Logotherapy: How a Few Questions Can Aid the Grief Process

Worried woman with arm around sad manA person I’ve been close to for many years is going through the dying process. It has been slow and painful; at times evoking one of the most beautiful and poignant musical pieces I’ve ever encountered. It is “Agnus Dei” by Samuel Barber, a choral version of his beloved and well-known “Adagio for Strings.” The text is from the Latin mass and includes the phrase, “Have mercy on us.”

Now, mercifully, there is an end in sight for my loved one, but for those she leaves behind, the grief is palpable—at times dull and weighty, at others raw and biting, and frequently overwhelming.

Those who have gone or are going through the grieving process know how often all of our psychic resources are consumed with just getting through another day. It can feel like there is no room for creativity—only emptiness. But grieving presents an opportunity for both creativity and renewal; just as we have been changed by the relationship with our loved one, we will also be changed by the process of navigating through grief.

The weight of grief often feels like being imprisoned. One might wonder whether the pain will ever cease, and sometimes the restoration to function fully and enjoy life can seem far away. I imagine that it’s much like the feeling of a condemned prisoner.

I am reminded of the struggle of Viktor Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist who founded the discipline of logotherapy (a therapy based on existentialism—not the nihilist variety of much existentialist literature, but one founded in hope and understanding of the power of the individual to find meaning in suffering).

Frankl was imprisoned in four German concentration camps during World War II. He was initially accorded an elevated status because he was a doctor, but eventually he was consigned to the life of an ordinary inmate, not knowing what the outcome of each day would bring. Frankl refused to accept that he might not survive the camps. Realizing the power of thought and creative visualization, he resolved to envision a positive outcome to his ordeal. It was out of this experience that logotherapy was born.

Later, Frankl wrote a small, but powerful, book, titled Man’s Search for Meaning, in which he outlined his struggle and how—through the power of visualization—he triumphed over despair. Part one is devoted to sharing his personal story with the reader, and the second part discusses the essential questions that form the basis of logotherapy: “What is the meaning of this experience for me?” and “How can I have hope for the future?”

Frankl believed that the process of finding answers to these questions would provide a foundation for coping with adversity and a path toward living a more full and fruitful life. This allows for a person to be changed by the experience of their journey. A person can reinvent an understanding of both the journey’s significance and of personal capacity and strength.

Herein lies the connection between grief and creativity. Working through the meaning of the loss creates not only a new self-concept, but also a new worldview.

I often utilize logotherapy in my sessions with people who are dealing with painful issues related to death and dying, grief and loss, adjustment to illness and disability, and caregiver stress. Utilizing the core questions involved in the re-creation of one’s understanding of suffering and the meaning of life has often been equally helpful to those who believe in an afterlife or a higher purpose and those whose envision our mortal life as finite with no overarching meaning. Although I believe this work is difficult to do without the help of a trained professional, merely asking the questions—such as “What does this mean to me?”, “How am I changed by this experience?”, and “How can I go on?”sets the framework for conceptualizing a beginning, middle, and ultimate ending to the grief process.

If you are finding it difficult to cope with your own losses, perhaps seeking help from an experienced grief counselor who will be present for you, listen, ask the right questions, and guide you through the grief process would be useful. By all means, reach out to others in your support system. Remember that humans have great capacity for resilience, and the process of developing, recognizing, utilizing, and celebrating that resilience is a highly creative one.

It’s OK to be fully present with our sense of loss, but we should try not to lose sight of the promise of change or the expectation of renewal. You can see your way through this loss, and you may be re-created in a way that is most unexpected.

Reference:

  1. Frankl, V. (2006). Man’s search for meaning. Boston: Beacon Press.

© Copyright 2011 by Suellen Fagin-Allen, JD, LMHC, PA, therapist in Orlando, Florida. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

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.

  • 6 comments
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  • Pauline

    Pauline

    September 13th, 2011 at 3:32 PM

    looking to find a positive in the negative. . . that is how I have made it through many horrible times in my own life and it does work if you are willing to work throught it- it may sometimes seem in the search that the positive is not there but it is if you give your self the time to find it

  • GRACE ELLEN STEVINSON

    GRACE ELLEN STEVINSON

    September 13th, 2011 at 4:37 PM

    I am very sorry to here about your friend Suellen, I could understand how hard this must be.

    Your post reminds me of a story I once heard about a man who was diagnosed with cancer and had a year or so to live. Instead of doing what most would do and become depressed, he decided to make the most out of his last year of life and did all the things he wanted to do. He traveled around the world, went skydiving and had more exciting experiences in one year the most people do in their lifetime.

    A year later he was tested again and to the doctors surprise his cancer had gone away on its own. He has been living his life to the fullest ever since. This is the best way one can turn grief into something much better. And after reading that story I now know what I would do in this situation.

  • jeremy

    jeremy

    September 13th, 2011 at 11:46 PM

    wonderful inspiring words. I have been in grief quite a few times and it feels horrible. we all need to try and learn to cope and move out of grief because the lesser we are under its influence the better it is!

  • Lindsey

    Lindsey

    December 7th, 2013 at 4:31 AM

    I am a grief counsellor and found your words truly inspiring. Grief is a normal process and we are individual with our experiences of it. There is no right or wrong way but realising it is a journey, knowing that one day you will feel able to cope better. The pain will subside and life will become whole again but you are different and changed because of it.
    Looking after yourself is important at all times but when in grief you are vulnerable and fragile and need to take extra care.

  • Anonymous

    Anonymous

    February 13th, 2017 at 5:21 PM

    “Frankl refused to accept that he might not survive the camps.”
    Hubris. So he was somehow better or different than those who perished? He thought he was too good to die like everyone else? What an as$h#le.

  • bob c ,md

    bob c ,md

    September 5th, 2018 at 1:29 PM

    Is it not possible that Frankl knew he was useful to the prison camp commandants and survived because he realized that the camps needed him to keep other prisoners from committing suicide. He survived by making himself useful to his captors. That is far from hubris,

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