This is an excerpt from The 4 Facets of Grief: Heal Your Heart, Rebuild Your World, and Find New Pathways To Joy, which is available at http://www.amazon.com/dp/B073ZMKKH2.

 

Meaning Making

 

When I use the term “meaning-making,” I’m talking about the process of understanding or

making sense of what’s going on in our lives. Many times the meaning of an event seems

obviously unquestionable. In the case of bereavement, however, we are often left feeling empty

because our dear one’s death will never make sense.

 

Finding meaning in distress can be like turning on a light bulb in a darkened room. Everyone

has trouble tolerating meaningless suffering. Yet it can be hard to imagine an explanation for

loss, tragedy, or struggle. I believe discovering meaning in challenging circumstances helps us

move through these times with greater resilience. It helps us to consider a bigger picture and

allow some healing thoughts to mingle with the difficult ones, no matter what life dishes out.

Many times in my life, I’ve been faced with the challenge of meaning-making. I was 22 when

my father died, and I was plagued with the question “Why?” for a long time. Eventually, I

concluded there was no reasonable answer, and I needed to stop asking. With each successive

loss, I struggled in a different way to make the experience meaningful. But it wasn’t until David

died that I realized I had a choice.

 

I could either embrace the randomness of the accident and, thereby, yield to the notion that life is

utterly haphazard and always potentially wounding – or I could create some kind of meaning that

challenged me to develop a better version of myself. For most of my life, I’d had a front-row

seat to the pain and suffering of losing people I loved. Friends commented that they didn’t know

anyone else who had been through the deaths of so many people close to them. That didn’t

exactly help me feel any better. It did make me wonder if there was a pattern in my life – that

maybe if I worked hard enough, I’d define some sort of redeeming lesson in all the pain.

 

In his seminal book Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl considered the usefulness of what

he called tragic optimism. (In addition to believing that the quest for meaning is key to mental

health and human thriving, he spent 3 years during World War II in four different concentration

camps.) After telling his story of surviving the Holocaust, he posed the question: “How can life

retain its potential meaning in spite of its tragic aspects?” (p. 137)

 

He noted that we must have reasons to be happy; we can’t just demand of ourselves automatic

happiness. Frankl maintained this is done through “actualizing the potential meaning inherent

and dormant in a given situation.” (p. 138). This means thinking of the possible meaning in any

single situation; not necessarily trying to come up with the meaning of life as a whole.

 

This is important, because Frankl is not stating that unhappiness is excused by being an unlucky

victim, having random accidents, or being in the wrong place at the wrong time. He is

challenging each of us to choose how we respond to any burden. He wrote that, in addition to

having the freedom to choose our response, we also have the responsibility to transcend suffering

by dedicating ourselves to someone or something else with hope and positive energy. Reading

his words felt like he was speaking directly to me.

 

Frankl identified three paths toward meaning-making: 1) creating a work or doing a deed; 2)

experiencing something or encountering someone; and 3) turn a personal tragedy into a triumph.

In the case of path #3, he observed, “even the helpless victim of a hopeless situation, facing a

fate he cannot change, may rise above himself, may grow beyond himself, and by so doing

change himself.” (p. 146).

 

Can anyone turn a predicament into an achievement? Yes, according to Frankl’s book. It takes

being able to adopt an attitude of benefiting from a traumatic experience (tragic optimism) and

seeing it as a growth experience.

 

Conversely, we don’t need to suffer in order to discover meaning. We can make meaning of any

situation, even uplifting ones. Frankl maintained that meaning is simply available through

suffering, provided that the suffering is unavoidable. This essential aspect – unavoidability – is

what powers our choice of response through meaning-making.

 

Our Cognitive Lives

 

Trauma and loss can shatter our core beliefs about ourselves and the world we live in. It may

force us to seriously re-examine these principles as we attempt to make sense of what happened.

Such a reexamination requires a lot of thought, and it turns out there are two kinds.

 

Event-related intrusive rumination is automatic, unwanted musing about the crisis. It tends to

occur immediately afterward and is associated with ongoing distress.

 

Event-related deliberate rumination (reflection) tends to lead to constructive ideas and is

associated more with growth. It should be noted that intrusive rumination can stimulate future

deliberate reflection. (Triplett, K. N., Tedeschi, R. G., Cann, A., Calhoun, L. G., & Reeve, C. L.

(2011, July 4). Posttraumatic Growth, Meaning in Life, and Life Satisfaction in Response to

Trauma. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy. Advance online

publication. doi: 10.1037/a0024204.)

 

As you consider the content of your own thoughts, try not to judge all intrusive rumination as

bad and deliberate reflection as good. Both are typical during the grieving process. Just notice

what’s there, and pay attention to any shifts over time.

 

Categories of Meaning-Making

 

There are many strategies people use for meaning-making, and they’re often grouped into

various categories, including personal growth and lifestyle changes, spirituality, family bonds,

philanthropy, and release from suffering.

 

Sometimes, losing a loved one makes us value life even more. We try to cherish all the aspects

of our existence, which may even lead to finding a new purpose or changing one’s lifestyle.

These are examples of how grief can lead to meaningful personal growth.

 

Meaning-making through spirituality can help people cope with loss, and develop our beliefs as

we consider inspirational possibilities. Some may use their connection with the divine to

cultivate a conviction that the loss is part of God’s plan or, conversely, that they’re being

punished by God. Others may question God’s ability to intervene at all. If you don’t hold a

formally religious perspective, you might create stories about how the universe works.

 

Changing our outlook toward, and interactions with, family members is another way we might

create meaning in loss. Perhaps we spend more time with them and talk about our loved one’s

legacy. The family feels united as tension and disagreement decrease. In the throes of grief,

clinging to and feeling grateful for family can be healing. Philanthropic and charitable activities are also useful

meaning-making strategies. Not only do they create financial support for the chosen organization, but they also

enhance social and emotional support for the bereaved. Many people say it turns the difficult experience of death into

something life affirming and positive for others.

 

Post Traumatic Growth

 

Post Traumatic Growth, or PTG, refers to the positive psychological changes that may be

experienced from struggling with a major life crisis or traumatic circumstances. It’s actually

possible not only to bounce back from great difficulty but to ultimately grow from it.

 

This phenomenon was discovered and named by researchers Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence

Calhoun from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Their Post Traumatic Growth

Inventory was first published in 1996, and since then, they (and a host of other researchers) have

concluded that Post Traumatic Growth is a widespread phenomenon.

 

Areas of Positive Change in PTG

 

Tedeschi and Calhoun observed that Post traumatic growth tends to occur in five general areas.

Sometimes people who face major life crises develop a sense that new opportunities have

appeared, opening up possibilities that didn’t exist before. Secondly, some people experience

closer relationships with certain people or an increased sense of connection to others who

similarly suffer. A third area of possible change is a realization of one’s own strength – “if I

got through that, I can handle anything.” Fourth, is a greater appreciation for life in general.

The fifth area of growth involves spirituality or religion. Some experience a deepening of their

spirituality that may even herald a significant change in their belief system.

 

I believe there is a powerful link between Viktor Frankl’s writings on meaning-making and

Today’s research on post traumatic growth. To me, Dr. Frankl is an example of post traumatic

growth, even though the words didn’t exist then to describe his experience that way. If Frankl could return to life, I

would love to introduce him to Tedeschi and Calhoun. What a conversation that would be!

 

To be sure, not everyone experiences a positive transformation in the aftermath of trauma. But

just knowing it’s possible (and apparently has always been possible) opens up encouraging

potential and maybe even new attitudes. We each get to choose the various aspects of meaning

we ascribe to any situation.

 

Ruth Field

Ruth Field

Ruth E. Field has always wanted to help people. Inspired by her well-respected and beloved physician father, she grew up valuing service to others. Through the years Ruth experienced the untimely deaths of many close family members and dear friends. She accompanied them through illnesses that ravaged body and mind, and she shared the trauma of sudden devastating accidents. All the while she pondered why such painful loss seemed to swirl around her. In 1999 Ruth joined with other parents to co-found the Child & Adolescent Bipolar Foundation (now the Balanced Mind Parent Network, part of the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance). It was the first internet-based not-for-profit organization, and reflected her passion to help families fight the stigma and isolation of mental health diagnoses. As the founding CABF board president, she spoke at area conferences and workshops on the family impact of early-onset mood disorders. One of her most memorable presentations was Witness to Grief: Experiencing Loss in Parenting Children and Adolescents with Bipolar Disorder. Ruth’s calling to teach resilience crystallized after the accidental death of her young adult son. Having transformed her own sorrow into a personal mission to foster post traumatic growth, she is dedicated to helping others navigate all types of adversity. Honoring her son’s legacy of hope, she blends her personal and professional wisdom to guide others from heartbreak to healing. Ruth holds a Master’s Degree in Social Work from Loyola University Chicago. She also is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in Illinois. At her private psychotherapy practice in Northfield, IL, she is honored to work with adolescents, adults, and families. In addition to writing, Ruth enjoys nature hikes, movies, and laughing with her husband Alan. She also loves sharing meals with friends and family. Her greatest joy is spending time with her grandchildren and delighting in their growth.

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