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Opinion | After I Lost My Son, I Realized I Needed to Stop Looking for Closure

BusinessOpinion | After I Lost My Son, I Realized I Needed to Stop Looking for Closure

In the field of death and dying, one of the most enduring and influential figures is the Swiss American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, who in the 1960s came up with the five stages of death: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. She’d been studying the emotional arcs of terminally ill patients, but later she and her colleague David Kessler repurposed the stages to apply to the grief of the bereaved, and the five-stage model became deeply embedded in Western culture.

In a 2007 paper, the Nobel Prize-winning climate scientist Steven Running applied those stages to the climate crisis, characterizing denial as the belief that the climate emergency isn’t happening or that humans aren’t the root cause. The anger stage kicks in when you realize your worldview or lifestyle will have to change substantially. Then you bargain by downplaying the scale of the crisis, or by putting all your faith in technological fixes. The depression stage manifests when you feel overwhelmed by the extent of the crisis and realize that governments and corporations are not only spinning their wheels but also often actively exacerbating the damage. Acceptance entails recognizing that the scale of the challenge is irrefutable, and then looking actively for solutions, because “doing nothing given our present knowledge is unconscionable.”

After tragedy struck Mr. Kessler, he altered his own analysis of bereavement. As an author and public speaker who had spent his career supporting the bereaved, Mr. Kessler felt he knew grief well. But the unexpected death of his 21-year-old son changed everything. Suddenly, like countless other bereaved parents, he faced the existential question raised in the adage that the two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why. And he came to believe that acceptance isn’t the end of the grieving process; it’s only the beginning of a new, sixth stage of grief, defined not by finding closure but by finding meaning.

This stage made a lot more sense to me than any of the others did. There was no meaning in Raphaël’s death. But I could find purpose, meaning and fulfillment in what I did and made happen in its wake.

The year before Raphaël died, I’d co-founded the literary activist group Writers Rebel to put literature in the service of life on Earth. But when we lost him, I stepped back: I couldn’t face the video calls. Then, in those early months of grieving, I began to meet other bereaved parents, take daily swims in the freezing Danish winter sea, reconnect with the natural world and read books about consciousness which led me to abandon my rational, secular view of it. And one day, I remembered what Raphaël said when I belittled my ability to affect change: “Do what you can, where you are, with what you’ve got.”

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