you talk about, it’s not linear, it’s not a pattern, it’s not a map, it’s scaffolding. When I’ve leaned into what Elisabeth Kübler-Ross gave us and when I’ve leaned into, what you have given us, one of the things that’s really helpful for me is there is a scaffolding, but for more than that for me, there’s some normalizing.

DK: Right, right.

BB: When I find myself negotiating with the universe or negotiating with God, or trying to think, “Oh, this is the butterfly effect, and if I would have taken an earlier flight then…” It normalizes for me, some of the crazy making internally that happens with grief. I’m not alone, like this is what it means to be human and to be in grief, so I’m so grateful for that.

DK: Thank you, thank you so much. That’s certainly one of my hopes was to… I sat here, like literally exactly where I’m sitting with you. I sat here when that book was finished, and I cried. And I could only hope that this would help others heal as much as it helped me.

BB: It’s a beautiful gift and there’s so much meaning in it, so thank you.

DK: Aww! Thank you.

BB: Okay. Can I ask some hard questions about the world today?

DK: Well, and let me ask you, Can I get vulnerable with you?

BB: Oh yeah.

DK: Alright. Well, I knew I could. It’s a silly question given who I’m talking to.

BB: No, yeah.

DK: But yes, you can ask hard questions, because I can get vulnerable with you.

BB: Our motto on the podcast is go vulnerable or go home.

DK: Yeah, alright. Well, I’m going vulnerable.

BB: Okay. So, when I talk to people right now since the pandemic, since COVID-19, and I say, “How are you doing?” And they describe how they’re doing, I hear grief.

DK: Yes.

BB: But when I come back and say, “God, Yeah, there’s a lot of grief. No, no, no. I’m not in grief. There’s no grief here.”

DK: Right. Right.

BB: Tell me about what you see us experiencing right now.

DK: We are all dealing with the collective loss of the world we knew.

BB: Oh God!

DK: The world we knew is now gone forever. We talk about 9/11. Do you remember what the airports were like before 9/11?

BB: Yeah.

DK: We are going to talk about do you remember what the world was like before the pandemic? I don’t know how this is going to change, but it will. We’re going to find meaning. We’re going to come out the other side of this, and we’re going to say things like, “Do you remember when in the old days when we used to shake hands? How crazy was that?” Or whatever it is.

DK: But this world that we’ve all been accustomed to is now gone. And we’re collectively, just like you said, so many people are feeling heaviness, so many people are talking about, “I woke up and cried, I went to bed and cried.” And just like you, I’m like, “It’s grief.” And yet there’s a part of us that goes, “Grief? No one died yet,” And we don’t understand. When people say to me, “What is grief?” I’ll say, “it’s the death of something. It’s the death of a loved one, it’s the death of a marriage, it’s called a divorce. It’s the death of a relationship it’s called a breakup. A job loss, is the loss of that work world you had.” This is a collective loss of the world we all lived in, before the pandemic. And we, like every other loss, didn’t know what we had until it was gone. And so here we are, and just like you, we’re all trying to find ways to virtually hold each other’s hands. We’re in this together. It is not going to be forever. It will end. There’s not a dark night that stays. And yet, we have to feel these feelings. We’ve gotta feel the grief.

BB: I think that’s been the thread through every podcast I’ve had so far. I just did a podcast last week on comparative suffering and rank-ordering how bad we have it and denying our feelings of grief and loss. But I gotta tell you, when you say… I’m looking at you right now, because we’re doing this remotely, and when you say the world as we knew it before this pandemic is gone, I just want a burst into tears.

DK: Right.

BB: I just want to have normal back. Talk to me about grief and the loss of normal.

DK: Well, that is what we’re feeling. We’re feeling so many losses, the loss of physical connection, the loss of routine, the loss of work. The loss of physical touch, the loss of gathering for meals, the loss of gathering for worship. We don’t have enough time to count the losses we’re all encountering right now. That’s what’s really underlying this, and I don’t think we have an awareness of it. And one of the things that people have said is, “Well, why do we need to name it grief?” Because if we don’t name it, we can’t feel it.

BB: Right.

DK: We have to name this. We have to name this for what this is. And, we want to always compare losses, and this is really important, as people are dealing with their kids, you know I’ve come from a world where people are going, “Which loss is the worst? Is it your husband of 40 years or is it your child?” And I’ll go, “Stop, stop. We’re not going to compare 40 years of marriage or a child loss.”

DK: The worst loss is always yours.

BB: Oh my gosh! Stop. Stop. Say that again.

DK: The worst loss is always your loss. So now in this world, like as parents, maybe we’re trying to protect our kids to not touch door knobs and things when they’re going out or whatever, and they’re complaining about they’re missing school or they’re missing seeing their friends and we’re going, “We’re trying to stay alive.” We have to remember, school is maybe their worst loss they’ve ever had. Not playing in the football game is their worst loss right now. And I’m telling you, as a bereaved parent, who, if we wanted to play the game of who has the worst losses, you know, this could be a check box that I… You know, I came out of a mother dying in a shooting and a bereaved parent, I could win in the game if I tried it. But I’m telling you as a bereaved parent, this is some hideous losses we’re in right now, and you can name them and they’re valid and they’re legitimate. Did I leave you speechless?

BB: Yeah, no, you really did. When we clean this thing up, don’t take out that long pause because it will give everyone listening time to catch their breath. You left me speechless. Tell me about the parable of long spoons.

DK: It’s such an interesting story that I just fell in love with. And it’s this idea of this man is brought into this long dining room area. And he just smells this scrumptious food and he just knows there’s this amazing meal being provided, and he goes into this hall with all this amazing food, and they all have these long spoons, because the spoons are so long, they’re a few feet long, you can’t bring it to your mouth, you can’t reach the food and bring it to your mouth.

BB: So, the spoon is so long, you can’t feed yourself and he’s in Hell, right? This is Hell?

DK: Right. He looks and instead of everyone being happy there at this occasion, they’re gaunt and they’re starving. He is told this is Hell.

BB: Okay.

DK: Then he’s taken into another dining hall. Where it’s a just a festive, everyone’s eating and joyous and happy, and they have the same long spoons, but they are all feeding each other. And he is told that is Heaven.

BB: So the difference between Hell and Heaven is taking care of each other.

DK: Taking care of each other. And boy, we’re kind of learning that right now.

BB: Oh my God! Long spoons and all, right?

DK: Long spoons and all. Long spoons and all. One of the things, it’s interesting you being from Houston. Houston and I have an interesting relationship. Everyone I love lives in Houston or is from Houston. I came down to Houston to help and do some disaster work after the floods.

BB: Yeah.

DK: I am in a neighborhood up to my waist in water, people are going back to their houses for the first time, and I see a man drive up in a truck and take out like 20 pizzas, take-out pizzas, and start passing them around. And after he passes them around, I went up to him and I said, “Do you own a pizza company?” And he goes, “No.” And I said, “Do you live here?” He says, “No.” And I said, “What’s this about?” And he said, “This is a tragedy. And people need to eat. I figured I should get them some food.” Oh my God! The idea that someone thought to do that.

BB: Yeah. I will tell you that, just to be H-Town proud, we do take care of each other, I think when things like…

DK: It’s impressive.

BB: We have a way of doing that down here. Okay, so I want to read something to you from your book, or just ask you a question from your book.

BB: You write this chapter that grief must be witnessed. Who can witness and hold space for us right now, when we’re all in grief? What happens in a situation like this where there’s collective grief, and there’s not someone who is on the other side of the fence and not experiencing it? Can we hold space and bear witness for people in grief when we’re in grief?

BB: Do you understand what I’m asking? I’m messing it up a little bit.

DK: You’re asking me about the long spoons.

BB: Oh my God!

DK: It’s the only way we can do it, is by, “I’m going to witness yours, you’re going to witness mine. I’m going to feed you. You’re going to feed me.” I live on a block here in Los Angeles, we don’t know half our neighbors. We don’t know 90% of our neighbors. We now are on text with each other. Anyone need toilet paper? Anyone need this? Oh! Don’t forget the elderly man at the end of the street, let’s check on him. The parable comes to life for us, we have to be taking care of… We have to be our brother’s keeper, our sister’s keeper in this moment. We have to witness each other’s grief.

BB: Okay, I’m going to ask you a question, I don’t have the data on it, so I’m just going to wing it, and then you can tell me whether this is mythology or real, and whether it’s not the right analogy. So, my understanding is, for bereaved parents, marriage can become very complex when you both lose a child, when there’s a loss. And I know the statistics for divorce are very high after bereavement of a child. Is that true still? Is that recent research as well?

DK: I don’t know if it’s recent, but I’ll tell you what isn’t being asked in the research, because I do not believe a child loss is what causes divorce. I believe judgment of each other’s grief causes divorce.

BB: Okay, hold the phone. Okay, say that again.

DK: I believe that a child loss does not necessarily because a divorce. Our judgment, two parents’ judgement of how each other’s grieving is what causes the divorce. What happens is we all grieve differently. And this isn’t just about child loss, this is like when mom dies, or dad dies. We all believe if we love our child, we’re going to grieve exactly alike. If we all love dad, we’re going to grieve exactly alike. If we love mom, we’ll grieve exactly alike. Then if we don’t grieve exactly alike, we look at each other and we begin to make up, confabulation, stories that aren’t true. We go, “Oh! I guess sis didn’t love mom as much as I did. I guess my wife, my husband didn’t love our child the way I… Or they’re moving on to quick.” And we become isolated in our grief, we try to make each other our grief counselors. When I work with parents, one of the first things I try to do is set up separate communities to support them, that they cannot, when a child dies, two people with an empty tank cannot fill each other up. And yet, that’s what we try to do.

BB: Do we see that right now around… we’re in this collective grief. We’ve got so many losses, and we’re so judgmental toward each other right now. The judgement and the shame.

DK: The thing I always say is, judgment demands punishment.

BB: Oh my God! I know I’m going to make y’all crazy with this podcast, but I just gotta ask you to say it again.

DK: Judgment demands punishment.

BB: So, tell me what that means.

DK: We will punish ourselves or punish someone else. When we judge, it hurts us or hurts someone else.

BB: I gotta get my head around this for a second, judgment deserves punishment.

DK: Demands, demands.

BB: Oh God! Stop. See, I knew this was happening. So, I’m like, “Brené Brown, heal thyself.” Okay, judgement demands…

DK: All of us, heal thyself.

BB: Okay, judgment demands punishment. So, when I feel super judgy towards someone, then…

DK: You are going to punish them psychologically or punish yourself. You are going to feel bad in your judgment.

BB: Oh my God, y’all! This is going to be a takeaway quote, you can just… Yeah. I’m just… That’s too damn bad. I’m going to say that right there, because that is true, and that is painful and that is shame-inducing, and that is what’s happening in the world right now.

DK: Yeah.

BB: Okay. Question for you. I had so many questions reading this book and I was like, “What a job I have where I get to talk to you and ask you!” I just feel like the luckiest person.

DK: Aww! You are so sweet. I’m feeling pretty lucky right now too.

BB: Alright. Two things I want to know that I don’t know. Is it ever too early to try to find meaning? Do we ever use meaning seeking as a pole vault out of pain?

DK: You are so good. Yes. And if there’s been a surprise about this book, is people walk up to me and they’re like, “I’m trying to find meaning. Should I get your book? I’m trying to find meaning.” And I’ll go, “When did your loved one die?” And they’ll go, “I can’t find meaning.” And I’ll go, “When did your loved one die?” “Two months ago.”

DK: I’m like, “It’s not a bypass to the pain.”

BB: Damn it!

DK: You can’t use it to spiritually bypass the pain you have to go through. You’re going to be in pain, you gotta let the pain happen. There’s no way around the pain. If you don’t feel it, you can’t heal it. You’ve got to feel that pain. Meaning will be the cushion, but you’ve got to feel pain. And another place that people get stuck, is they’ll think there’s meaning in the death. People will go, “My loved one was murdered, there’s no meaning there.” Or, “My loved one died of cancer or Alzheimer’s, there’s no meaning.” And I’ll go, “The meaning is not in the death. The meaning is what we do after. The meaning is in us.” That’s where the meaning lies. That’s what we can create.

BB: I wish y’all could see you right now. I’ve got my arms folded across my chest and my head cocked to the side like my dad listening to me, trying to explain why there were cigarettes in the bed on my pickup truck when I was 16. I’m like, I don’t like this, but I love it. But it’s hard. Okay, the meaning is not in the death, the meaning is in me. So, there’s this thing that really bothers me, it just bugs the crap out of me, where there’s this movement that says, I’m grateful for this horrendous trauma, because it taught me this. Or I’m grateful… Is there any way that we can be grateful for what we learned, but not grateful for the loss or the trauma? You know what movement I’m talking about?

DK: Let me break that down for you. First of all, as you may remember, there’s, I think it’s six or seven guides and thoughts around meaning in the book. And the first one is, your loss… I think it’s the 5th one, your loss is not a blessing, it’s not a test, it’s not about gratitude. Loss just happens in this world. Death happens in this world. Let me break down gratitude for you and how that works, and I’ll use myself as an example. Well first, let me just say, when people initially have this thought of finding gratitude. I will talk about early on, there’s no gratitude to be found. Usually when I talk to people about gratitude early and grief, I use the word win. Like you taking a shower and getting to work today in your grief is a win.

BB: Yeah.

DK: That’s a win. You still taking care of your other kids is a win. Even though your husband just left you, that’s a win. In time, as you process, move through experience, feel some of your grief, there comes a point where gratitude can appear. And it’s interesting, at one of my lectures someone said to me… I was talking about gratitude in another section, and they went, “Can you find gratitude around your son who died?” And I paused and I thought about it. And I could not have done it a moment before that. But I said, “Yes, I can, and here’s how I can do it. There’s one worse tragedy in my mind than my son dying at 21 years old. The worst tragedy would be, if I never got to meet him this lifetime. I am so grateful I got to meet him and be with him this lifetime.”

DK: Am I grateful he died? Of course not. Am I grateful for the trauma after? Of course not. If this is a book that helps millions of people, I’m grateful, it honors him, but I’d rather have him back. I’m always going to opt for him back. I’m never going to go, “Oh, I’ll take the gratitude or the win.” So the gratitude, just like the meaning is not in the death. It’s gratitude for the life, the person you got to know. It’s gratitude that that person got to be your father this lifetime. It’s gratitude your mother was your mother this lifetime, your husband, your wife, your partner, your kids. It didn’t have to happen that way. You didn’t have to have those kids this lifetime.

BB: That’s right. That’s right.

DK: You didn’t have to have this husband this lifetime. He could have met someone else; you could have met someone else. That’s the gratitude. The gratitude is around the person, not the trauma for me.

BB: That’s really just so important and helpful because that nuance of making the gratitude around the loss and the trauma is, I think, very misleading and confusing for us. It’s a hard thing. I wonder, when we talk about this pandemic that we’re in right now and this collective grief and so many losses, we can’t even count them. And I do believe, and I even believe more after reading your book, I do believe we’ll get to a place of meaning. What is it about us? I’ve written this probably in every book I’ve written in 10 years, that we are all so busy chasing extraordinary moments.

DK: Yes, I was just going there. It’s so funny you said that.

BB: Yeah, that we’re so busy chasing extraordinary moments. That we forget…

DK: It’s about naming meaningful moments. Naming meaningful moments. When we go, “What’s the meaning in this? I can’t find meaning in a pandemic.” But during this pandemic, you and I can create this meaningful moment together. Let’s name this as a meaningful moment. You took action for us to talk today, and that was meaningful.

DK: One of the things that broke my heart, I was at the end of my book tour. When all this happened, and I was fighting and crazed at the end to not let go, because one of my last stops was to meet with Gold Star Families. They had served our country and I was not cancelling on them. I’m like, “Do they still want to come?” And I heard, “Yes,” I said, “I don’t care if we’re getting sick.” And then it kept getting reduced to 100, to 50, and I’m like, “They were like, ‘We can’t do it either.'” But I had to see all these emails of people who had lost their bereavement groups, because they couldn’t go. People whose parents just died in a hospital that couldn’t have a funeral. And in these moments we have to go, “What can we do of meaning right now?” And I went, “I don’t know, I’m a grief specialist stuck at home.” You know what? Every day now, we’ve moved grief online. I have a free online grief group for people to join, and we are just collectively going to grieve together. Anyone who has had a death until grief groups open again. And counselors have their telemedicine and tele-things set up. But I didn’t want people in grief… That’s how I found meaning in this.

DK: Your podcast is meaning. How can we all do meaningful moments – that’s our control. What helps us is to realize, alright, I can wash my hands. I can safely physical distance, and I can still create meaning right now in a pandemic.

BB: Yes, amen. And when you’re in a meaningful moment, name it, and be grateful for it. God!

DK: Name it. Right.

BB: Okay, you are amazing. I’m going to make sure everybody gets information about your online free grief group because thank you for doing that.

DK: Of course, of course.

BB: So important. If you’re listening right now on the episode page, on, you’ll find the book, a link to everything that David’s doing right now, you’ll find where you can track him down on social. I want to end with kind of a fun 10-question rapid fire.

DK: Alright.

BB: You ready? Yeah.

DK: Yeah, I’m ready.

BB: Okay.

BB: Fill in the blank for me. Vulnerability is…

DK: Love.

BB: I can’t go on. Okay, alright. Okay, David, you’re called to be brave, but you’re in real fear. You can feel it in your throat. What is the very first thing you do?

DK: Count to three and take a step forward.

BB: Something that people often get wrong about you?

DK: That I am funny. I ran into a neighbor that I worked with 20 years, 30 years ago, and she said to me, “Oh, I’d love to be your friend, but I can’t talk about death all the time.” And I’m like, “If you’re my friend, we’re not talking about death all the time.” So, people don’t get I’m actually really funny and I… To do this kind of work, I have to balance it with play.

BB: That’s it. For sure. Okay. Last show that you binged and loved?

DK: Last show that I binged and loved? Oh my Gosh! There’s so many of them. Watching The Crown. I’m crazy for Curb Your Enthusiasm, he’s just so… He’s, you know. Gosh! All the things that I binge. I have to admit, people find it silly, but I’m a Love It or List It. If there’s something about how to put a roof or sell your home, I’m watching the home improvement shows.

BB: I love it.

DK: It’s crazy.

BB: Okay, that’s good. I love it. Alright. What about a favorite movie?

DK: A favorite movie? Well, one of my favorite movies and favorite books of all time is probably Tale of Two Cities. I also love Stranger Than Fiction. Gosh! Lots of movies out there I love.

BB: Okay. A concert you’ll never forget.

DK: A concert I will never forget? It’s interesting. Let me get vulnerable. When I was a child, I went with my parents to Mobile, Alabama. And they were seeing Cher in concert. And what’s shocking is, if you look at a picture with us seeing Cher, she looks exactly the same as like when I was like 12.

BB: Yeah. [chuckle]

DK: That’s what’s shocking. So, it’s always my first concert. And I was literally a couple of years ago touring Australia, and they said, “Oh, you know, since you’re here, we thought it might be fun. We got you guys tickets to the Cher show,” and I’m like, “Really?” I’m seeing Cher again like 50 years later, crazy.

BB: Full circle baby.

DK: Full circle Cher.

BB: Okay. What about a favorite meal?

DK: I am like a meat loaf and mashed potato or a fried chicken and mashed potato guy. I’m a Southern guy at heart.

BB: You are Texas friendly. Okay, tell us what’s on your nightstand?

DK: What’s on my nightstand is, unfortunately my phone, which I’m not proud of. Sometimes there’s A Course in Miracles there. A lot of times it’s a remote for the TV.

BB: Yeah.

DK: I used to have a pad and pen there, but now I’ll just get up in the middle of the night if I’m writing a book or something, I’ll just dictate into the phone, but it used to be a pad and pen, but now it’s my phone.

BB: I do the same. Okay, last two. A snapshot of an ordinary moment in your life that brings you real joy. Just a snapshot, a picture.

DK: That would be of me walking with Paul, Lucy our dog. Just walking.

BB: Beautiful. What are you deeply grateful for right now?

DK: Well, in this moment, I’m deeply grateful for you.

BB: Thank you, I’m deeply grateful for you, too. Thank you, David, for joining us on Unlocking Us. This podcast, your book is going to walk with so many people through such a difficult time, so thank you very much.

DK: Thank you for doing this.


BB: I hope you got as much from this as I did. It was such an important conversation for me. And again, really want to thank David for walking us through, helping us understand more about what we’re experiencing and feeling and more about what it means to find meaning. You can check out more about David at You can also look on Instagram, he is @iamdavidkessler, Twitter, @IamDavidKessler, and Facebook I am David Kessler.

BB: You can also go to, our website, and I don’t know if you know this or not, but we have behind the scenes photos, web links, all kinds of show notes for every single episode. So, if you go to and you click on the podcast, it’ll take you to the main podcast page, and then you can click on any episode to learn more about the people I’m in conversation with, where to find them, and where to learn more. Thank y’all for joining us, and a huge shout out to David Kessler and his new book, Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief, is available at all of your local bookstores. Thank y’all.

© 2020 Brené Brown Education and Research Group, LLC. All rights reserved.

Brown, B. (Host). (2020, March 31). David Kessler and Brené on Grief and Finding Meaning. [Audio podcast episode]. In Unlocking Us with Brené Brown. Cadence13.

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