Working clay on a pottery wheel

Making Meaning—the Sixth Stage of Grief

Last week, I wrote about my pandemic grief, and the podcast that helped me identify that feeling. Many of you acknowledged that you were experiencing grief, too.

People don’t race through the original five stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance—like running a marathon. There’s no mile marker to put behind us as we pass by, and there is certainly no finish line.

Grief is more like a revolving door—we cycle through the stages multiple times. Every so often, we step off, and then a song, a word, a memory sends us spinning again.

This week, I’m spinning. I’m reeling.

I had alluded to a sixth stage of grief last week, but I didn’t want to get into it, as I thought my blog was already too long. I didn’t want to lose you.

Sadly, I did lose someone. My friend who had battled COVID-19 for over a month died last Thursday.

Rest in peace, Ron.

As for Ron’s family, peace will evade them for a long time, especially since family and friends can’t gather to comfort them. It’s a cruel twist to this deadly disease. My husband and I drove up on Sunday to see Ron’s wife—my girlfriend—and we stood in their—in her—garage, just out of reach of the pouring rain. She and her son stood near the back wall while we all chatted and fought back tears.

No hugs. No kisses. Just presence. It was a meaningful moment. That’s what David Kessler, the grief expert in the podcast would call it.

“Making meaning” is the sixth stage of grief.

(You can find it at about the 10:22 mark in the podcast.)

Kessler is careful to say this stage is not about finding meaning in death. He mentions the sudden death of his son three years ago, and says the unhelpful platitude people often express—“Everything happens for a reason”—is bullshit. (My word, not his.)

It’s about honoring the life that has ended.

Making meaning is about honoring the life of the person who passed.

Sometimes making meaning is big, like fund-raisers and movements and lobbying for legislation. More often, it is a phone call, a “thinking of you” text, a card, the food and necessities we drop off, the pictures, stories, and memories we share.

These days, meaning includes car caravans, waves, socially-distanced visits, even social media posts, and this blog.

Meaning is a cushion for death, the “light within the darkness,” says Kessler.

The grief expert says meaning follows the acceptance stage, but I imagine it’s in the revolving door, too. After we cycle around a few times (or a few hundred times), the door opens to acceptance and we see that it’s there, but before we can fully step in, we’re dragged back, our head spinning.

It’s too early for me, and especially Ron’s family, to embrace acceptance, but the community of love that buoys them is hard at work creating meaningful moments. I am so grateful to be part of that community.

Whatever your experience of this pandemic, my wish is that you find ways to make meaning. You may already be doing that, and now that you’ve identified it as such, I hope it cushions you in the uncertain days ahead.

I hope you find light in the darkness. I hope you become light in the darkness of others.

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  1. Vicki Nelson on April 29, 2020 at 1:05 PM

    So sorry for your loss, Karen! Dealing with a death right now, I imagine, would be the hardest thing ever. No family and friends to hug or hold you. No shoulder to cry on. Though I haven’t lost anyone near, grief has still visited me. I worry about those I know who are compromised, or those who are older. At first, when this virus hit, I was in pure denial, then I was terribly angry. I never realized I had gone through the stages of grief until I read this. At one time I had accepted the situation, but grief keeps coming back. It’s something we may live with for awhile. In the meantime, we do what we can to comfort one another, like taking road trips to see a friend. Take care! Hope you, and your family, are well.

  2. Karen DeBonis on April 29, 2020 at 3:11 PM

    Thanks for your wonderful comment, Vicki. I hadn’t realized I was expereinceing grief either, until I listened to the podcast. Even before our friend was diagnosed, I felt such overwhelming sadness for the world. And I agree – it will be with us for a while. I’m grateful that my family is. You take care, too.

  3. Mary Beth on April 29, 2020 at 8:48 PM

    Karen, this is quite beautifully written. I met Ron only once and was struck by how youthful his energy was.
    My heart goes out to all who knew and loved him, especially Janice and their kids.
    I suspect that this crises will be embedded in our cultural memory for a long time.
    Thank you for sharing your insights on creating meaning, I will look to hone that skill as we all move through and past this. xxx

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  5. […] to my attention last month. To catch you up, I first wrote about pandemic grief, and then about the sixth stage of grief, which is making […]

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