Meaning Making in Grief

By: Nancy Hancock
Monday, May 3, 2021

James Reid Funeral Home
Bereavement Support Program
May 3, 2021
Nancy Hancock

Why? Why did he or she have to die?
This is the universal question we ask after the death of someone we loved. Yes, there are
the medical reasons for death. There are also philosophical reasons: fate; chance, and God.
Death raises some of the toughest questions of life: what have been your questions?
Why her and not me? Why did God allow this to happen? Is there life after death? Where
is he/she now? If everything happens for a reason, what was the reason they died?
When someone we love dies, we struggle to make sense of their death. Even when the
death was expected for some time, it is still a shock when it actually happens.

Life is full of many good things. What are some of the good things in your life?
- relationships: family, friends
- travel memories
- our children/grandchildren

Yet, we all experiences many losses. Other than a death, what are some of the other losses you
have endured?
- pets, friends, jobs, divorce, health, a home…

Of all these losses, death is the most painful one of all. Death leaves us shaken, feeling lost,
empty, and hopeless. Let’s go over some of the symptoms of grief, in particular the early days of
grief. What are some emotions, physical sensations, and states of mind have you experienced
in your grief?
- numbness
- anxiety
- insomnia
- extreme fatigue
- fear
- forgetfulness
- anger

Grief affects our total being: our body, mind, spirit, behaviour, and relationships. Everyone’s
grief experience is unique, and no two losses are the same. It is good to be in a group of other
grievers, to share our own experiences and to find support. Have you found it helpful?
As the numbness after death begins to wear off, the reality gradually sets in that your
person’s bodily presence will never be with you again. Then, we begin to ask ourselves and
others, “how do I make sense of the loss of this person?” And the next question, “how can my
life have meaning without them in it?”

Some deaths will never make sense to us. They are so tragic that they defy reason. What
might this kind of death look like?
- a car crash that kills a family
- the serious illness and death of a baby
- the cancer of a young parent
- a workplace accident that kills a parent or spouse
- suicide
- violence

When there is no rational reason for such tragic deaths, the choice is ours whether we can create
meaning out of the tremendous loss. It may take a lifetime.

Mitch Albom in his book Tuesdays with Morrie, recounts how he spent each Tuesday with
his friend Morrie, as Morrie was dying. One of the things Morrie said to Mitch was, “death ends
a life, but not a relationship”. In other words, the love you shared with your person and the
memories you created, will never die. The challenge is to find ways to continue that bond that
you cherished, in new ways. In the early days of grief, many people have longed to find signs of
their loved one’s continued presence. What were some of those signs which you have sought
or found?
- dreams of them
- listening to their favourite music
- the smell of the fragrance they wore

When we are aware of these signs, we feel close to them again and are comforted, even
if only briefly.

Likewise, some of the rituals we observe after a death may give us a sense of peace and
comfort. It’s been hard for so many during the pandemic such that we haven’t been able to have
the traditional rituals in the same way. Ceremonies have been smaller or delayed. What are
some of the rituals which gave you comfort after your person died?
- gathering with family and friends (even small ones or by Zoom)
- planting a tree
- religious or secular services or rites
- prayers, readings, hymns

These rituals give us peace and hope in the transcendent presence of our loved one in the life to
come. The universal cry of a person in mourning is, “there has to be something beyond death”.
Think about what that “something beyond” is to you, and cling to that hope, allowing it to give
you the comfort you need.

Will you ever “get over” the death of your person? No!
However, the choice is yours to find ways to integrate this loss into your life and to make
your life meaningful. That isn’t the same as being happy that this person died. You may be angry
and bewildered for a long time to come, but still use the loss as a means for your own growth, in

What is the place of memory as we think about meaning-making in grief? People will say
to you, “he/she lives on in our memories”. What place do your memories hold for you as you
grieve the death of the person you loved?

Many people I talk to about their grief tell me that they find great comfort in looking at
photos of them and their person and the memories they evoke. Do photos and their memories
keep your person alive to you on some level?

In Judaism, birthdays hold little importance. The anniversary of one’s death is celebrated
more—it celebrates the person’s achievements and qualities and our memories of those. Rabbi
David Wolpe writes, “memory is our defense against meaninglessness” (p.208). Memory recalls
a life lived. In early grief, we live in the moment of loss. As memory builds, the time of loss moves
farther away. In time, the joy your person brought to your life will overcome the acute grief and
give new meaning to you. Your memories can help you find an enduring connection with your
person, one that can bring you lifelong comfort as you adjust to a life without them. Use your
memories to celebrate the life of your person on the various anniversaries. What are some ideas
you can share of how to observe these days?
-look at photo albums and videos
-make their favourite meal to share with family
-take a walk in their favourite place
-create a memory garden, ie “grandma’s garden”

Death is a pivotal moment in our lives. It takes a long time to make any meaning out of
it. Jerry Sittser, three days after an accident that killed his mother, his wife, and one of their
children, had a terrifying dream which he describes in his book. Describing the moment after
waking, he writes,
I discovered in that moment that I had the power to choose the direction my life
would head, even if the only choice open to me, at least initially, was either to run
from the loss or to face it as best I could. (p.42)

The power to choose. You may feel powerless in the face of the loss you have suffered.
What choices are open to you?
-the power to respond to what is.
-the power to make meaning of what is left.
-the choice to pay attention to the lessons we can learn in grief.
-the choice to become more compassionate to others in their grief.
- taking the trip you always planned to take with your person
-donating in their memory
-appreciating the good things that remain
-fulfilling your own goals

To some questions, namely the “why” ones, there may never be an answer. We learn to live with
those questions and to make peace with them and to go on.

Lisa Unger, in Beautiful Lies, writes,
Grief is not linear. It’s not a slow progression forward toward healing, it’s
a zigzag, a terrible back-and-forth from devastated to okay until finally
there are more okay patches and fewer devastated ones.

Getting through grief is not for the faint of heart. To make life meaningful without your
person in it is hard work. It is a choice one makes to reshape one’s life after someone important
to us dies. The death of your person is a huge loss. But to live the rest of your life without hope
is an even greater loss, one which your person would never want for you. Your love for them
gave their life meaning—choose to honour that relationship by living your life with hope and with

QUESTION: What is one lesson you have learned as you are going through grief?

Albom, Mitch. Tuesdays with Morrie. Doubleday. 1997
Sittser, Jerry. A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows Through Loss. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.2004.
Unger, Lisa. Beautiful Lies. Crown Publishing Group. 2006.
Wolpe, Rabbi David. Making Loss Matter: Creating Meaning in Difficult Times. New York:Riverhead Books, 1999.

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