Candy Lightner, whose daughter was killed by a drunk driver, launched Mothers Against Drunk Driving to save other lives. John Walsh, whose son was murdered, created and hosted the TV series America’s Most Wanted to help catch killers.
Not everyone who suffers the loss of a loved one finds meaning through such dramatic actions. But finding meaning in some form is an essential step in the grieving process and dealing with the pain of the loss, according to grief specialist and author David Kessler. He recently told Bottom Line Personal why finding meaning can be considered a crucial stage in that process…
The Sixth Stage
When I coauthored On Grief and Grieving — published in 2005 — with my mentor, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, we discussed the five stages that she had originally identified in her 1969 classic On Death and Dying. They are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. However, those stages of the healing process do not represent the entire journey for most people.
To find a path forward from their grief, even after they have experienced the five stages, survivors often need to identify some kind of greater meaning in the lives and/or deaths of their loved ones. Their pain doesn’t disappear when this happens, but it is cushioned. They find that thinking about the deceased no longer brings only pain—it now brings a mixture of pain and love.
The meaning that survivors find does not fit a single form or framework. While Lightner and Walsh launched crusades, other people find meaning by reflecting on the positive influence that the deceased had during life…by using the death as inspiration for positive changes in their own lives…through belief in an afterlife…and in various other ways. The pursuit of meaning doesn’t have a predictable time frame, either—some survivors find meaning almost as soon as the death occurs, while for others it takes months or years.
Six ways to find meaning…
Create stronger bonds with fellow survivors. The death of a loved one can draw survivors together, presenting an opportunity to tighten weak relationships and overcome long-standing differences. These improved relationships can serve as a legacy for the deceased. Examples…
A pair of siblings who have been estranged for years reconnect at their mother’s funeral “because that’s what mom would have wanted.”
An office worker mentions that she will be out for her mother’s funeral. A colleague expresses her condolences and says that her father died only a few months earlier. These coworkers provide support and understanding to one another in a time of need, and their shared experience of grief creates a lasting bond where previously none existed.
Treat the death as a wake-up call in your life. Are you living the life you want to be living? If not, the death of a loved one could serve as a reminder that our time on Earth is short and that, whatever we want to achieve, we’d better get started achieving it. If you follow through and make useful life changes, those changes will always be linked in your mind to the deceased loved one, imbuing his life and death with a deep, positive meaning. Example: A woman quits smoking after her mother died of lung cancer.
Become the legacy. Grieving people often lament that “a part of me died when he did.” Maybe so, but consider the flip side as well—part of him lives on in you. Think about what made this person wonderful—what were his very best qualities? One way to find meaning is to make a conscious effort to expand this part of yourself in his honor. Examples…
A man always respected his brother for pulling over to offer assistance whenever he saw a motorist stranded by the side of the road. After his brother died, this man began doing the same thing.
A woman’s father was a big tipper—he had worked as a waiter to pay his way through college and knew how much waiters and waitresses depend on this money. After his death, she decided to henceforth tip 30% in his memory.
Find a physical touchstone that shifts your focus to a positive legacy. Our brains have a negativity bias—they’re much better at recalling bad things than good ones. That’s one reason why it can be difficult to escape negative emotional triggers when a loved one dies—our brains recall the negative of the death much more readily than the positives of the life. A lasting physical memorial can serve as an enduring reminder of the good of the life. If your mother enjoyed watching the sun set in a local park, finance a park bench with a plaque bearing her name in her favorite spot. If you have a photo of your husband that always makes you smile and recall a happy time, have this photo enlarged, framed and hung in your home.
The memorial even can be something that no one but you will notice or understand. Example: A woman purchased many sheets of postage stamps featuring a picture of comedian Danny Thomas and put these on all of her mail. Each time she used one, she smiled at the pleasant memory of her deceased father’s sense of humor and his story about the day he met Thomas.
Contribute to good works in the deceased’s name. Wealthy families sometimes create nonprofit foundations in the name of the deceased. It’s an effective way to create a meaningful legacy—and it’s possible on a more modest scale, too. Make donations in honor of your loved one to a cause that he/she cared about…or to a nonprofit working to solve the problem that led to his death. The recipient doesn’t even have to be a nonprofit—you might help out local families in need or young people struggling to pay college tuition, if you believe your loved one would have wanted to help these people. The amounts you give don’t have to be large if your budget is tight—you could periodically contribute $5 or $10 to charity drives and think, That’s for you, mom. Helping is healing even in small denominations.
Another option is to do good works rather than donate money. Volunteer your time to a cause that the deceased gave his time to during his life…or participate in a project connected to the loved one or his death. Examples: A man in India whose son died in an auto accident caused by a pothole started filling potholes in his spare time.
Reflect on the lives that might have been saved by the loved one’s donated organs. A woman who was devastated by the death of her 17-year-old son hired a house painter a few years later—and made the remarkable discovery that her son’s kidney had saved this man’s life. (This unlikely fact was confirmed through the transplant center.) Without her son’s death, the painter’s sons might have grown up without their father—and that was only one of the organs that her son donated.
Most people never get to meet the people saved by a loved one’s organ donations, but knowing that these people are out there can bring meaning to the loss. More than half of Americans have signed up to be organ donors. It sometimes is possible to exchange messages with organ recipients through organ-donation programs if both the recipient and the donors’ family are interested in doing so.