Valentine’s Day is a joyously uplifting holiday for many couples, but for those who’ve lost significant others, it can be a horribly painful day of mourning. This Valentine’s Day in particular is also dampened by the recent loss of one of our greatest loves of all — Whitney Houston, whose love songs have undoubtedly affected many of us and possibly even served as our soundtracks to Valentine’s Days past.
So whether you’re experiencing loss yourself or know someone who is — even if it’s for a public figure like Houston — it’s important to honor that emotion, as Healthline learned from a recent interview with grief expert, David Kessler, author of such groundbreaking titles as Visions, Trips & Crowded Rooms and The Needs of the Dying and co-author of Life Lessons and On Grief and Grieving with the late Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. Kessler has worked with everyone from concentration camp survivors to AIDS patients to celebrities and has been featured by CNN, The New York Times, and Oprah & Friends and continues on as chairperson for the Hospital Association of Southern California Palliative Care Committee.
As Kessler prepares to begin a new book with Louise Hay, about moving from grief to peace, and embark on a national lecture series, he spoke to Healthline about helping loved ones heal on Valentine’s Day, the five-step grieving process, his unique, less threatening perspective on death, why we grieve public figures, and the life-changing event that propelled him into grief work.
In your experience, is Valentine’s Day a particularly difficult day for those grieving a lost partner or spouse?
Valentine’s Day is a day that you’re celebrating the one you love and showing them your love. When the one you love is no longer with us, it’s not a heartfelt date; it’s a heartbreaking day. It’s a holiday where there are what I call ‘invisible grievers’ in our society. So while everyone’s out getting the Valentine’s Day gift, there are people at the store standing next to you who’ve lost someone they loved last year. Since they don’t speak up, we’re often not aware of all of these folks in our society who are little islands of grief.
You have worked extensively with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, who first introduced The Five Stages of Grief (Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance) in her 1969 book On Death and Dying. In your opinion, why can’t people just take an accelerated road towards acceptance after experiencing loss?
Kübler-Ross and I worked together for many years and did a few books together on the stages, and what makes them so profound and true to this day is how Kübler-Ross identified something that naturally occurs, that she observed, and saw that people went through these stages; it’s just what we do. We do it whether we lose a spouse, a job, a house, or a contact lens. It’s somehow built into our human nature, so you just can’t feel what you feel faster than you can feel it. So when I just hear a loved one died, it might be hard for me to get to acceptance by the end of the day or month.
What are some of the best ways to handle the loss of a loved one?
I think if you acknowledge it and remember them… if you know someone who’s lost a partner and you’re free, invite them to do something. I think acknowledging it, ‘Like Sarah, Valentine’s Day must be really hard for you without Hank around.’ People want to know that our loved ones have not been forgotten, so while we’re rushing around, doing our Valentine’s shopping, if we can also say to our neighbor, ‘You must be really missing Sarah today, and she’s in our hearts today, and if there’s anything we can do, we’re here.’
In your last book, Vision, Trips, and Crowded Rooms, you really succeeded in making a frightful topic like death far less intimidating. For those who are not familiar with this work, how can you inspire people to be more accepting of the impending death of a loved one?
Death is the worst thing imaginable to all of us, and so seeing that this is what happens to people when they’re dying and observing that, what if everything we know about death isn’t true? What if it’s not a horrible emptiness we die into but rather a fullness? What if everyone we know and lost isn’t lost forever, and we see again? It changes everything.
My father, when he was dying, because he was 84 and had declined in his health used to say, ‘I’m 27 in my mind, even though my body’s 84. And you know what? I feel like I’m going on a great adventure, here. I can’t wait to see what death is.’ It was a very different frame of mind, so I don’t think we’re ever going to make people say, ‘Yay, death.’ But I think we should be open to the possibility that there may be more to it than we know.
On your website, Grief.com, you write about the things we should and should not say to those in grief. The worst things seem to be more authoritative such as ‘He is in a better place’ or controlling such as ‘Be strong.’ The best things to say seem to be things along the lines of ‘I’m here for you if you need me.’
Many times we want people to see the silver lining, to be a little more at peace so we can be at peace, so the thing I always remind people when they look at that list is that I’ve said them, you’ve said them, we’ve all said them. We just didn’t know better and now we begin to see better that some of those things do backfire later and people in grief are often vulnerable and those things we say, instead of being helpful, can come across as hurtful.
With Whitney Houston’s recent passing, as well as Michael Jackson, Farrah Fawcett, and Amy Winehouse’s deaths over the past few years, I’ve noticed that there are a lot of people out there who are deeply affected by celebrity losses. Why do we grieve public figures that we’ve never even met?
People don’t realize that the media is the new town square and that we actually do know people on TV or in movies or in politics, and because we know them, because we spend time with them, we will mourn them when they die. We will grieve for them when they die. I know people who have spent five hours a week with Oprah for 20 years. So when someone well known dies, there is always a group of people who will say, ‘Why are you grieving? You didn’t even know them.’ Yet this person does feel sad and it’s actually real grief. They actually cared about this person they got to know through the media, TV, movies, politics – even the Pope, so we actually do grieve them when they die.
How did you become a grief expert?
I often say that I didn’t choose this career; this career chose me. My mother died when I was very young in a hospital ICU and I wasn’t allowed to see her because I was two years too young, and that made me feel like I wanted to help people have a better, more meaningful experience of death. I know that I can never take away the pain of death or loss, but I can make it more meaningful. I often think of myself as a reporter from the end of life. I see people dying, I work in a three-hospital system in L.A. County, and I’m privileged to be there during one of life’s most profound moments for many people and I try to report to other people what I see and what I’ve learned.
Any final thoughts on Valentine’s Day?
Yes, another thing we often don’t talk about is how we grieve for the love that we don’t have yet or the love we wish would be there. But for a lot of single people, Valentine’s Day is often a day of sadness, not because people have died, but because they’re sad they haven’t found that person yet, and that’s also a form of grief.
What would you say to comfort them?
I would say, ‘I believe in accepting what is and honoring that you don’t have one yet and to realize that that is something you want in your life and to make sure that maybe next year when you have someone, that you don’t take them for granted. Remember that ultimately love is a privilege and an incredible exciting ride we all get to go on if we’re open to it.’