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Post-pandemic life has thrust us into the 6th stage of grief: the search for meaning

As many of us contemplate major life changes in reaction to the pandemic, grief expert David Kessler offers some advice.

Post-pandemic life has thrust us into the 6th stage of grief: the search for meaning
[Source photos: Guilherme Stecanella/Unsplash; Jordan Wozniak/Unsplash]
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My mother died of cancer when I was 25. The six months that contained the-rest-of-her-life were both fleeting and excruciatingly long. The good days snapped shut like the shutter on a camera. The bad days were months long. On the bad days, we howled at the moon: How much longer can we go on like this? When she died, in a hospital, against both of our wishes, she had been captive there for weeks. I felt powerless to a doctor who refused to return my phone calls and a disease that didn’t care what we wanted.

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Afterward, I searched for answers: What did it all mean, and what was I going to do with the rest of my life? To find them, I quit my job, I severed relationships, and I moved back home to New York, a place that was at once familiar and entirely new. I was starting fresh—or something. The truth was I didn’t really know what I was doing. I just wanted to begin again.  

In the wake of the pandemic and 3.7 million deaths worldwide, many are feeling this same need to throw off the entrapments that no longer serve. We are languishing: a condition that can only be treated by making shifts in our lives. And people are making changes. The “great reassessment” has Americans rethinking where and how they want to work. Pew Research reports that 66% of Americans are thinking of changing fields. Others are considering a longer sabbatical, to spend more time with family and figure out what kind of work really matters to them—a phenomenon Kevin Roose of The New York Times coined the “YOLO economy“. While many may be leaving behind menial jobs that didn’t pay, some people are leaving good jobs, perhaps feeling burned out.

It’s not just work. We’ve also relocated. One survey found that 16% of adults moved during the pandemic. Some of these departures were just hastened exits, people who were planning to move in the future and moved up their timelines. Others realized the importance of space in the confines of COVID-19 restrictions. Some moves were strategic—in with family that could take care of the kids. But they may also be part of a larger trend of disruption. Experts expect divorces to spike. We are reconsidering everything: friendships, god, how we dress, whether or not college is worth it—all the notions we once took for granted.  

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The truth was I didn’t really know what I was doing. I just wanted to begin again.

This resetting of priorities is a part of grief.  As many in the zeitgeist have said, we’re all likely in one stage or another of pandemic grief: a collective desolation caused by the loss of loved ones, jobs, and even the minor normalcy of going out to lunch. In grief terminology, this clean slating is known as the “sixth stage” and it’s about the search for meaning. It is the most brutal and potentially rewarding of the stages. The quest to figure out what’s next will upend you, so get in, but don’t worry about buckling up.

 “What I try to help people understand is meaning is not in that horrific event. Meaning is in us afterward,” says David Kessler, author of Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief.

When someone we love dies, life transforms, says Kessler. In the wake of death—of our friends, our families, strangers, the potential of our own—jobs no longer seem meaningful. Our plot to take over the corner office feels hollow, vain. But making extreme alternations to your life while experiencing grief is much like operating heavy machinery while drunk—you shouldn’t do it. “And so many people went, this work is just meaningless. Well, everything’s meaningless in grief, right? But let’s not quit our jobs. You might need some income,” he says. “The second part of that is people would say things like, ‘I’ve got to get out of the house, it’s too painful.’ So, they would sell their house only to find the pain went with them.”

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Grief is individual, and while there may be discernible stages, they don’t necessarily happen in order or on a generic time table. If possible, go slow. “Some people have to sell a house or some people have to move, but if you don’t have to make a decision, just sort of let things settle,” says Kessler. “That doesn’t mean that reevaluation and rethinking life isn’t appropriate in that time either . . . a pandemic, a crisis, a tragedy gives us a different view. And why would we want to miss that perspective?”

Meaning is not in that horrific event. Meaning is in us afterward.

David Kessler

Starting over again can be euphoric, but it’s also hard work. Beginnings are filled with possibility, but eventually there are the blunt tasks that need to be done: training for a new job, dating again, making new friends, establishing yourself in a new community. While the busyness of these activities may be a welcome distraction from the pain, grief can also make these already difficult transitions even harder.

Grief can also cloud your reasoning. When our priorities are suddenly thrust into the sharp relief of life and death, the gray areas dissipate. We are seeing things clearly, yes, but with less nuance. “You’re not quite yourself post-pandemic and nor are other people,” says Kessler. “So, just make sure as we’re reevaluating relationships, we’re reevaluating in the big picture. Not whether Jane’s a fun person . . . as she’s awkwardly trying to find her way back into society.” He says that everyone who feels pulled to reevaluate their lives should do so, but they should try not to rush a major metamorphosis.

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The search for meaning also does not have to lead to massive life upheaval. There is relief even in the small epiphanies and actions. “You turn outward and see what’s needed—the kids are asking for more help, your spouse wants to do things now that you can, there is something in the world you always wanted to do that you haven’t had a chance to do,” he says. “This is a good time for that.”

Of course, if you are impatient like me and you have already sold the house, the car, and the kids—don’t worry. You’re about to find out a lot about yourself.

About the author

Ruth Reader is a writer for Fast Company. She covers the intersection of health and technology.

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