Making Meaning—the Sixth Stage of Grief

Making meaning from a lump of clay on a poetry wheel.
Image by zsuzsannasolti from Pixabay. My mother was a potter–she found meaning in a lump of clay.

Dear friend,

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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This time, I will take a stand.

 Photo courtesy Pixabay. Photo courtesy Pixabay.

Over 30 years ago, when I worked in Washington, D.C., I took the Metro to work. It’s always crowded on a subway during rush hour, and you get used to being jostled by people, bodies crammed together. But one morning on the platform, I thought a man purposefully touched my butt with his hand. I didn’t say anything because I wasn’t sure. But then I watched the nicely dressed middle-aged man as he walked through the crowd, hands at his sides. As he passed several women, he distinctly turned his hand out to brush their back sides.

I wanted to run after him, yelling and making a scene. But I didn’t. I don’t make scenes. I don’t cause a fuss. I don’t take a stand.

About 20 years ago, I was in a small public library, standing in front of the reference desk, speaking to the librarian in my best library voice. A man materialized behind the woman, facing me. From my peripheral vision, I suddenly realized he had his penis out of his pants, in his hands, right there behind the librarian’s back just a few feet away.

My face flushed but I didn’t look up or otherwise react. So deeply ingrained is my reticence for making waves that it essentially overrode my fight-or-flight instinct.

I quickly ended my conversation and hurried back to the table where I had been working, sitting with my back to the reference desk. I sat there for a few minutes in panic, thinking only, “Oh my God, Oh my God, Oh my God.” I was irrationally afraid. If I confronted him, would he find out where I worked, right next door? Would he find out where I lived, not far away? Would he come after me?

Then I packed up my things and scurried out, keeping my eyes to the ground. I never made a scene. I never made a fuss.

When I think about those incidents now, I re-envision them in my head:

I am running after the guy in the subway, yelling at the top of my voice to keep his hands to himself, warning women, calling out to security.

I am looking up at the guy in the library, staring him down, yelling in a non-library voice to “put that thing back in your pants RIGHT NOW.” 

I almost dare these incidents to repeat themselves so I can take a stand.

But two weeks ago, I did it again – I failed to take a stand.

My blog that week was a nice story about our mixed-up order in a restaurant and the waitress’ authentic apology and how it helped me to feel connected. I had it finished several days ahead of time. When I opened it the morning of my scheduled “post day,” I hated it. It was missing something.

In a personal blog, it’s not enough just to relate a story. There has to be a reason for sharing it. There’s always a life lesson or an “ah-ha” moment or an opportunity for personal growth in the story and it’s my job as the writer to find it and share it.

As I write, I always ask myself, What is this really about? What’s the point? What am I trying to say? Why am I telling this?”

When I looked at my draft that morning, I couldn’t answer those questions. For the next five hours, I frantically wrote and rewrote. Then, around 4 pm, an hour before I’m scheduled to post, it clicked.

There was a much bigger lesson there about saying I’m sorry related to what was going on in our world. It had been trying to speak to me, calling to me as I banged away on my laptop, but I didn’t listen. The words were fighting to organize, but I didn’t let them.

I didn’t hear the message in my own story because I was afraid to take a stand.

And once I heard the message, I couldn’t wrap my brain completely around it in an hour, so finally I had to let go and hit “publish.”

Now I’ve had some time to get my thoughts together:

My I’m sorry blog posted about a week after the incidents in Charlottesville. All the Jimmy Kimmels and Jimmy Fallons of the airwaves were taking a stand. My 100 + subscribers and maybe 2,000 followers on various platforms isn’t much of a audience, so I didn’t see how it could make a difference for me to take a stand. Why bother?

The answer to that question, which I figured out too late, is this: because people who are hurting or scared need to know that those of us who are not hurting or scared in the same way will stand up for them, whether one or a million people are listening.

I know how I feel in my heart, but if I don’t speak up, how will anyone know I will stand with them?

So whatever the color of your skin, your sexual preference or orientation, religion or lack thereof, nationality, or political persuasion, I am an ally. I won’t let my fear, whether it’s real or irrational, make me look away, walk away, sit down or shut up when you need me. I will make a scene, make a fuss, speak out.

If you stand for hate, I will pray for your heart and soul, but I won’t stand by if you take it out on another human being. And I will hate what you stand for and hate your actions, but I refuse to hate you, even if you hate me. We already have too much hate in the world and I won’t add to it.

I’m sorry it took me so long to take a stand. I’m sorry it took Charlottesville to wake me up.

That’s my authentic apology and I hope it helps us all, small in number though we are, to feel connected.