When Grief Has a Seat at the Holiday Dinner Table

Grief expert David Kessler on the power of finding meaning during the COVID holidays

How can emptiness be so oppressive? Absence hangs darkly in the air, a steadily descending, suffocating pall of grief threatening to choke out the joyous light of life. Obligatory smiles are forced around the family dinner table. Tears are not, falling unexpectedly with flash images of happier times. Death did not take a holiday this year.

This Christmas, the families, friends, and loved ones of the more than 9,000 people who’ve died from COVID-19 in Los Angeles County will struggle with the grief. Loss upon loss upon loss—not only death but job loss, the loss of financial and relationship security, the loss of feeling in control of one’s own life—suffered in silence creates a numbness that can make even the simplest task a struggle.

David Kessler understands and wants to help. During the height of the AIDS crisis, Kessler, the gay founder of Progressive Nursing Services, helped care-providing friends of those dying from the stigmatized disease cope with their fears and grief, later cofounding Project Angel Food with his friend, former presidential candidate Marianne Williamson. Kessler subsequently teamed up and wrote two books with his mentor, psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, who pioneered the concept of the five stages of grief in her ground-breaking book On Death and Dying. After the 2016 accidental overdose death of his 21-year-old son during the opioid crisis, Kessler wrote Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief, about “remembering with more love than pain.” On his website Grief.com, Kessler posts helpful videos, including one in which he shares how to heal the five areas of grief, as well as resources and help with myriad feelings not generally associated with grief. He also started a free Facebook group so people can connect virtually.  

“It’s really important that we name our feelings because you can’t heal what you don’t feel,” Kessler tells Los Angeles. “People don’t realize that grief is exhausting and that heaviness you’re feeling, that sadness, that lack of motivation—there’s a good chance this time it’s grief. And when we name it, we no longer feel we’re crazy or something could be wrong with us. Grief is a reflection of what’s going on in our life and in the world. And how many losses are there right now?”

Every day in L.A. is a 9/11. “The problem is we can’t see this,” Kessler says. “Because it’s everywhere and there’s no funerals and there’s no visuals. Our mind can’t comprehend what’s really happening. When you look back on the AIDS crisis, the Vietnam war, 9/11—there were caskets and nonstop funerals. We are not seeing that. Now we’re at home. Funerals are rarely happening, and if they are, they’re on Zoom.”

Meanwhile, the comfort of physical contact with loved ones who live outside our households has been temporarily taken away. And we’re subconsciously mourning little things every day. Even discovering that a beloved neighborhood restaurant has shuttered can trigger grief.

So what do we do?

“Part of our work is to try to find a meaning. Now, meaning isn’t in the pandemic. There is no meaning in a horrible death or a pandemic. The meaning is in us,” Kessler tells Los Angeles. “I live on a street here in Los Angeles where I never knew my neighbors. I mean, I kind of waved at the people to my right and to my left, but I didn’t know them. During the pandemic, all of a sudden, we got a whole text chain where we started texting one another. Someone was going to the grocery store. Check on the elderly man at the end of the street because he may need groceries. That was finding meaning. All of a sudden, I saw kids in the front lawn playing with their parents. I’ve never seen them play with their parents. That’s meaning. We’re suddenly, ‘well, it’s so horrible, we can only connect on news.’ But suddenly, we’re talking to people around the country, around the world on Zoom.”

Kessler hopes that people find a lot of new meanings. “Maybe part of the meaning is that we take our government personally. Maybe we make sure that we’re fully in line with our government and the future and that our government really represents us,” he says.

And what of finding meaning during a holiday season in which cheer seems like an insult?

“Love is still important,” Kessler says. “Even if I just have conversations with people I love. Even if I realized that this is going to pass. Sometimes some of those worst moments become the meaningful ones when we’re no longer having superficial conversations with each other. I can’t tell you how many people have said, ‘I just can’t go commercial on a lot of gifts or do that whole thing this year.’ It’s going to be more love than commercial gifts. Maybe we’ll be a little more meaningful this year.”

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