Creating Meaning After Loss

When you’ve had a loss like a stroke, everything changes. Sometimes even the big things change, like what you believe in and what is important to you. You’ve been forced to change so radically, and therefore the world around you has changed radically.

How, then, do you move forward?

You’ve heard about the stages of grief after loss—and how the last step, acceptance, is indicative that you’ve processed the loss and are now moving forward. I think that is true, but there is something deeper. That something deeper is meaning.

Meaning gives context to loss; it is our brain’s natural way of processing something big. Through that process, we come to our own personal conclusions about loss. Those conclusions become springboard for how to move forward.

The meaning we make of loss is a major part of the healing process. We cannot move forward without meaning because meaning gives us context—both for our past (before the loss) and the future (now, after the loss). It helps us to know who we are in the midst of our circumstances, and gives us agency to move forward.

But making meaning can become a challenge. It might not be a natural process, especially if you are still in the throes of grief or learning new ways to navigate your life. It is in these moments that you have to decide to work toward meaning. You create meaning, versus letting it come to you.

You begin by asking big questions:

What was important to me before the stroke?

What is important to me now, after the stroke?

Are they the same things? Why or why not?

What are some ways that I can work toward gaining the things that are important to me now?

And then move toward the things that are now important to you. Your movement should be toward an end point, such as your meaning of loss or your new normal. If you can identify your important things, then you have a place to end up. Are the things you are doing today, including how you are thinking and feeling, moving you toward your important things?  

The distinction between creating meaning and making meaning is important. As a creator, you have power. You get to make decisions, design your life, and move forward in purpose as someone in charge. In contrast, making meaning is more passive. It means that you take what is left and put the pieces back together. A great process, yes, and one that might work for you. You get to be the one that decides.

Dr. Amy Ford is a licensed professional counselor and author. Her book, When Your Child is Grieving: God’s Hope and Wisdom for the Journey Toward Healing, will be available at all major book retailers in July 2019. Amy is a senior instructor in the counseling program at Oregon State University Cascades. Correspondence about this article can be send to amyfordcounseling@gmail.com