Finding Meaning after Someone you Love Dies
Finding Meaning after Someone you Love Dies
How do you find meaning after someone you love dies? Grief due to a death is a personal experience that can be difficult to adequately describe to other people around us. And finding meaning after someone you love dies can be challenging. In this way, grief often lacks a language, as words like sad, scared, mad, or upset only scratch the surface of the sorrow that grief brings to our lives. Because of this, we often describe our grief using similes or comparisons with other more familiar experiences. Oxford professor C.S. Lewis wrote in A Grief Observed, “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.” In this, he was not saying that grief was fear, but that it was LIKE fear, perhaps to better understand this experience himself.
Because our grief is personal and difficult to share with others, grief can be a lonely journey. We might wonder if anyone around us can fully understand us at all, or even if there are others who have gone through what we are going through. Often this leads to much internal struggle, self-talk, and seeking answers or meaning in the way that feels most appropriate to us at the time. There are no short cuts through grief and this experience of better understanding how grief impacts our lives is normal, albeit extremely difficult and even lonely at times. Yet it is important to find meaning after someone you love dies.
While grief is not something we can avoid or rid ourselves of, many have found that it is possible to experience meaning after someone you love dies, even in the midst of our sorrow. Take this passage from Kahlil Gibran’s epic poem, The Prophet where he weaves together joy and sorrow in a meaningful way:
“Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.
And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.
Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven?
And is not the lute that soothes your spirit, the very wood that was hollowed with knives?
When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.
When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.
Some of you say, “Joy is greater than sorrow,” and others say, “Nay, sorrow is the greater.”
But I say unto you, they are inseparable.”
Viktor Frankl wrote of experiencing meaning in our lives even in the midst of unspeakable suffering in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning. In this book, Frankl chronicles his experiences in death camps during World War II, where he was separated from his family and held captive. He recalls the atrocities and the sense of hopeless happening all around him, and that even in the midst of such dire circumstances he realized that it was still possible to find meaning. He outlines three ways that he saw people, including himself, find meaning in the midst of suffering. Let’s look at each of these briefly.
First, Frankl wrote that people find meaning in what we do, by creating something or accomplishing work or tasks. By this, he was not just encouraging people to stay busy (though that can be a part of it), but was encouraging people to continue to accomplish tasks, create, and do work. He recalls that when people in the death camps gave up and simply refused to work or find something to do with themselves, they also lost hope and ultimately this impacted them physically, mentally, and emotionally in unhealthy ways.
In our grief, it can be a challenge to even get out of bed in the morning. Yet, if we can muster the strength to do so, challenge ourselves with work and tasks, and offer our attention and care to those tasks, it is possible to find meaning after someone you love dies, if even in the little things we do each day. This does not mean we will not grieve, but it can give us a much-needed reprieve from our grief for the moment.
Second, Frankl bore witness that people find meaning by what we experience. By this, he was referring to our relationship with others and the world around us. Whether it is coffee with a friend, a walk-in nature, or connecting with a pet, Frankl encouraged people to allow themselves to encounter others in a meaningful way. Through the years, so many bereaved people have shared with me that life simply lacks luster after someone dies and, quite often, that feeling is there for some time.
To allow ourselves to encounter life around us does not mean that it will have the same luster as it always has. In some cases, it might be very difficult to open ourselves up to experiences, both new and old, as it might be emotionally draining. Yet, many of these same individuals have shared with me that as they kept allowing new experiences and relationships into their lives, they, in time, found that these indeed brought them meaning.
Finally, Frankl wrote that we find meaning in the attitude we take when faced with a situation of unchangeable suffering. Frankl described the terrible condition of the death camps and that those imprisoned there had been robbed of all their freedoms. They were told when to wake up, when to eat, when to work, and when to go to bed. They had no freedoms at all, except one, according to Frankl. He called it the last of human freedoms – the ability to choose one’s own attitude even amid suffering. He wrote that they could tell him what to do and when to do it, even kill him, if they wanted to, but they could not decide what attitude he would choose in the midst of it.
Sometimes in life, we are so burdened by our losses and grief that we do not have the energy to encounter the world arounds us, or even get out of bed in the morning. What we can do, even in our lowest place, is to choose our attitude, to take a stand and not let our circumstances dictate to us what attitude we will take. Rather, that it is possible to choose our attitude and then, even to choose what we do with ourselves and what we choose to encounter when we are grieving.
Yes, grief is a personal journey that can be lonely and filled with sorrow. But take heart that we also have choices we can make during our pain. It may be difficult, but if we can find the strength to get out of bed, encounter life around us with an attitude of determination, it is possible to find meaning after a loved one dies even in the midst of our struggle. Be patient with yourself as you grieve your loss and, at the same time, challenge yourself a little every day as you allow the possibility of meaning even in your time of grief.
Frankl, V. E. (1984). Man’s search for meaning: An introduction to logotherapy. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Gibran, K. (1995). The prophet. Pocket ed. New York: Knopf.