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In 1969, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross identified the five stages of death in her book, On Death and Dying . Her work has fundamentally changed the way we think and talk about grief and loss, providing us with a common vocabulary and understanding of previously vague but universal human experiences.
Towards the end of her life, Kubler-Ross worked closely with David Kessler, with whom she co-authored several books and officially transformed the dying stage for the grief stage. Today, Kessler is the world’s foremost expert on grief, teaching paramedics, counselors and first responders how to deal with death and loss. His books and his website Grief.com have attracted millions.
In this episode, David joins co-hosts Henry Byer and Tyler Johnson, MD, to share his personal experience of loss and his decades of helping dying people Man’s experience has taught him how to find meaning in suffering and happiness in tragedy.
In this episode, you will hear:
- 2 :10 Deathology – the study of death and dying – and what drew Kessler into the field
- 6:06 Keith Le’s friendship with Kübler-Ross, a psychiatrist known for developing the five stages of death
- 11: 22 How doctors are often powerless to face death, and how they can better engage with dying patients
- 19:05 Kessler’s advice to doctors Suggestion: Finding Meaning in Loss and Tragedy
- 28:58 Review of the Five Stages of Death / grief
- 33:38 On the sixth stage of “meaning” Kessler’s grief
- 38:04 How the COVID-19 pandemic has revived interest in grief management, and how he accepts Harvard Business Review titled “The discomfort you feel is Grief’ goes viral
- 43:54 How Kessler handles the overwhelming grief he sometimes experiences at work
- 48:31 Kessler’s advice to physicians comforting grieving patients
Here are some transcripts (may have annotation errors):
Kessler: Nice to be with you. Thank you both.
Bair: So, David, you are often called the modern death scientist. Now, that’s not a word we hear very often. So can you tell us what that means and what are some of the big problems you solve?
Kessler: So think about the Greek word “Thanos” , which means death. You know, people often know that from action movies. The enemy is always Thanos – unlike our world, Thanos is our enemy. Many people understand this. So I study death and dying, grief and loss. You know, it’s fun. People sometimes want to see me more as the end of life or sadder, and I think they go hand in hand. I wonder how death shapes grief.
I see. So it’s a very peculiar and unique job. Can you tell us what motivated you to enter this profession in the first place?
Kessler: Of course. My mother was in and out of the hospital when I was growing up, so the hospital was like a place for me to go. I have known hospitals since I was a child. One day she got so sick that she had to be transferred to a hospital in a big city hours away for this new procedure called dialysis, which you can only get at a few hospitals.
If you could get dialysis, these committees had to vote because there weren’t that many machines at the time. They voted that she could have a treatment that we now know won’t do much. So she’s in intensive care a few hours away. My dad and I went there with her, you know, when I was 13, I was taught to lie about beer. No one taught me to lie about my age in a big city hospital. So when they asked me how old you were, I said 13. I never thought to say, oh, I’m 14, so I can make the cut. Some nurses let me in, some didn’t. So sometimes I can see her, sometimes I can’t.
I spent a long time in the lobby and a long time in the hotel across the street from where we were. One day, a fire broke out and everyone was evacuated. We were on the street and we saw fire trucks stop at the hotel for this fire. The shooting started when the fire truck stopped and started extending the ladder, they realized they had an active shooter. It turned out to be one of the first racially motivated mass shootings in the United States. It lasted 13 hours. My dad eventually got us back, but I saw first responders killed, hotel guests. Even the chief of police.
Then we went back to the hospital for a few days and I didn’t get to see my mother when she died. So that really affected my early life. It’s just that no one is there. There’s really no one to say, maybe this kid should be allowed to say goodbye to his mother, you know, or we should have a plan to give him some help in his grief afterwards. None of these. So in some ways, I’ve often wondered how I got to be that person who might be able to help me.
Bair: Now you are the most important in the world Grief specialist. For a long time, you have been working with Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, a psychiatrist known for introducing the five stages of grief. Can you briefly tell us how you met her and worked with her, dare I say it, ended up befriending her?
Kessler: Of course. We were supposed to speak at a conference on death and dying in Egypt. Of course, she’s the keynote and I’m the wallpaper. That was when she had her first stroke and was unable to go. So then I contacted her son and asked how she was doing. Surprisingly, he said, it was her phone number. I called her and we had a wonderful conversation. And, you know, I’m the one I said to her at the end of the conversation, and I hope that one day, we can meet in one way or another. She said, how was Tuesday? I mean, that’s who she is. We have met. We became really good friends. She is very smart. More honest than you meet people. You know, she’s honest, and I’ll either say you respect you or make you angry.
She told me very early on, if you’re here for any major, I’m done. I said, no, I’m not. At the time I was writing my first book, Dying Needs . The joke is she can’t get rid of it. Like, she would say which chapter are you in now? Did you put this in? Did you put that in? She really helped make this book even better because of her and her involvement.
For full transcripts, please visit The Doctor’s Art.
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