Meaning and Purpose in Grief Work

Soap bubble floating with clouds behind it, like the spiritual meaning and purpose that guides us

We Must Create Meaning

While leading a group about grief, I mentioned that, as part of the process of moving on, “we must create a sense of meaning.” I meant this in two ways.

First, we must make sense of what happened. Was God involved? If so, how? What does the event tell us about fairness, and how important it is that life be fair?

Is someone to blame? Do we need to forgive that person, or do we need to forgive ourselves? Do we want to forgive, or will doing so betray our values?

Is there something we can learn from our loss, or was it a random act that defies point and purpose?

The way we answer those questions will impact how we feel. It will also impact how deeply and effectively we grieve.

This gets to the second reason I was talking about. After a major loss, we may find ourselves bereft of meaning and purpose. Significant losses can shatter the worldview we had so we might need to find a new one.

Types of Losses

To understand hthis better, let’s review the grief process.

Grief is our response to the loss of something we care about. There are many kinds of losses. A refugee may grieve a lost home or country; a person who has gotten sick or had an amputation may mourn the loss of health or limb. We can lose jobs, integrity, independence, security. Parents divorce, children leave home, and pets grow old. In response, we feel sad.

Not every loss is a tragedy, and even events that, for some, are joyful, like births and weddings, bring loss with them. Regardless, however, loss brings up feelings. We may experience anger, despair, anxiety, guilt, denial, sadness, rage, numbness, shame, confusion, agony, depression, hopelessness, fear, and more. When a loss is minor, the feelings pass quickly; when a loss is huge, they may never completely go away.

Depending on how we respond to our losses, though, we have a better or worse chance of easing our pain. Educators and psychologists have come up with models of grief. Though, as we saw, there are many things we grieve over, these models assume our grief is about the death of a loved one, but they can be modified to fit any loss.

Rejecting the Grieving Process

The model I use when I lead the grief group was developed by William Worden. He lists four tasks of grieving.

The first one he identifies is to accept the reality of the loss. For some people, this may be impossible. An abusive husband, for instance, can be so unwilling to accept the loss of the power and control he has had over his wife and children, that, if they leave, he feels entitled to destroy them.

Or take the example of an elderly woman I met whose son had died. For twenty years, she mourned his loss. She turned her home into a memorial to him, placing his photos everywhere, keeping his belongings tucked neatly away. She talked to him to the exclusion of others, rebuffed the overtures of friends, refused happiness. For her to recreate a life without her son felt like a betrayal.

At some point in their lives, those two created a sense of meaning for themselves. The abuser apparently thought life was about gaining power. The woman seemed to think life had no purpose unless she was a mother to a living child. Both of them had a sense of meaning that was conditional on life being what they expected it to be. Life, though, plays by its own rules.

Some people, when faced with the vagaries of life may fall apart, but they are able to piece themselves back together. They may need help, but they manage.

For those who can’t, perhaps they have no faith it’s possible. Maybe no one ever showed them how. Some people prefer resentment and hate to re-creation. Regardless of what it was for them that kept those two stuck, the man chose to kill others rather than accept the loss, while the woman chose to live as one already dead.

Moving On

Most of us will eventually acknowledge that what we loved is now gone. Then we can begin the second task of grieving, which is to work through the anguish we feel. We do this by talking with friends, building memorials, taking walks alone, crying, wailing, praying. We may need to let go of guilt, resentment, the lust for revenge, and more. Expressing our pain is a process that varies from person to person. It also takes time.

Indeed, if the loss is significant enough, we will never completely lose our sadness, but once we express at least some of our pain, we will be able to start the third task of grief, which is to adjust to the changed reality of our lives. We might start taking on tasks our loved ones performed, find new friends, decorate a new home, or learn to walk with a prosthetic.

In this way, we will have begun Worden’s final task which is moving on with our lives.

Moving on does not mean forgetting the person or object that has died or is missing. Instead, we “emotionally relocate” that person, allowing our beloved to live on within us. We find a way to enjoy ourselves without that relationship we once thought so necessary, but not because we have banished our beloved from our minds. We honor the dead while embracing the living.

Meaning Helps Us Move On

It’s hard to do this, though, unless we create some sense of meaning out of what happened. To move on, we need to integrate the reality of the loss into our present, or new, worldview.

Some people have a worldview that can incorporate almost any loss. They understand that life happens, that we can’t have love without loss or joy without pain, and that’s all right. They still grieve, but their world isn’t destroyed when tragedy strikes.

More common, however, are those for whom rebuilding their world and their understanding of it is slow and painstaking. They do it, but it’s hard.

Without this effort, however, we will not be able to move on, for there will be no place to move to. There will be no reality, no understanding, no sense of self within a safe universe. We will be stuck, like the enraged abuser and the bereaved mother.

So meaning and purpose are part of healing from loss. Yet not everyone agrees. That’s not surprising. No matter what I say, someone can argue against it.

Still, it seemed a simple statement of fact to declare that, to move on, we need to make sense of the tragedy, and we need to create meaning out of what is left. I felt relatively safe saying that to the group. Thus, I was a little surprised to find, that on one of the evaluation cards I have the participants fill out at the end of each group, someone had written, “You don’t have to find meaning.”

Soap bubble floating with clouds behind it, like the spiritual meaning and purpose that guides us

Without Purpose

All right, of course, you don’t. People survive without purpose, goals, or a sense of belonging. Studies show they don’t live very long, however, and they don’t do well in recovery. Those without a sense of meaning, for instance, relapse more often than those with one. [1]

While reading an opinion article in The New York Times about the Republican representative, Elisa Stefanik, I realized that a lack of meaning and purpose can leave us rudderless and empty, prone not only to addiction and disease, but also to the lure of wealth and power and prestige. Stefanik, for instance, went from being “disgusted by” Donald Trump before he was elected to being one of his greatest cheerleaders afterward. When we lack a purpose beyond lust and greed, we can lose our true selves. [2]

You don’t have to agree with what the article says about Stefanik, and you might think the presidency was stolen from Trump, but what Wehner describes—a politician who chose to “become a celebrity” rather than stand up for her principles—is common in those who have no purpose beyond making money or being applauded by the crowd.

Being in the limelight may feel good, but when we gain that place through subterfuge or by betraying our values, it rarely lasts. Public attention is fickle at best. The fall from grace is its own kind of loss, and if you do not understand what it means to believe in something more important than our individual lives—such as democracy, love, or God—you will have a hard time healing your grief. You will have a hard time grieving at all.

Sure. No one has to find meaning in life, but we’re happier if we do.

Trapped in Grief

I suspected, however, that what that person was saying was more complex. Because I had an idea who had written the comment, I spoke with them afterward. Indeed, their comment was about their own pain than a reaction to the word “must.”

For years, they had lived without purpose and meaning. Indeed, they weren’t certain they had any purpose now.

What they did have was anger. It burned within them, a seething well of pain and rage that insisted life wasn’t fair. Betrayal happened all the time. Being good or being bad, following one’s values or not, made no difference. Life did what it did, and you might as well get used to it. This leads to behavior like Stefanik’s or the abusive husband’s.

This person on the addiction unit, however, knew their anger wasn’t helping them. They longed for a reason to get up in the morning, a reason to stay sober.

As we talked, it became clear that they rejected the need for meaning because they were grieving. A good friend had recently ended her own life, ostensibly because she couldn’t find a purpose herself. For the resident on the unit, the hurt felt so raw that seeking meaning from the loss, or meaning in life at all, was absurd. They weren’t ready for that.

Yet at some point, they would be. They did not want to stay trapped in their grief.

Part of moving on from loss is finding meaning. When we have been through a great loss and our inner self is shattered, we may never become whole again, or it may take years. Yet if we work through the emotions of our loss, we may discover life is waiting for us. In that life, we might even find a purpose.

Defining Meaning and Purpose

But what are meaning and purpose?

Wenceslao Martinez and Allie Alayan define meaning as something that gives us a sense of worth, that tells us we are significant, that we make a difference in the world. Our sense of purpose comes out of our values, out of the things that matter to us and guide our actions. [3]

As we saw, we can find meaning in power, control, acclaim, or wealth, but that doesn’t do much to help us grieve, nor to help us live a fulfilling life. After all, these are empty rewards that, like addiction, never fully satisfy. We always need more and more. When we seek meaning in lust and addiction, we end up destroyed, and we bring down everything around us at the same time.

So where can we find a healthy sense of meaning and purpose? Some people find meaning in work, family, hobbies, volunteering. When we develop a goal, even if it’s something as simple as a New Year’s resolution, we can find a renewed sense of direction. Maybe we want to lose weight, start an exercise program, learn to dance, or take up an instrument.

These goals, by themselves, don’t give us a deeper sense of meaning and purpose. We find that in things bigger than ourselves. We mentioned some of those: democracy, love, faith. Meaning is found in ideals, in relationships, and in sacred stillness.

Believing in Ourselves

It will be hard to find a greater sense of meaning and purpose, as Martinez and Alayan point out, if we don’t first believe that we matter. We must first realize we’re good enough to contribute to the world, to make a difference to someone else, before we can risk striving.

Again, that takes grief work. Maybe we need to grieve a childhood that taught us more about self-loathing than self-compassion. We may need to grieve our own failures, our mistakes, the times we betrayed those we loved. Our past can leave us wounded. Still, grieving that past may be the first step toward healing. Even in trauma work, there is much to grieve.

Once we begin this process of healing, we can begin to see ourselves as the loving and sacred beings we are. We all have a capacity for wholeness, grace, and love. For some, those feelings may be so buried they never find it, or they might have to go through horrible losses before they can uncover the kind and joyful person they truly are underneath their hate and fear.

Meaning from Something Bigger than Ourselves

Regardless, as the jagged pieces of our soul begin to knit together, we may discover that meaning and purpose reveal themselves. We don’t need to create something. It just appears.

That may be because our sense of meaning and purpose really comes from our relationships. This includes our relationship with ourselves, a true and honest connection with our inner being. It also includes relationships with loved ones, places, animals, gods.

Having a sense of meaning and purpose means that we believe we exist for something more important than our personal pleasure. Generally, it means we feel aligned with something sacred, even if that thing is an ideal rather than a deity. This gives us a reason to wake up every morning, which is kind of nice. It also helps us stay healthy, happy, and sober.

We don’t have to find meaning in our lives. No one has to do anything. But if we do find meaning, we will be glad of it.

In faith and fondness,

Barbara

Credits

  1. See Kim, Eric S., et. al., “Sense of Purpose I Life and Fie Health Behaviors in Older Adults,” Preventive Medicine, vol. 139 (2020): 106172. doi: 10.1016/https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7494628/, accessed July 29, 2022, Martin, Rosemarie A., “Purpose in Life Predicts Treatment Outcome Among Adult Cocaine Abusers in Treatment,” J Subst Abuse Treat, 2011 Mar; 40(2): 183-8, doi: 10.1016, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3031725/, accessed July 29, 2022, and Csabonyi, Matthew and Lisa J. Phillips, “Meaning in Life and Substance Abuse,” Journal of Humanistic Psychology, Volume 60, issue 1, pp. 3-19, January 23, 2017, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0022167816687674, accessed July 29, 2022.
  2. Wehner, Peter, “What in the World Happened to Elise Stefanik?,” Opinion, The New York Times, July 29, 2022, A22.
  3. Martinez, Wenceslao and Allie Alayan, “The Psychology of Purpose in Life,” Columbine Health Systems Center for Healthy Aging, Colorado State University, https://www.research.colostate.edu/healthyagingcenter/2021/07/13/the-psychology-of-purpose-in-life/, July 13, 2021, accessed July 29, 2022.

Photo by Alfred Kenneally

Copyright © 2022 Barbara E. Stevens. All Rights Reserved.

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