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.
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.