Meaning-Making in Life & Death: How It Works

Updated

Meaning is sometimes the only thing that makes a loss bearable. “Meaning-making” is a way to help you make sense of your loss and grief. You know your life won’t be the same after your loss. But if you can find meaning in it, you may be able to carry your grief more easily.

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If you’ve lost your mom to breast cancer, raising money in her name at a local charity event might give you purpose. Or you might decide to spend time volunteering at the local library now that your spouse has died. These are a few meaningful ways to move forward with your grief.

Dr. Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, explored the role of finding meaning in his 1946 book, Man’s Search for Meaning. His daily search for meaning happened in a place filled with suffering.

But his efforts kept him and others alive every day. Since then, psychology experts have examined how meaning and grief work together.

What Does Meaning-Making Mean?

Meaning-making is the process of coping with a loss by attaching personal meaning to it. To reduce the distress from your grief, you may look for meaning in a loved one’s death. Meaning doesn’t restore your loss, but it can help you live with it and move forward with more peace.

David Kessler—the author of the new book Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief—in an article in the New York Times stated that, "Loss is simply what happens to you in life. Meaning is what you make happen.”

When you cope with loss, you change one of two things. You either adjust what the loss means to you now, or the way you see the world. Imagine your doctor diagnosed you with a medical condition that requires you to make a lot of changes to your diet. On one hand, this diagnosis represents a loss of freedom with food. But on the other, you have a roadmap to improve your health. 

To cope with the diagnosis, you might see your situation as an opportunity. You could take a cooking class to learn more about your new diet and look for restaurants with a flexible menu. This option prioritizes freedom and social activity. Or, you might choose to increase control over your diet by eating mostly at home. This choice cuts down your social time, but helps you feel better about your food choices.

Both of these options can reduce your emotional distress, just in different ways. Meaning-making is an ongoing process and can change over time.

How Does Meaning-Making Work?

Researchers have studied the connection between meaning and grief for many years. In 2010, Dr. Crystal Park, PhD., at the University of Connecticut, proposed “The Meaning Making” coping model. This model helps to explain how a person may use meaning to cope with loss.

The Meaning Making model includes two types of meaning, situational meaning and global meaning. The first one, global meaning, is described as a general sense of how the universe works. You derive meaning based on your ideas about justice, spiritual beliefs, goals and motivation, and your sense of purpose.

Lastly, situational meaning focuses on evaluating the meaning of the current stressful situation or event, or how you derive meaning from this moment alone.

Meaning-making process

Here’s an example of how the meaning-making process works when dealing with a loss.

  1. You experience a stressful situation or a loss. Your 10-year-old dog just died today.
  2. You evaluate your situational meaning. You’ve suddenly lost a dear companion of many years.
  3. You compare the current situation to your global meaning. You value long-term companionship with dogs as part of your family. 
  4. When comparing your global meaning and situational meaning, the loss of your dog becomes deeply painful. 

Meaning-making can bring your global meaning and situational meaning closer together. You can do this by adjusting your global meaning, your situational meaning, or some of both. 

You could adjust your global meaning about having dog companionship in your life. By making dogs less important, the loss of your dog won’t have as much personal impact. But if dogs or pets are still very important to you, a change of your situational meaning may help more. 

You might decide that spending time around other dogs would make you feel better. You could volunteer at an animal shelter or offer dog walking services in your area. At some point, you may be ready to get another dog yourself. But in the meantime, your adjusted situational meaning can help you cope with your loss.

How Can You Use Meaning-Making After Someone Dies?

Meaning-making can help you cope with your loss by seeing it in a different light. By adjusting the meaning you attach to your loss, you try to live with it more peacefully.

As quoted in the book, Living with Grief, Robert Neimeyer says that loss “requires us to reconstruct a world that again makes sense.” These are but a few examples of finding meaning as you grieve.

Advocacy, charity, or volunteer work 

Spend time volunteering for a charity related to the loss of your loved one. Advocate for others affected by the same kind of loss by raising money or awareness. Many charity organizations appreciate the help and publicity, especially when you have a personal tie to the cause.

Some charities have specific events like 5K runs, blood drives, or awareness campaigns. Or, you may do more behind the scenes like volunteering at an animal shelter or a nursing home. Your contribution doesn’t need to be splashy or big, just meaningful and genuine. 

Accepting that some questions won’t have answers

Accepting uncertainty can be a difficult part of the grieving process. You aren’t likely to be ready to live with unanswered questions right away. But after some time, you may realize that your struggle with the unknown causes you to feel ongoing pain. 

When you are ready, letting go of the unknown can be a meaningful step in accepting your loss. This may be especially hard if your loss is traumatic or sudden, but letting go can still be significant. You may find yourself facing acceptance over and over again before you feel settled.

Finding benefits 

It may seem strange to look for benefits of your loss, but sometimes you gain things you didn’t know you needed.

You reassess the situation in a way that helps you look past the pain. It doesn’t mean you don’t wish the loss didn’t happen, but that you can find some good in it anyway.

  • The death of a parent may trigger a need for more independence and maturity. 
  • The loss of a partner might force you to learn new daily living skills. 
  • The loss of a sibling or friend may lead to closer relationships with their families.  

Spiritual beliefs

Some people find comfort and meaning in their spiritual beliefs. Loss can also cause a spiritual crisis, calling all meaning into question. You might wrestle with spiritual ideas and uncertainty, no matter how weak or strong your beliefs are. This kind of exploration is a common and natural part of seeking meaning after a loss. 

Reach out to others who can support your spiritual needs. If you are not connected with a particular group, you might start by talking with a friend or family member. Some grief support groups are associated with spiritual organizations, which may be a way to address both grief and spiritual concerns.

Seeking positivity

Seeking positivity is similar to finding benefits but may be done more intentionally. Some people live by a philosophy about always finding positivity and kindness. If this is you, you might actively seek something positive to take from your loss. 

As stated earlier, this doesn’t mean you are just fine with your loss. Your worldview includes highlighting good things in the world, even in the face of terrible loss. You may find comfort reflecting on good memories, looking for positive reminders, and doing things that feel uplifting. This positivity isn't put upon you by others that are uncomfortable with your grief. You create meaning on your own.

Read our list for the best positivity podcasts for some more tips.

Passing on memories to others

Storytelling is an engaging way to bring meaning to your loss. Whether your loss was a death in the family, a home destroyed by a storm, or a lost opportunity, family storytelling can give new life to your memories. This can happen with any loss, but is common practice when a family member dies. Storytelling can connect family members from different locations and generations in memorable ways.

Often when you retell memories, you have a chance to reinterpret and reprocess them. As time passes, the memories may change with new bits of wisdom or fuzzier details. But if you share what means the most to you, you take another step towards living with your loss.

Creating Meaning With Loss

Loss is an unavoidable part of human life. When you struggle to make sense of your emotions, look for meaning in your loss. Meaning won’t take away the pain, but it can help you live with it more easily. 


Sources  

  1. Brody, Jane. “Making Meaning out of Grief.” New York Times, November 4, 2019, www.nytimes.com/2019/11/04/well/mind/making-meaning-out-of-grief.html
  2. Kessler, David. “Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief.” Scribner, November 5, 2019.
  3. Doka, Kenneth J, & Davidson, Joyce. Living with Grief: When Illness is Prolonged. Taylor and Francis, March 23, 2016, Print.
  4. Frankl, Viktor. Man’s Search for Meaning. Beacon Press, February 18, 2014.
  5. Park, Crystal, PhD. “Meaning Making Model: A Framework for Understanding Meaning, Spirituality, and Stress-Related Growth in Health Psychology.” Semantic Scholar, June, 2013, pdfs.semanticscholar.org/8c66/c6adff378f50aec1c8026694f4c4099c402f.pdf

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