Finding New Meaning in Your Living After a Loved One Dies

Person in long floral dress with head cropped out of photo stands near window planter while holding watering can tightly in both handsA new year is under way, a time when people are reflecting on their lives and setting goals aimed at moving closer to long-term aspirations. If you recently experienced the death of a loved one, you may feel grateful just to have survived the first holiday season without them. Focusing on goals and aspirations while your grief still feels so present may seem paradoxical. But doing so is an essential part of your grief work, according to M. Katherine Shear, MD, founder and director of The Center for Complicated Grief at Columbia University.

While each grief process is unique, the loss of someone with whom you have shared a deep emotional and supportive relationship usually causes the most intense grief reaction. Someone who has held you up emotionally when you were in crisis, helped shape your sense of self, and/or encouraged you to reach for your dreams is physically removed from your life forever. So it makes sense that in the acute phase of grief, you may feel as though you have lost your sense of self or feel unsure of your life purpose.

Grief is an expression of love that continues after death. You shouldn’t expect your grief to ever end completely. However, it is possible for your grief to become more integrated; painful emotions occur less frequently and with less intensity, and no longer interfere significantly with work, other relationships, or your experience of positive emotions.

The path to integrated grief requires three interrelated processes:

  • Accepting the reality of your loved one’s death
  • Finding new meaning or purpose in your life
  • Continuing the bond with your deceased

Humans are innately motivated to search for meaning in living. However, if you are overwhelmed by sadness as you struggle to accept the reality of a loved one’s death, it may seem impossible to think about trying to find new meaning in your living without them. But after the first few months following your loved one’s death, if you can spend a short period, on as many days as possible, focused on redefining your goals and reimagining your life purpose, it can offer glimpses of joy—a welcome respite from your sadness. It may help you with acceptance on a deeper level of your loved one’s death. Greater acceptance of the death may help you to reconnect with your deceased loved one in memory. Reconnecting with your loved one may alleviate some of the longing and sadness you feel so you are more free to focus on redefining your goals and reimagining your life purpose.

Maladaptive thinking, such as the belief one doesn’t deserve to experience the joy that comes with a renewed life purpose after the death of a loved one, can serve as an obstacle, keeping an individual locked in the acute phase of grief. People are sometimes unable to focus on new goals or life purpose because they fear accepting their loved one’s death and “moving on” means they will or must “forget about” their loved one.

It is important to have a balanced focus on all three processes. Knowing when and being able to shift your focus from working on acceptance of the death to focusing on future goals, or to reconnecting to your loved one, can be challenging. While many individuals can navigate the path to integrated grief with the support of other loved ones, some people can get stuck along the way. One reason for this is on a societal level, death, dying, and bereavement are still taboo topics. Thus, many individuals aren’t educated about the grief process, particularly about the importance of finding new meaning or purpose in living after the death of a loved one.

Maladaptive thinking, such as the belief one doesn’t deserve to experience the joy that comes with a renewed life purpose after the death of a loved one, can serve as an obstacle, keeping an individual locked in the acute phase of grief. People are sometimes unable to focus on new goals or life purpose because they fear accepting their loved one’s death and “moving on” means they will or must “forget about” their loved one. Thus, they may become fixated on people, situations, and places that remind them of the loved one when they were alive, or avoid circumstances that remind them of the loved one’s death. Both fixation and avoidance serve as obstacles to accepting the reality of the death.

Even though grief is a normal response to the death of a loved one, and finding new meaning is a natural human tendency, the path to integrated grief can be a complicated one. If more than a few months have passed since your loved one died, and you are feeling overwhelmed or recognize your grief is interfering with your day-to-day functioning, it may be beneficial to work with a mental professional who specializes in grief work. They can work with you to help you remove obstacles in your path so you can balance the range of emotions that come with the struggle to accept your loved one’s death, the joy that can emanate from finding new meaning in your living, and the peace that flows from reconnecting with your deceased loved one.

A new year is under way. Will you accept the invitation to allow it to be the beginning of a new life for yourself?

Reference:

Shear, M. K. (2015). Complicated Grief Treatment: A Handout for Patients, Friends, and Family Members. Columbia Center for Complicated Grief, The Trustees of Columbia University in the City of New York. Retrieved from https://complicatedgrief.columbia.edu/tools-and-resources/

© Copyright 2017 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Sonya Lott, PhD, therapist in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Deborah

    January 26th, 2017 at 1:38 PM

    The one thing for me that has been the most challenging is that I was with this man for 30 years so to have him suddenly taken from me … it’s been rough

    I’m grateful for friends and family who have enveloped me and tried to make everything so much easier. Having them with me has been a real positive to all of this, getting to know people all over again that really I had lost touch with over the years.

    It’s a new life and I’m glad to have it but there are still those days that are just too sad too.

  • Monica B.

    January 29th, 2017 at 4:48 AM

    I was with my Derrick for 31 years. Since we both was 15. It’s been the hardest thing in my life I have ever had to handle. I had to step up and be the one to handle all the legal issues so are daughter didn’t have too. Meeting his family and getting close to everyone again has helped a lot. But it’s still hard and hurts not being with him everyday. He was my life. My everything.

  • Sonya Lott Ph.D.

    January 26th, 2017 at 4:26 PM

    Hi Deborah. I understand that the loss of a partner with whom you shared thirty years would be rough. It’s great that you have been able to move on even though some days are still really sad. There will always be those days but hopefully over time they will occur less frequently. But the best thing that you can do is just continue to honor your grief when it arises.

  • Marion

    January 27th, 2017 at 7:47 AM

    I’ve been pretty helpless. I guess that my wife did more work in the house, paying bills etc than I ever gave her credit for when she was alive. It makes me sad to think that I probably appreciate her more now that she’s gone than I veer showed her while she was still here with us.

  • Sonya Lott Ph.D.

    January 27th, 2017 at 2:36 PM

    Hi Marion. You’re not alone in feeling this way. It’s normal to appreciate more of what a partner contributed to our well-being after they are gone and we are left to take care of so much ourselves. I understand your sadness. But hold on to your gratitude for all that she did and try to seek the support that you need from friends and family, and a mental health professional if needed.

  • irene

    January 27th, 2017 at 6:22 PM

    after the loss of both my adult sons, finding meaning in my future is the hardest part. They were my world and I no longer know where I fit into the world. My role hase changed, as has my goals and priorities. after such adevistating losses, back to back, its difficult to find meaning when all feels lost.

  • Sonya Lott Ph.D.

    January 28th, 2017 at 1:21 PM

    Hi Irene. It is different to imagine that the death of two adults sons would not be devastating. Many mothers feel like their children, no matter their ages, are their primary purpose in life. It would be really beneficial for you to work with a mental health professional who has expertise in the treatment of complicated grief. They will be able to help you find a new life and reconnect with sons in a different but meaningful way. You can use the goodtherapy.org therapist directory to begin your search.

  • Dani

    January 28th, 2017 at 7:19 AM

    I lost so many people that I was close to last year and the pain never really goes away. I will say that it has subsided a little bit but every day brings something new. I try not to wallow in that sadness and find ways to remember the love without being sad. Like remembering the things that we used to do together or seeing something that they may have appreciated as well. It is all a process, not one that I am happy to be going through but also thankful that I have the chance to keep their memories alive for others.

  • Sonya Lott Ph.D.

    January 28th, 2017 at 1:27 PM

    Hi Dani. Experiencing the death of several loved ones in a short time makes the grief process more challenging. It’s great that you are able to be in gratitude for the memories that you have. Even though grief is normal, prolonged grief can have a negative impact on your physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being. Working with a mental health professional who specializes in grief can help you move beyond the intense sadness that you are still feeling. I recommend using the goodtherapy.org therapist directory to begin your search.

  • Michelle

    January 28th, 2017 at 9:12 AM

    Very helpful. Thank you.

  • Sonya Lott Ph.D.

    January 28th, 2017 at 1:29 PM

    Thank you Michelle. I am grateful that you found the article very helpful.

  • Marina j.

    January 28th, 2017 at 1:12 PM

    My husband was called home 4 months ago, I’m still besides my self and so much in pain of his absences, I can’t breath sometimes or sleep , I just took down pictures n I don’t feel ready is that ok to not feel ready n I’m still wearing my wedding rings, today has bee a really bad day I just keep falling apart!

  • Sonya Lott

    January 28th, 2017 at 10:39 PM

    Thank you for reaching out Marina. Grief is a unique process every time we experience it. So there isn’t a specific timetable that you must follow. What matters most is that you are hurting in this moment. It is so important to allow yourself to feel what you are feeling when you feel it. Try not to judge yourself. Your grief is simply an expression of your ongoing love for your husband. If the pictures that you have taken down brought you comfort, put them back up. And if you want to keep wearing your wedding ring, wear it until you are ready to stop. My mother died almost two years ago and I still wear one of her rings whenever I need to feel more connected to her. Grief is a normal reaction to loss, but you don’t have to go through it alone. Even though it has only been four months since your husband’s transition, the support of a mental health professional who specializes in grief work would definitely be beneficial. Many mental health professional who specialize in grief work facilitate grief therapy groups in addition to working with individuals one-on-one. As I have suggested to others, a good place to begin your search would be the Goodtherapy.or therapist directory. All the best to you.

  • Polly

    January 28th, 2017 at 4:50 PM

    I think that I am scared to feel happy again because it somehow feels like this would be a betrayal to my deceased husband. I know that he would want me to move on but I still don’t feel ready.

  • Sonya Lott

    January 29th, 2017 at 6:36 PM

    Hi Polly. It is not uncommon to think that feeling joy is like a betrayal of your loved one. But I believe your husband is free now and wouldn’t want you to be stuck in sadness. You deserve to have emotional freedom. Being able to experience joy doesn’t mean that you would ever forget about him. It’s impossible. Your memories with him are imprinted in your heart. Part of the joy that you can feel is knowing that you are still connected with him and that he will always be in your heart and mind.

  • Petra M.

    January 29th, 2017 at 12:40 AM

    This has been so helpful for me. I lost my beloved husband on 46 years in August and am just beginning to think about moving nearer family as well as finding a new purpose for living. Your words soothed me by saying finding new goals is okay. Bless you.

  • Sonya Lott

    January 29th, 2017 at 7:06 PM

    Hi Petra. Thank you for your feedback. I am grateful that you found my words soothing and are beginning to set new goals for yourself. It is really important to do for your healing. Moving closer to other loved ones may be good for you as well.

  • kari

    January 29th, 2017 at 9:42 AM

    We all deal with grief in a different way
    no way is really better than another
    because for any of us going through the experience
    there us hurt that no one else could understand.

  • Sonya Lott

    January 29th, 2017 at 7:16 PM

    Hi Kari. You’re right. Grief is unique in many ways for each of us. And each loss that the same person experiences is also unqiue. But it is possible for others in similar circumstances, such as two women whose husbands have died to understand a lot of what the other is feeling. That’s one reason why participant in grief therapy groups can be especially helpful.

  • Annabelle

    January 30th, 2017 at 8:55 AM

    Just what I needed to stumble upon today

  • Sonya Lott Ph.D.

    January 30th, 2017 at 6:02 PM

    Hi Annabelle. That’s synchronicity! I am always grateful when that happens. I hope the article gives you what you need to take the next step toward finding new meaning in your life after your loss.

  • Cal

    January 30th, 2017 at 2:37 PM

    Do you think that it’s possible to die from a broken heart? My gran passed just days after pop did, and she was in pretty good health herself. So yeah, for us it feels like the death of pop, and they’s been together almost 70 years, it killed her to think of living without him.

  • Sonya Lott Ph.D.

    January 31st, 2017 at 9:32 AM

    Hi Cal. It must have been really difficult for you and your family to have both your Pop and Gran pass away-days apart. It is possible that the stress of your Pop’s death had such an impact on your gran that she could have died of Broken Heart Syndrome. It’s a real condition induced by the excessive release of stress hormones in response to a traumatic loss; such as the death of a loved one or a relationship breakup. Many people hadn’t heart of Broken Heart Syndrome until Debbie Reynolds died one day after her daughter Carrie Fisher. Here’s a helpful article on Broken Heart Syndrome from the American Heart Association’s website: heart.org/HEARTORG/Conditions/More/Cardiomyopathy/Is-Broken-Heart-Syndrome-Real_UCM_448547_Article.jsp#.WJDILVUrKM8

  • Beautifullymade34

    February 26th, 2017 at 11:40 AM

    I’m currently in month 9 of grief after the passing of my husband by suicide. Just as many here have mentioned I have felt guilt for feeling Joy, or laughing, or making steps to move forward. But, I know he is at peace and no longer having to battle his illness, and he would have wanted me to be happy and live again.
    Each week brings new joys and new grief. I felt I was doing really well about two months ago, and then this month I feel I am grieving as though he died just yesterday. My birthday and Valentine’s Day I think are what precipitated this.
    I found writing has been instrumental in my work towards healing. I have started a blog for survivors, and those struggling with mental illness, and others grieving. It certainly helps to process the pain and thoughts. If you are into art, or exercise, or writing, use these things as tools to help you through. Therapy had been extremely helpful as well. beautifullymade34blog.wordpress.com
    My biggest struggle right now has been my weight. I believe I am grief eating and I’ve gained so much that I can barely look at myself. Has anyone else had this issue?

  • Sonya Lott Ph.D.

    March 3rd, 2017 at 3:44 PM

    Hi Beautifullymade34. Thnak you for adding your voice to the discussion. It’s great that writing has been instrumental in your healing process. It is often a saving grace for many people dealing with loss. You are not all at alone in your struggle with eating and weight gain. The shame that you feel about your weight can actually contribute to the cycle of overeating. Working with a grief specialist around this and other grief related concerns would of course be helpful. But in this moment I’m sure it would be comforting to hear from others who can relate to the challenges you are having.

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