Q: I suffered a traumatic loss recently, and some friends told me I should “find meaning” in the loss and move on. I know they want me to feel better, but I’m having a hard time finding anything good right now. How can I find the meaning they keep talking about?
A: The ability to find positive meaning in trauma/loss is indeed helpful in recovering and being able to move on with your life. Viktor Frankl described this as, “finding meaning in your suffering,” in his classic about dealing with trauma, Man’s Search for Meaning.
But before you can do that, you have to let yourself feel the pain of the loss. Too often, people look for meaning before processing their feelings, leaving grief unresolved and buried deep inside. Feelings will always work their way back out, so it’s simpler to accept and work through them.
It’s also important not to pressure yourself to find “the meaning” even when you think you’re ready. Be patient; meaning often comes from the process of grieving itself. If you push to find it, you’ll just frustrate yourself. Often, people rush to find meaning because they hate experiencing the loss and the pain. But true meaning doesn’t mask the grieving process; it’s part of it.
There are some things, though, that might help you work through your feelings:
— Talk about how you feel with supportive friends and family members.
— Keep a journal about your thoughts and feelings. Studies show that the act of putting pen to paper engages a part of the brain that isn’t engaged just by talking.
— Join a support group. The group members can help you work through your loss, and you might even find meaning by helping others in a similar situation. (But be careful about helping others before you’re really ready. You might trigger your own unresolved feelings.)
— And, of course, quality counseling can help when you feel stuck trying to make sense of what happened.
That’s really the key to dealing with trauma. It’s not necessarily about finding something positive; it’s about trying to make sense of your loss. That doesn’t mean the trauma will ever be “OK”; it means that your brain can finally process and accept what happened, even when you don’t like it.
(Carl Grody, LISW-S, specializes in family therapy in Worthington, Ohio. He’s a trained group leader in the Incredible Years parenting program, and he’s also the family therapy columnist for Columbus Parent magazine. For an appointment with Carl, call 614-477-5565.)