As human beings we struggle with the notion of meaning. Perhaps one of the best discussions of this issue comes from Victor Frankl’s, “Man’s Search for Meaning.” Frankl discusses his own experience as a survivor of Nazi concentration camps and how he worked to find some kind of meaning from the events he lived through.
Based upon Fankl’s philosophy, it seems that meaning is something we assign with our mind rather than something inherent in the event itself. If so, then we are faced with the very active task of searching for a way to ascribe meaning to an event, which on its face may contain little or no significance. For example, there are many different ways in which a tragedy can lead to something meaningful growing out of it.
Assigning Meaning to Tragedy in Memorial
The most obvious way in which we can cultivate significance is to develop some memorial activity. For example, the Center for Grief Recovery and Sibling Loss, began as an attempt to memorialize departed siblings. The facts of their deaths then led to something useful and meaningful—something that might not have occurred had they lived. While we would never wish for the tragic ending to a life as a way to achieve meaningful acts, many grand achievements do grow out of the seemingly barren soil of tragedy.
Meaning in the Internal Environment
People may also change their internal environment after the death of a loved one. For example, a participant in one of our groups at the Center for Grief Recovery, resolved to take more time for his sister’s children and more expansively, for all children, whether his own or those of others. Thus, the death generated an inner conviction and determination to lead life with a little different sense of priorities in his dealings with other people.
This kind of change is extremely meaningful and allows us to assign some significance to the death itself. Interestingly, the concept of assigning meaning to a tragic event seems to be one of the hardest ideas with which to come to grips. Many people find it confusing and hard to grasp. While it is difficult for a narcissistic society to find meaning in doing for others or even in coping with the notion of meaning, per se, it is a useful exercise and a good antidote to the unrelieved focus on self. We have clearly stated that self-awareness, self-expression, and self-examination are the principal goals of our endeavor. However, this can’t be the total story.
The discussion of meaning is likely to end inconclusively for many people. However, that should not discourage us. We should ask that this issue be kept on peoples’ agendas, and that perhaps at some future date, it may become clearer.