From the moment he left my office, I couldn’t think of much else. His final few words opened up places in my heart not easily closed. About five years ago, his only son Billy, age four, died in an auto accident. The driver of the other car had been drinking, making Billy’s death as utterly senseless as it was profoundly tragic.

“I could find no meaning in his death,” said Bill senior. “So I had to find meaning in his life. In loving Billy I discovered a depth of love I never thought possible. I’ve had my days of resenting other parents who still have their kids. I’ve been bitter. But I think I’m a kinder person because of Billy. He gave me that. And I’ve strengthened my faith in God. I had to, because that’s who I believe Billy is with right now.”

Making Sense of Life’s Sufferings

In the face of overwhelming suffering, with nothing left but hope’s tattered remnants, we humans struggle to maintain some shred of constancy in our lives—some coherent, fundamental system of beliefs—to keep us from losing ourselves entirely. Call it the need to find a reason for living, call it the belief in a God with infinite love, call it what you will but it amounts to the search and desire for meaning.

In heartbreak and tragedy it helps to make sense of what happened, to arrive at some kind of answer to the question Why? And if no answer can be found, or if none is good enough (could it ever be good enough?) we need to stop asking why and start asking how: “How can I make meaningful what has happened? How can I go on and still live a meaningful life?”

Suffering can whittle down our dreams, our confidence, and our faith in a just world. But when our suffering means something we can escape despair. Suffering is bad enough. But the meanest form of suffering is suffering with no meaning.

Listen to John:

“After my wife died, I had no reason to get up in the morning. I was retired, no job to go to. We never had children. I was alone. One day three months ago I was standing on a busy street corner waiting to cross the road. A young mother with three children came alongside of me, and one of the toddlers started to run into traffic. I grabbed him and pulled him back to safety. I think I may have saved his life. I then had to ask myself, could it be that despite the fact I saw no meaning for my life, my life had meaning for someone else? And if my life had meaning for that little boy and his family, how many other strangers might it yet have meaning for? I haven’t decided how to live out the rest of my life, but I can no longer live it without it meaning something to someone.”

Peace to all who enter these corridors, who strive to find purpose in a life rocked by unasked-for suffering. Purpose and meaning can be found. But it won’t be found by distracting yourself from your pain. It won’t be found at your friend’s house who, over dinner, kindly takes your mind off your sorrow (though it helps to know that people care). It can only be found when you go back home and open yourself—again—to the pain of what you have lost.

Trying to discover meaning hurts before it heals. Only when you sit at a dinner table, day after day, with a place setting missing; only when you remember that at this holiday season there is someone you cannot buy a present for; only when you dry your eyes with the last precious threads of what was can you weave them into the warm fabric of what can be.

 Developing A Healing Theory

Psychologist and researcher Dr. Charles Figley has worked extensively with families traumatized by loss or adversity. He helps families reconstruct what happened and why to help them develop a healing theory.

To be healing, the theory must offer alternative views of the adversity and its consequences –optimistic views that emphasize family strengths, humanness, faith, love, forgiveness, and courage—while not minimizing their misfortune. A healing theory is not a list of excuses to explain away what happened. But such a theory takes into account the truth that accidents happen, that the world is not fair by our standards, and that there is much that remains a mystery to us.

I am reminded of a passage in Harold Kushner’s book, Who Needs God? A teenage girl, lamenting the death of her boyfriend to cancer, hopes she never loves anyone that much again. It was an understandable response, but not a healing one. As Kushner points out, incurable diseases are “a painful outrage precisely because life is good and holy” not because life is meaningless. Do we close up our spirits after a tragic loss? Or do we find the courage to love again knowing that part of the price of that love may eventually be more loss and pain?

When on the brink of despair, meaningfulness begins as an idea, a possibility. It is the possibility that in spite of your suffering and perhaps even because of your suffering you will experience a quality to your life you might otherwise never have known. It is the possibility that life has more to offer you and, more importantly, the possibility that you have more to offer life. It is the possibility that the God you’d once befriended is beside you still. It is the possibility of land when adrift on a troubled sea. Are you ready to take up the challenge of making your life more meaningful than it is now? The gift of meaning is not a serene painting that you contemplate and feel good about it. It is instead a gift of lumber and nails and a hammer and saw—useless unless you build something.

So, Billy’s life, and death, had meaning after all. Not enough to erase the pan, but enough for Bill senior to move forward in life with faith and hope and the capacity to keep on loving. Billy’s death surely would have been meaningless if his father’s spirit had died along with his son.

And when you seek meaning, think of what is possible.

Isn’t it possible that the love you are capable of giving can make a difference in the life of someone you haven’t even met yet?

Isn’t it possible that with time and support, you’ll have new ideas on how to live your life—ideas that are healing and life-affirming?

Isn’t it possible that God, too, is grieving for your loss?

Isn’t it possible that your suffering can ease?

The possibilities are endless.

And with this you must find some meaning. But meaning is not necessarily found in spectacular palaces of grand design. It exists in small rooms, sleeps in out of the way places, tended by people with warm hearts on cold nights. And when all is said and done you really won’t “find” meaning any more than you find the air you breathe. Meaning is all around you. You must notice it, draw it inside you, and then simply but wholeheartedly live it as well as you possibly can.

Paul Coleman 2012

Paul Coleman

Dr. Paul Coleman is a psychologist in private practice for over thirty years and the author of a dozen books including his most recent “Finding Peace When Your Heart Is in Pieces” (ADAMS MEDIA, 2014). He has appeared on national television shows such as “OPRAH” and “TODAY” and has appeared on dozens of national radio shows including NPR and WABC. Dr. Coleman specializes in the treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as well helping people through grief and other life transitions. For fun, Paul enjoys acting and has appeared in over forty community theater stage productions. He recently appeared as a grief counselor in the HBO series “I Know This Much Is True” starring Mark Ruffalo. He has written several stage plays—as yet unpublished—but has had readings of his plays performed in New York City and Austin, Texas. Paul and his wife have three children and four grandchildren.

More Articles Written by Paul