Meaning-Making: The 3 Acts That Give Purpose to Pain

denim1I recently saw an instagram post that wasn’t a weird selfie or amazing plate of food, but was in fact, something far more sad. It was a picture of a darling little red-headed boy with the hashtag #redballoonsforryan. A friend of mine had posted it with the story that Ryan had died from being hit by a car while playing at a friends’ house. Let me tell you, no matter how long you work at a mortuary and no matter how many stories you hear, you never stop feeling them – especially when there is tragedy and especially when there are children. My heart broke for his sweet parents, for his mom who’s instagram feed is full of pictures bursting with pride and joy over the sweet little boy

When I clicked on the hashtag there were already hundreds of posts from people in their community sharing support in photo form for this little boy. Now there are over 43,000 posts from people who never knew this little boy, each one commemorating his sweet life and the joy of his smile.

Death touches people.

Photo Courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/Chris_Elwell

Very often in our grief we feel a call to act, to create a meaning and a purpose that combats the questions constantly bashing through our heads, WHY DID THIS HAPPEN? WHAT’S THE PURPOSE? HOW COULD THIS HAPPEN TO ME?

We refuse to think that there might be no “greater purpose” – that life is always a chance, a risk, that grief and death don’t necessarily have a reason, they just are and they hit without bias.

I think the secret is that there is no greater purpose unless actions are taken. It doesn’t mean we should all start non-profits or scholarships in the names of our loved ones, but we feel a need to be changed and in turn change the world in some way. Simple acts of kindness, interior changes to our own attitudes and perspectives, or displays of compassion toward others can all stem out of our grief and begin a legacy of something greater.

Dr. Bill Hoy has often said, “Grief is the process of meaning-making.” We must either tend to this grief or let it rot us. It will only have purpose if you have the courage to seek it. I see 3 important actions to consider in your grief journey:

–       Act of Remembering or acknowledging their life: This can be done in myriads of ways and is unique to every relationship. Ceremonies, memory boxes, keepsakes, memorial jewelry (thumbies), telling stories and keeping photos around are all ways in which we keep their memory alive.

program2–       Act of Meaning-Making or how did their life change me: The person we loved changed us and now without them we face another change. Looking at ways they impacted our lives and making intentional decisions to pass on those lessons, encouragements and affections to others not only changes you but also changes the lives around you. Your circle of influence may remain small but I think it is no small thing to encourage or help someone. Each kindness put into action because of your loved one is a way of extending their life, their purpose, and their meaning to you.

–       Act of Self-Reflection or how does their death change me: Our lives change forever when we lose someone important to us. Pains like these often open us up to areas of compassion we had never known as we see life and the people around us in a changed way. Deaths often bring a sharp clarity to our lives that refocuses our priorities, and helps us make our own lives more worthwhile. Without self-reflection we can run the danger of getting stuck in the remembering and meaning-making. Processing how the landscape of our life and our heart has changed is critical to the hope of healing.

To quote John Green, author of The Fault in Our Stars, “Grief doesn’t change you, it reveals you.” With all pain there is an opportunity to learn, to face the challenge, to more deeply understand who you are, and perhaps most importantly, to find meaning once again.

10311200_742271975796288_1072281297_aWe are bound to pay the cost of loving and missing something that is impermanent.

There is value in each pain, in each tear. There is value because of what it takes from you, the hole it leaves, the time you spend aching and wondering when or if it can ever feel better. We spend so much time remembering, missing, dreaming of fuller times and we spend it because it was worth it.

|| what do you think?

What are ways you have brought meaning out of loss?

How do stories like this change your perspective on your own life?

Molly Keating

About Molly Keating

Hi, I’m Molly and I write for the blog here at O’Connor. I grew up in a mortuary with a mortician for a father who’s deep respect for the profession inspired me to give working at a mortuary a try.
Work at O’Connor has brought together two of my deep passions, writing & grief awareness. In 2016 I earned Certification in the field of Thanatology, the study of Death, Dying and Bereavement. I am honored to be able to speak on these taboo topics with knowledge, compassion, and a unique perspective.
I want to sincerely thank you for following & reading the blog, I hope that this is a healing place for you.

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  • Fitz

    Hi Molly,
    I enjoyed reading your blog. I have often used the phrase…You never get over the death of a loved one but you get through it. Your 3 actions provide a road map for healthy grief and a way to “get through it”
    Thank you for your words of wisdom.
    Fitz

    • Fitz,
      First comment! Thank you so much for reading, I’m glad you enjoyed the blog and found it useful. It means a lot coming from you!

      Molly

  • Anne

    Molly,
    My heart breaks for this mom, facing each new day without her precious red-headed sunshine. What can possibly fill that hole?? Does she have other children who need her?
    That would be a mixed issue for her, too
    I know my own hole is being carefully filled with hopefully healthy soil and seeds of something worthwhile, and yet when the rains come (my tears), I find the soil sinks down and part of the hole is still a hole.
    I am of the school that everything will not make sense, but purpose and good can come out of every tragedy. When it happens to us, it truly falls under the category of tragedy.
    Now my 20 year old cat is doing poorly. I know she can’t live forever and maybe this is going to be it or maybe it is only her 7th or 8th life, but it represents further loss, so not at all comfortable at this time.
    I am slowly reading “1,000 Gifts” right now. The author lost her little sister to the same type of death as this mom when she herself was very young. This is a hard book to read, but gives many opportunities for tears and reflections, gained insights and new wisdom.
    Thanks for a beautiful blog,
    Love
    Anne

    • That book sounds wonderful, Anne – maybe that will be the next thing you write about : )
      I’m thinking of you as loss piles upon loss and have so little of comfort to offer. I believe that YOU will make these losses matter, that you will give them purpose, that you will learn more about the Lord and yourself through these losses.
      My prayers are with you & I am just so very sorry for you & your cat. Those friends are some of the hardest to lose.

      Molly

  • Becky Finch Lomaka

    Hi Molly,
    I love your blog topic and the three actions for healthy grieving. I think the act of self-reflection is so important and something that people don’t initially see value in. To allow ourselves the gift of time and space to reflect on how the death of someone close to us has changed us, can truly change our world. Through the pain we are able to re-adjust our life-values. Although we will never “heal” from the death of someone dear to us, we can find new meaning.

    Becky

    • So well said Becky, I’m sure you see this more clearly than many people with your training and background. We can too often get stuck in the actions and movements of grief and even begin to allow them to distract us from tending to our interior, changed selves. Looking at insides can be far more scary to us then the adjustments to the outside.

      Thank you so much for reading, I’m so glad you enjoyed this one!

      Molly

  • Christopher Iverson

    Molly,
    Stories like these reconfirm the innate need for the support “of the village” for families and individuals at a time of loss. Death reminds us of our connectedness to each other. Ultimately, this connectedness is where our healthy healing and grieving lives.

    • Chris,
      You’re so right. We can make a choice to come alongside someone or pretend their pain doesn’t exist. Life is so much more rich, full and beautiful when we aren’t alone or ignored, when our pain can be shared and we don’t have to feel so alone. Likewise, I have had such richer days by reading Ryan’s story and seeing the national impact his life had – the world seems like a much better place when it is bonded & connected in this way.

      Thank you for reading & sharing,
      Molly

  • Jeff Turner

    Molly,
    Thank you for unpacking this idea that there is purpose in pain and loss if we actively seek it. It is the avoidance of the pain where purpose can be lost and so much opportunity for pathology in body mind and spirit can gain a foothold. In my nearly 30 years now in funeral service there are a number families that crowd my memory where the death of a child was the cause of the divine intersection of our lives. I am thankful that I can only imagine the depths of that plunge. I never want to know death like that any closer than I already do.

    Those parents, grandparents, sibling, aunts & uncles who have been thrust over the precipice only a death like this can take us, are almost enigmatic souls to me. The separateness that this kind death creates between them and the rest of us is a chasm that cannot truly be bridged. It’s not that we cannot comfort with presence and listening, rather it is grim door that is closed to us yet the ones suffering never willingly approached the threshold they find themselves having already crossed. It is where time becomes a prison for we cannot go back to prevent the event. We are forced at every turn to move further forward, yet time seems to create a false distance as the pain continues and circles back at unexpected moments.

    Like all of us, we would do almost anything to take away this pain. We are powerless to do so. I tell myself that there pain will diminish over time because I have to tell myself that in order to feel better. I pray I am right but fear that I am quite wrong. Only they know the darkness and abject poverty of joy this turn in their life has delivered them to. True despair. How do they go on? I don’t know. I can pray and hope that in time it is better. I sense that it is never actually better, it’s just different and it always will be.

    I admire them for something no one would want to be admired for.

    Thank you for sharing Ryan’s story with us. It is not what I wanted to read, but it is what I needed to read. It changes my perspective yet again.

    Jeff

    • Jeff,
      This is a blog topic all it’s own. I could never begin to capture the void a family walks into with the death of a child. How can it be understood by someone who has not experienced it, especially when NO ONE wants to even imagine the possibility. We are all alone in our grief to the extent that it is always unique to our singular relationship – no one will grieve like you and you will never grieve the same over any two people. But that doesn’t change the need for the support and the beauty of the impact and hope it can bring. I don’t think these parents will have an “easier” time grieving because so many people know and care, but it must be nice to just know that others are thinking of you, are looking at pictures of your son and still telling you how sweet & fun his spirit was.

      Those days will diminish and they will likely feel more alone in the future – but the impact, the compassion from the world when the world seems so dark has to be a welcomed light.
      You need to write about this – I need you to. You’re too eloquent and you only can testify to what you’ve seen.

      Thank you for sharing so much,

      Molly

  • Mitch

    Molly, thank you for sharing these thoughts. Each life is meaningful and important. The circle of influence may be smaller than some or larger than some but that doesn’t diminish the importance. The 3 things gives us an idea on how to “get through it” but not forget.
    Thank you

    • Mitch,

      You said that perfectly, these are steps to get through but to also further impress the story and memories into the fabric of our world.

      Love your thoughts on value, it’s not the size of your influence, it’s the value and depth to which it inspires others to be better.

      Molly

  • Carrie Bayer

    I love this, Molly. Meaning Making is the best way to explain it simply- we must make meaning out of the losses we live thru. It makes me sad to see our West Coast culture let funeral ceremony decline in importance. I’m so grateful that we as a company have committed to educating everyone we come into contact with on the importance of memorialization & funeral ceremony. Thank you for this beautiful blog to help that message thrive & spread to all! XOXOX Carrie

    • You’ve got it Carrie, there are so many ways to make meaning but the funeral ceremony is so key and a remarkable tool for creating and perpetuating meaning.

      I love that your focus is so intent on providing this for families. We share the same goals and want these healing ceremonies for all grieving people. The truth is that there are so many needs after the death & after the ceremony and we can’t tend to them but we can raise awareness.

      Thank you for your beautiful insight, passion & heart for the hurting – love you Carrie.

      Molly

  • Mom,
    Thank you so much for reading, caring for this family & joining our community of support and sorrow over a life. You’re a part of it now and I’m so glad you are. Love you so, thank you for reading!

    Molly

  • Amy

    Molly,
    You always write about the best things. It really touches close to home even when we have no connection or relation. Being a parent, a mother, father, sister, brother, aunt, uncle or even a friend you feel the pain and sorrow of someone’s loss. It tugs at your heart when you hear of such a tragic event. I find myself feeling awful even when I didn’t know them. Thanks for sharing this amazing little boy with me. What an angel!
    Amy

    • Amy,
      Those feelings that you expressed are exactly why you do what you do. That heart of yours is big and full of compassion for others and I love that about you. It’s almost impossible in situations like these to not feel and to be honest, I’m always relieved to really “feel” pains like this and know for sure that I haven’t grown calloused to these heart-breaking stories.

      Thank you so much for reading & treasuring this blog, I’m so glad it resonated with you,
      Molly

  • Erin Fodor

    Molly,
    I wear a sapphire ring that my mother gave me right after my father passed. That is his birthstone and I treasure it. Every time I look at my figure I am reminded of him. This is one of my many ways of remembering. His death was a huge reflection in the person I am now. I know that with the awful situation, I have made the best. I have a wonderful career, I am happy with life. I can say that my role model my father helped me achieve everything I have.

    Erin

    • Erin,
      That is so beautiful and I think all of us can easily testify to the fact that you HAVE done the very best with what life has thrown at you. You’ve turned the loss of your father into a legacy and created something beautiful out of something tragic.

      Well done my dear,

      Molly

  • Lori

    Molly,
    You know that little ones have a special place in my heart. I can’t even begin to imagine what this family has gone through. What a huge hole this little boy has left in the hearts of those who knew him and even those who feel they knew him through this post.

    You are right, no matter how long you work at a mortuary, there are deaths that do not make one bit of sense. They are heartbreaking.

    The ways I have brought meaning from loss are by connecting with those who have experienced it. I have a group of families, many have now become friends, who I acknowledge on certain days. Whether it be a card on the first holiday they are going through without their loved one, an email letting them know that I’m praying extra because I know it is a tough day or even flowers to brighten a difficult day. All of this to not pass over tough days. An acknowledgment to say, “I know you are thinking about him/her today and I am thinking of you while you are.”
    Love,
    Lori

  • Shasta Cola

    Wow Molly, this is a really great blog. I saw that picture too, so sad! You’re right, we’re completely not immune to the feelings surrounding death and tragedy even when we didn’t know the people. I find that many people act like it shouldn’t affect me since I deal with it day in and day out, but it may be just the opposite, I think we are extremely sensitive to these things just have a different understanding sometimes. Also I like that you put we refuse to think there is no greater purpose. I think it is easy to think there is no reason for loss before you lose someone you care about greatly, but when it does happen you are forced to believe in a purpose or the pain would be too unbearable. Another great thing you said was the quote by Bill Hoy about how we must tend to the grief or let it rot us, because I have seen both sides and that is so true. It all depends on how and if you tend to it, how your life will continue on for better or worse.

  • Elsa

    Hi Molly,
    Great read. I see quite often how people bring meaning out of loss with the great connection of social media. It makes me smile every time I see how people keep the memory alive with something as simple as a photo or special quote that their loved one may have said. I can only imagine how the immediate families must feel to know that their loved ones memory is living on in so many peoples lives:)

  • Mark

    Hi Molly…..Another good blog….your statement you made has been echoing in my mind….DEATH TOUCHES PEOPLE….you are correct….we see it everyday here at O’Connor…and our challenge is to help these hurting families through some very difficult days…..thanks for the reminder…..Mark

  • Kari Lyn Leslie

    Molly,
    This is what we do, and provide for our families every day. We connect with them and walk along side of them. I consider myself so blessed to be a part of something so much bigger than I could have ever imagined. We are feeling the pain, celebrating the life lost, and providing meaning and healing. This work we do is so valuable, and it shows in us, and the families we serve.
    Thank you for your blog.
    kari

  • Michael Thomas

    Wonderful blog Molly. Number 3 is never touched upon it seems in eulogies, when it really should be a focal point or close to a focal point. I think if people can express that part earlier, the “easier” the healing process may be.

    I am bound to pay the cost of a lot of grief in my future. It’s blogs like this that truly help us prepare. Thank you.

  • Stacy

    I enjoy reading your blogs Molly and this one in particular stands out because this day in age social media plays a big role in peoples lives and I agree that it’s a great way to keep the memory alive of someone who has died. I notice a lot of tribute pages being made and such pages get really high responses. At first I didn’t understand why people that didn’t even know the deceased, family or were not connected with the case in anyway felt so fondly over the loss and the fact is death does reveal who we are. I realized that merely reading about a tragic story, specially when it’s about that of a young child that has died is very moving and touching and you truly feel for the loss of that family even if you don’t know them at all. Another benefit to this is that the community is better able to come together and even contribute to funeral expenses etc. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  • Rosemary

    Thank you, Molly, for writing this very important blog. We all want to find meaning after a death occurs, particularly after the death of a child or when a death that is sudden and unexpected. You’ve given some very practical, yet simple, ideas to really help people in their search for meaning. I know your suggestions will be valuable tools for many people!

  • Joanna

    Molly,

    Very nice blog! Thank you for sharing this story of Ryan. What an amazing thing the family has done. To welcome strangers into their life in the midst of grief and honor this boys life. It’s always beautiful to see the the memory of lives live on through social media. Thank you again for sharing.

    Joanna

  • Neil

    HI Molly –

    Death has taught me that life is short! Life is all about love and relationships. We can change if we want,we can grow through the pain of the loss. Our life has meaning and we are here for a purpose. Death & Life will never be fair to all, the why in life and death will continue to challenge us and we will never have the answer to many of our questions. I love your blog it has helped remind me that we need each other throughout out days.

  • Joe Lavoie

    Molly , Again what a very heartfelt story of people coming together to help one another at a time of grief , it’s always good to see others support one another during a loss. I will say stories like this make you step back and revaluate your own life and too make sure too live life to the fullest our lives truly do change when I ready stories like the one of Ryan. Thanks for sharing. Joe Lavoie