Making Meaning: A Way to Heal After Trauma and Loss



  • A person’s story about a trauma or loss will either limit them or help them create a life they love.
  • It’s never too late for one to rewrite their story about a trauma or loss.
  • Through loss, people learn to value life in this moment and to live and love fully, knowing that they may not get another chance.

From the time you are developing in the womb until your dying day, you will experience many small and large injuries to your psyche, your sense of self, and your understanding of the world. Loss and trauma are two of the most injurious events that you will face. Trauma––whether childhood trauma, the trauma sustained during an abusive relationship, a traumatic event, or another form––and the loss of a loved one will affect how you navigate life. The meaning you make of these events will either weaken you or help you build resilience. The story you tell yourself about the event will either tie you to the trauma and limit you or help you create a life you love by giving you new depth and insight into yourself.


Psychologists call this process meaning-making. The meaning you give to a loss or trauma can have a profound effect on your life. For example, if you lost a parent when you were a child, you may have interpreted the loss to mean, “Everyone I love will eventually leave me. Getting attached to people hurts too much, so I shouldn’t try to find a long-term relationship.” If your emotions were ignored or invalidated by a caregiver, “No one believes me when I say I’m sad, so I’ll have to act out in order to receive the love and care I need” might be the meaning you make from the situation.


Trauma and loss can undermine your fundamental belief in a predictable and just world. It can require you to rebuild or readjust your previously held beliefs and assumptions. That rebuilding and readjusting can be healthy or unhealthy, either helping you to live a better, more whole, and happy life or weakening your spirit and increasing your unhappiness, depending on the meaning you make from your experience. But even if the meaning you made when the loss or trauma occurred was unhealthy, it’s never too late to create a new, healthier one—to rewrite the story you tell yourself about what happened.


We “engage in a process of negotiating” grief after a significant loss and make meaning “by retaining, reaffirming, revising, or replacing elements of” our previous thinking and beliefs, according to the authors of “The Meaning of Loss Codebook: Construction of a System for Analyzing Meanings Made in Bereavement” (Gillies, Neimeyer, & Milman), published in the journal Death Studies in 2013. To let go of grief and trauma and “develop more nuanced, complex, and useful” beliefs, you must find meaning in your suffering. You can transcend it by making meaning out of it and learning what it can teach you—by making yourself better for having gone through what you did.


The beliefs you have about yourself and the world at large “are reaffirmed or reconstructed over the course of grieving” as you try to “process and accommodate both the ‘event story’ of the death and the ‘back story’” of the life you share with your family and loved ones, according to the authors of the “Meaning of Loss Codebook.” In their research, the authors found 30 different ways people who experience profound loss make meaning from it, ranging from the healthy and helpful to the unhealthy and unhelpful. For example, “life is precious, and I should make the most of my own” is one meaning you can take away from a death. Other potentially healthy meanings include “I will never forget them, and they live on in my memory,” “She lived a good life, and I should too,” and “I am a more resilient person now that I have gone through this grief.”


Through loss, you learn to value life in this moment and to live and love fully, knowing that you may not get another chance. This knowledge, which grief and trauma can offer, is priceless; it helps you to make better choices and thus can change your life for the better. Let your pain and suffering not be in vain by learning and growing from it.




Here for you as life happens …



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