Finding Meaning in Loss

Loss is a universal experience. Whatever race, colour or creed, we are all affected when we lose someone or something dear to us.

Some losses are temporary, like those associated with the COVID 19 lockdown.

Our personal freedoms have been curtailed due to the restrictions imposed on us by governments, state and federal. We cannot go where we want to go, and we cannot see who we want to see. Those in authority say that minimizing our movement is a sure way of halting the spread of the virus. Despite the pain, there is an expectation that this will eventually pass, and we will be free to live again, to preference our choices, to plan our future, and ‘to party into the night.’

Some losses are permanent, like the death of a loved one.

Death is final. There is no way back. The door has been closed. We mourn the loss, we manage the feelings of emptiness, and in some instances, abandonment, we adjust our expectations, and evaluate what we want from life. 

When my son Adam took his life in 2011, the loss was complex. At the viewing I recall thinking, “This is it.” Our relationship had shifted, and it was permanent. Adam was no longer there to pursue his hopes and dreams, to participate in the joys and challenges of family life, and to proclaim the good news of God’s kingdom, something he was passionate about. The pain I felt was a legacy, an ongoing reminder. As author and grief counsellor, David Kessler says,

“The pain is part of the love.”

The impact of COVID-19 on individuals and communities has been indiscriminate. Some individuals have suffered greatly, having their businesses shut down and their family life disrupted. Others have experienced only minor inconvenience and have enjoyed greater flexibility, being able to work from home or use technology to deliver a public service like Telehealth.

It is important to understand, that no matter the extent of our loss, there will be grief. Grief is not optional. As David Kessler says,

“All losses are to be grieved.”

If we are to grieve well, we need to understand what grief looks like. Otherwise, we may find ourselves resisting the very thing that will bring us healing and wholeness and renewed purpose.

David Kessler coauthored a book with world renowned psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross entitled, On Grief and Grieving. Kessler was asked to adapt the five stages Kubler-Ross had observed in the dying to those who are grieving. The five stages – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance – were never intended to be prescriptive. They describe a general process, where each of the stages will be experienced fully, but not necessarily in the order they are listed. The process of grieving looks different for everyone.

Kessler believes there is a sixth stage to grief and loss – meaning. He writes about it in his book Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief.

Many people assume there is no meaning in loss. They consider looking for positives following a tragic death or a cataclysmic disaster, an act of betrayal. However, the pursuit of meaning is never disrespectful, and where there is loss of life, does not lessen our connection to nor diminish the place our loved one has in our heart.

Any movement toward meaning is mindful of the place acceptance has in our grief. It is never easy to accept loss. Our feelings of attachment run deep. It hurts to lose or be deprived of what we love and value. But, as David Kessler rightly points out,

“Avoidance of loss has a cost.”

The five stages of grief are evident in our shared response to the COVID-19 crisis.

Denial is a coping strategy. If you are in denial, you are trying to protect yourself by refusing to accept the truth about something that is happening in your life. COVID-19 skeptics insist that the virus is nothing more than a bad cold, opting to ignore the warnings or comply with the variety of precautions people are being asked to take.

Anger is a common reaction to loss. The impact of COVID-19 on our lives has given rise to feelings of anger. Our world has changed, and we are not happy. For many the loss has been personal: the loss of normalcy, the loss of loved ones, the loss of financial security, the loss of personal autonomy, the loss of jobs, the loss of mental stability, the loss of hope. We are angry at the ineptitude of those managing the crisis, the disruption to our lives, and the encroachment on our personal freedoms. The erosion of trust fuels our discontent.

Bargaining is one of the ways we attempt to reassert ourselves and regain control. It is the natural reaction to the helplessness and vulnerability that comes through loss. It reflects our willingness to do anything to get back to normal. Our compliance to the restrictions imposed on us during the COVID-19 pandemic suggests a deal. We are saying that we are prepared to tolerate this imposition on our life if those in authority can guarantee a resolution to this crisis.

Depression is a reaction to loss. It is feeling sad or discouraged, a belief that this will last forever. We find ourselves in a fog, unable to see clearly. It is a dark place, where we struggle with even the most basic tasks. There is emptiness, the absence of anything to hold on to; there is loneliness, the absence of anyone to offer understanding and encouragement. The COVID-19 pandemic has robbed us of all hope. We have lost our capacity to imagine.

Acceptance, as a stage of grief, has been defined as ‘the ability to embrace the responsibility that life continues, by looking at a new reality without ignoring the loss and embracing responsibility.’ Acceptance reflects a stabilising of our emotions and a willingness to engage with reality as it is. Acceptance does not happen all at once. It is adapting, coping, and responding in a considered manner.

Acceptance is the platform for our search for meaning. Without acceptance we will struggle to gain anything positive from our loss. Acceptance gives us permission to sympathetically move on.

The potential for meaning exists in every moment of life. Finding meaning helps us survive and gives us the courage to keep going. COVID-19 has presented us with an unprecedented challenge.

“What meaning have you found in COVID-19?”

David Kessler says,

“Growth occurs from struggle.”

The losses we have experienced can lead to positive outcomes. Reflect on the following:

  • A recognition that challenging events can be disruptive but often inspire a renewed intent
  • A reframing of how we view the world and our ability to respond to a crisis
  • A reviewing of the way we conduct our lives and what really matters
  • A reminder of the importance ‘loving our neighbour,’ of showing care and consideration for others
  • A reigniting of our desire to create and to give expression to our thoughts, feelings, and emotions

As a survivor of the holocaust, psychiatrist Viktor Frankl was qualified to write about finding meaning in the most difficult of circumstances. He says,

“You do not have to suffer to learn. But, if you do not learn from suffering, over which you have no control, then your life becomes truly meaningless.”

Viktor E. Frankl

Author: Bruce Rickard

Reflections on Suicide and Staying Alive: My son's suicide changed everything. I felt an obligation to understand why anyone would want to end their life. My regular blog posts explore the causes and prevalence of suicide and what is needed to sustain a healthy mind and a hope-filled future.

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