Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Living a Meaningful Life

I spent last week at the International Conference on Grief and Bereavement in Contemporary Society, which was held in conjunction with the Association for Death Education and Counseling's annual meeting. There were hundreds of people there from all over the world – scholars, doctors, clinicians, funeral directors, hospice personnel, counselors and therapists. Research was presented, panel discusses attended. There were keynote speeches on compassion and dying mindfully (Roshi Joan Halifax), on identifying at risk families for early intervention at Sloan Kettering Memorial Cancer Center (David Kissane). A psychologist from Australia, Dr. Chris Hall, spoke about the multiple government outreach programs to help the communities that suffered major losses in the Victoria Bush Fires of 2008, which had me and the woman next to me shaking our heads, saying, "that would never happen in America."

What struck me was how kind everyone was, how welcoming. Of course, everyone there works with raw pain and suffering, and has learned how to attain some balance. The compassion and thoughtfulness of attendees was palpable and inspiring. It was also interesting how many people who work in this field have come to it in response to their own experiences with death. It is one of the ways they seek to turn bad into good; to make meaning.

When I first read about the concept of making meaning after death, I did not understand it. To me, it was the equivalent of that supposedly "helpful" statement, "he's in a better place." As if being here, with our children, was not good enough? How could his death MEAN something, other than pain and horror?

Robert A. Neimeyer, PhD, is the scholar who coined this phrase, saying that it is a necessary part of the reconstruction of life after suffering the loss of a loved one. But Neimeyer is talking about living a meaningful life after this loss. It is what you DO with it. Some people start scholarships, some people plant gardens. Some people become grief counselors and name their work after a tiny word found on the top of a page.

I attended a lecture by Dr. Neimeyer at the Conference. He read a poem he had written about a couple who was in counseling with him after the suicide of their 19 year old daughter. He said that "we seek the meaning that is viable, not necessarily valid." In the process of reconstructing our lives, we come up with ways to cope, to live and to grow, yet we will always have gaps. The meaning we attribute to our lives after the death of someone we love will always have some rough patches, some areas of unsettled dissonance.

Meaning is what you make of it, I guess. While it makes little sense to me that Alby is gone, before he could see the graduations, the weddings, etcetera, our lives have meaning. Some of this sense of purpose is related to him, some of it is reaction to his death. And a good deal of the meaning we make correlates with our own growth as we deepen and mellow. Hopefully over time, this growing purposeful, meaningful life slowly becomes as valid as it is viable.

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