5 Tips for Finding Meaning After Loss
The following exercises are designed to elicit new thoughts and feelings that may help you in finding meaning after loss.
Write about your experiences with loss . . . It provides an opportunity to clarify your thinking, label emotions, and make connections that might otherwise go unnoticed.
For each, you are encouraged to write or type your responses. If that is not possible, speaking aloud about these topics or discussing them with a supportive person in your life could also be useful. Though the exercises are presented as daily assignments, for some (especially those who have lost someone recently) it would make sense to go at a slower pace, perhaps only completing one exercise a week.
Day 1: Write about your experiences with loss.
There is something magical about putting your thoughts and feelings into words. It provides an opportunity to clarify your thinking, label emotions, and make connections that might otherwise go unnoticed. A number of studies have shown that writing about painful experiences can help people to better understand and cope with them. However, recent research suggests that not all kinds of writing exercises are equally beneficial and that writing that is directed toward themes and topics that encourage a deeper processing of the event may be most helpful. For each exercise, you will be directed to write on a topic designed to facilitate the meaning-making process. For Day 1, write an account of your loss, including your thoughts and feelings about the experience. What happened? What has been the hardest part for you? How have you coped with the loss? How have these different coping strategies worked for you? How are you now thinking and feeling about the loss?
In a 2010 study, bereaved individuals who wrote about how they were making sense of their loss were more likely to show positive changes afterward than those who simply wrote about a neutral topic (i.e., describing their surroundings). If you’d like to try it for yourself, journal about your own experiences of loss using an adapted version of the instructions from this study:
One way of finding meaning is by making sense of an event or experience. Sense-making involves answering your own questions about how and why the loss occurred, specifically with regard to the circumstances and causes. We would like you to focus on how the loss fits into your beliefs about why things happen. Consider, but do not restrict yourself to, causes such as environmental circumstances, health, your own or someone else’s behaviors, or a higher power.
Day 3: Describe how life is both different and the same after the loss.
As humans, we tend to organize information and memories from our life into stories. From this perspective, the loss of someone important in our life and other significant events may be seen as a “micro-narratives” that makes up a larger “macro-narrative” of our lives. Problems with meaning can occur when the story of the loss is perceived as a dramatic departure from one’s overall life story. Somehow, it just doesn’t fit.
If that describes your experience, in another writing exercise try to pinpoint exactly how the story of your loss does and does not fit within the larger story of your life. What about it doesn’t fit? Are there any threads at all that might tie these stories together? In what ways is the “you before the loss” different and similar to the “you after the loss”? What aspects of your identity and personality remain the same?
Day 4: Find positive ways to connect to the memory and/or spirit of the person you lost.
Dr. Sigmund Freud believed the primary task of grieving was to eventually sever all emotional ties with the deceased. Most mental health professionals today, however, acknowledge (and sometimes even promote) grievers’ natural tendency to want to maintain some symbolic connection with the person who was lost. Studies have found that these continued emotional bonds can be experienced as either comforting or distressful depending on the way they are perceived and expressed.
In a separate writing exercise, consider ways of maintaining a comforting connection with this person. What was his/her most positive and special qualities? In what ways does he/she continue to influence you and the way you look at life? How might you share with others the parts of this person that live on through you? How might you honor his/her legacy in everyday life?
For some, these continuing bonds can be complicated, particularly if the relationship was difficult, or there was some issue that was never fully resolved. Such circumstances may leave one with the sense that there is “unfinished business” that persists after the loss.
Day 5: Consider how you may have grown from this experience.
After experiencing a negative event, people often report that it ultimately had unintended positive consequences. Even after a potential trauma or loss, many say that it eventually led them to appreciate life more, become more sensitive to other’s suffering, grow closer to family, or perhaps develop a stronger relationship to a higher power, just to provide a few examples. Of course, such revelations cannot be forced. But if the notion of hidden benefits in loss appeals to you, consider engaging in a writing task that focuses on any potential silver lining that you may be able to see in your loss.
If you need some direction, here is an adapted version of instructions that were successfully used in a 2010 study (mentioned in tip #2) on the effects of writing after a loss:
One way of finding meaning is by looking for benefits or growth opportunities that have come about as a consequence of an otherwise negative event. Benefit-finding involves discovering the positive significance of a stressful event, specifically with respect to goals, values, and purpose in life. We would like you to think about positive changes that may have resulted from your loss. Consider, but do not restrict yourself to, effects on you, your life, your goals, or your relationships that have happened as a result of the loss, as well as the value or significance of this loss in your life.
If you try any of these exercises, let us know how it goes in the comments box below. Or if you have your own to share, others can learn from your experiences!
Neimeyer, R. A., & Levitt, H. M. (2000). What’s narrative got to do with it? Construction and coherence in accounts of loss. J. H. Harvey & E.D. Miller (Eds.), Loss and trauma: General and close relationship perspectives (pp. 401-412). New York: Routledge.
Shakespeare-Finch, J., & Lurie-Beck, J. (2014). A meta-analytic clarification of the relationship between posttraumatic growth and symptoms of posttraumatic distress disorder. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 28, 223-229.