Hope, Meaning, and Purpose

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Someone we love has died. You feel as though you have been leveled like a parking lot. How do you pick yourself up and move forward? There is no “how to book” like “Grief for dummies”; maybe I should write one. Unfortunately, it is not that easy. 

One size does not fit all. Your own grief is unique. What we do know in the world of thanatology, the scientific study of death, is that after the death of your loved one, your own life goes on. Grief is a transformative experience. People change in the face of grief. Healthy grief requires action for growth to occur. This is the “work of grief or “Grief Work” as it is called.

One of my favorite grief theorists, J. William Worden, former Harvard professor, says you must complete the four tasks of mourning. Oh, if we could just follow steps one through four and we would be healed and life would be good, but it certainly is not that easy. Just ask anyone grieving.

Grief and mourning are not the same experience. Mourning is the outward expression of grief. Grief is the individual inner response to loss. Everyone grieves, but not everyone mourns. For some people, feelings of grief are debilitating and don't improve even after time passes. This is known as complicated grief. In complicated grief, painful emotions are so long lasting and severe that you have trouble accepting the loss and resuming your own life. (Learn more about complicated grief.)

It takes work and perseverance to find the strength and courage to move forward with optimism and to create a productive life for yourself. The question I hear most often is, “How do I do this?” It is easy to get stuck in anger, sorrow, pessimism, and self-pity. None of these emotions are wrong to have and they are certainly part of the human experience. However, if we allow any one of these emotions to dominate our life, it can determine who we become.

Louis LaGrand, author and counselor, states in his book, Love Lives On, “what we focus on expands.” I have seen this in some clients who allow their own bitterness to develop into cynicism and negativity. I have also seen optimism turned into energy and productivity.

We can choose to live more intentionally by being aware of our thoughts and feelings. You can make a choice to be bitter or better. For some there may be emotions such as guilt, regret, or anger. It takes work to resolve these feelings and often requires the help of a professional. Action can heal or help us reconcile the loss in our life.

Some theorists believe we never really heal from a loss, though many grievers feel pressure from the world to “get over it.” Passivity, on the other hand, can keep someone in deep grief and possibly plummet him or her into complicated grief.

It has been said to have a well lived life we need something to believe in, something to love, and something to do. (This saying has been misquoted by many, but I believe it originally came from George Washington Burnap, whose original words were, “something to do, love, and hope for.”)

How do we find hope, meaning, and purpose again? It is a process of your own evolution over time, your time.


Finding our own hope and something to hope for.

  • Appreciate the mystery of life. You may not get all of the answers you desire. Stories of loss can teach us valuable life lessons. Be open to the possibilities of messages not yet revealed. Listen for your inner voice.  
  • Join a support group; hearing others’ stories of loss can help your compassion grow and give you perspective on your own loss.
  • Focus on the positive in all of life. This can be very empowering, especially when you focus on what you still possess in spite of your great loss. This habit can crowd out negativity and give you strength. Like LaGrand, I believe what you pay attention to is what grows and ultimately what you become. Express your gratitude through prayer, journaling, or outwardly to people in your life.  
  • Believe that you have the power to live a hopeful life.


Finding something to love and learning to be more loving.

  • Learn to have more compassionate and loving thoughts in all you say and do. This can increase your own self-esteem and self-love. Insecurity and decreased self-esteem are common in grief.
  • Read books about grief, death, and the afterlife; this can help clarify beliefs and understanding you may be searching for. 
  • Continue, connect, or reconnect with your spiritual practices. Finding peace can give you energy and endurance to help rebuild your life and feel the love in the relationship with your higher power.
  • Reach out and connect with others; do not wait for people to come to you. Give to others and in turn let them know what you need in your grief and in your life.


Finding a reason to move forward and continuing to love and find happiness.

  • Set a goal and work toward achieving it.
  • Smile; it boosts immunity and energy. 
  • Commit to being happy in the face of life’s challenges. Life is about vacillation and adapting between joy and sorrow.
  • Volunteer — there are endless opportunities to help others. Givers often get more than receivers. This was very apparent after 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and many world disasters where people helped their fellow man.
  • Most of all, be gentle, kind, and loving to yourself, especially if you have guilt and regret surrounding your loved one’s death or your relationship with them. (I will address guilt, regret, anger, and forgiveness in a future article).

Remember, you not only can, but you will, survive your loss. How you do it is up to you. If you are not sure how, find the help you need. It takes time, persistence, and above all work.

Two songs to motivate you:

As I always say, “You are worth it.”

Linda Coughlin Brooks is the SUDEP Institute Bereavement Support Facilitator; she contributes regular articles as part of our bereavement support services. You can contact Linda at sudep@efa.org. Watch for future articles and learn more about our support for bereaved.

Authored by: Linda Coughlin Brooks RN, BSN, CT on 5/2015

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