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Finding Meaning in Grief

Grief is one of the most complex emotions humans can experience. Everyone feels grief differently and responds to it differently. But not everyone realizes that grief, as an unavoidable part of the human experience, can also provoke unexpected thoughts and change us in unexpected ways—some of which aren’t negative. In fact, you can find meaning in grief, if you know how to look for it.

Just as grief is personal, finding meaning in grief is personal. Everyone on this journey will follow their own timeline and have their own perspective. What’s important to remember is that finding meaning in grief is possible for everyone, and if you can do it, you’ll be able to manage and work through your grief more effectively. 

The 5 (or 6) stages of grief

Many people are familiar with the 5 stages of grief. While these stages were in fact originally written to help someone coping with their own serious illness or death, they are often used to describe a person’s grieving process when they are grieving the loss of someone or something else:

  • Denial: Refusing to believe that what happened has happened; trying (even subconsciously) to create an alternate reality (“This can’t be real!”)
  • Anger: Frustration at the situation or at other people involved in the situation, often tied to a perceived lack of justice (“It’s not fair!”) 
  • Bargaining: Wishing there was a way to trade something you have for the thing you’ve lost (“I would trade their life for mine.”)
  • Depression: The mournful stage when a person truly feels the depth of their loss (“I can’t handle this sadness.”)
  • Acceptance: Acknowledging the loss and making the decision to move on (“Everything is going to be okay.”)

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, the person who initially introduced the stages of grief, has suggested that there might be a sixth stage: meaning. David Kessler, who worked with Kübler-Ross and co-authored books with her, has furthered this idea.

Meaning is what turns grief from sadness into hope. It allows you to learn from the past in order to shape your future. It acknowledges the pain while also acknowledging the love.

After all, love and grief are quite closely connected.

Love and grief

“You don’t have to experience grief, but you can only avoid it by avoiding love. Love and grief are inextricably intertwined.”

David Kessler

In the novel Lovely War by Julie Berry, Aphrodite (the Greek goddess of love) and Hades (the god of death and the Underworld) are talking.

Aphrodite tells Hades: “You are my crown and my glory. . . .I scrabble in sticks and clay. You make of my work a temple.”

Here’s the thing: without love, grief wouldn’t exist. If we never loved anyone or anything, why would we care if that person or that thing ever left us?

But the opposite is also true: without grief, love wouldn’t exist. We would never realize how much we could love something if we could never lose it. Death, loss, and grief reveal and magnify love in a way that few other things can. 

This connection between love and grief is the key to finding meaning in grief. Because love is a motivating emotion, pushing us forward and inspiring us to action, discovering the love in the grief can help pull us out of the depression stage, push us beyond the acceptance stage, and take us to a place of true meaning and possibility. 

How to find meaning in grief

There are some things you can do to move this process along. Remember, everyone experiences grief differently, so don’t feel bad if you aren’t ready to explore these ideas yet. Be patient. Your grief is valid and important, no matter what it looks like, and you deserve to give yourself the time you need to work through it.

Hope that you can; believe that you will 

The first two stages of the Egg (a framework that helps people, especially creatives, “create happy” in their lives) are Hope and Belief. 

Hope: Acknowledging the possibility of a different future
Belief: Realizing that you can make that future a reality.

These are the first two steps for any shift in your thinking. You have to hope that it’s possible, and you have to believe that it’s realistic. 

When it comes to finding meaning in grief, both hope and belief can be hard to come by. People who are in the depths of grief often feel like they’ll feel this way forever (an unhopeful thought), and they don’t believe that it’s possible to experience their grief in a different way.

Yet, both hope and belief are necessary if you’re going to find meaning in grief.

Talk to other people who have been walking the path of grief for a while. Listen to their stories and use them as hope for a better, brighter future. Use that hope to fuel your belief that someday, just maybe, you’ll discover meaning in your grief.

Reframe what you’re grieving 

In Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning, he talks about an older man who was having a hard time working through his wife’s death.

Frankl invited him to reframe the situation by asking, “What if you were the one that had died, and she was the one alive right now?”

The man realized that if that were the case, his wife would be the one living with the unbearable grief.

That simple realization helped him attribute some meaning to his grief. He suffered so she didn’t have to.

That exact scenario—suffering on someone else’s behalf—will not be appropriate for every situation, but it does demonstrate how reframing your grief can add meaning to your grief.

Other ways this can apply:

  • “If I hadn’t missed out on that opportunity, I wouldn’t have found that other opportunity.”
  • “This loss has made me think more about [x].”
  • “His experience taught so many people about [y].”

Again, this strategy won’t work for everyone, and it certainly won’t work if you’re not ready to find meaning in your grief. But once you are ready, it can be a powerful tool.

Use grief to get to know yourself 

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from years of studying and observing human thoughts and emotions, it’s that people don’t know themselves as well as they think.

As a person who feels a lot (Enneagram 4, anyone?), it can sometimes be hard for me to identify what exactly I’m feeling. I know many people, including creatives, who also struggle to adequately express their thoughts or feelings. Because taking the time to explore those thoughts and feelings can be confusing and painful, we tend to push them down until we don’t think or feel them anymore. And that isn’t helpful, because of course, they always come back to haunt us later.

The thing about grief is that it gives us the chance to really feel and experience some of the most powerful emotions human nature has to offer. And as long as we’re willing to sit with those feelings, we can start to learn things about ourselves we may not have learned otherwise.

Do this by tracking your emotions. When do you feel them? What do they physically feel like? What do they make you think of? How do you want to act when you feel them? Write down your observations (you can even use a mood tracking app like Mood Meter or Daylio) and try to identify patterns.

Getting to know yourself in this way will serve you for the rest of your life. When you’re ready, use your grief as a starting point for getting more in touch with your feelings. 

Live your life with purpose

One powerful way to find meaning in grief is to infuse purpose into the rest of your life. How is your life different because of the person you’ve lost? How do you want it to be different moving forward? 

Grief can propel change. It can ignite in us a realization—perhaps that our time is limited, or that the thing we thought we cared about doesn’t really matter all that much. If we’re willing, we can use those realizations to move forward in new and meaningful ways.

Don’t worry: you don’t have to start a foundation in the person’s honor, or hold a huge fundraiser to bring in money for a related organization. (Do those things if you want to, by all means, but you don’t have to.) Simply identifying a purpose for your life, realizing how you are going to be different because of this grief you’re experiencing, is enough.  

Feel the love along with the grief

Remember: love is the thing that brings meaning to grief. Tap into the love you feel for the person or thing you are grieving. How did they make you feel? What did you love to do together? What do you miss the most about them?

Whatever you do, don’t let the love go. Don’t try to forget the good times because you’re afraid the memories will make you sad. That will only make the grief worse. By bringing love into the grieving process, you invite meaning.

There’s no formula for finding meaning in grief. I can’t give you a list of things to check off to help you magically find meaning. All I can do is offer encouragement, support, and a few ideas that might help pull the meaning out of this dark time.

So remember: meaning is there. When you’re ready, go find it. You can do it. And you’ll be glad you did.

Bring more meaning into your life.

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