From the time you are developing in the womb until your dying day, you will experience many small and large injuries to your psyche, your sense of self, and your understanding of the world. Loss and trauma are two of the most injurious events that you will face. Trauma––whether childhood trauma, the trauma sustained during an abusive relationship, a traumatic event, or another form––and the loss of a loved one will affect how you navigate life. The meaning you make of these events will either weaken you or help you build resilience. The story you tell yourself about the event will either tie you to the trauma and limit you or help you create a life you love by giving you new depth and insight into yourself.
Psychologists call this process meaning-making. The meaning you give to a loss or trauma can have a profound effect on your life. For example, if you lost a parent when you were a child, you may have interpreted the loss to mean, “Everyone I love will eventually leave me. Getting attached to people hurts too much, so I shouldn’t try to find a long-term relationship.” If your emotions were ignored or invalidated by a caregiver, “No one believes me when I say I’m sad, so I’ll have to act out in order to receive the love and care I need” might be the meaning you make from the situation.
Trauma and loss can undermine your fundamental belief in a predictable and just world. It can require you to rebuild or readjust your previously held beliefs and assumptions. That rebuilding and readjusting can be healthy or unhealthy, either helping you to live a better, more whole, and happy life or weakening your spirit and increasing your unhappiness, depending on the meaning you make from your experience. But even if the meaning you made when the loss or trauma occurred was unhealthy, it’s never too late to create a new, healthier one—to rewrite the story you tell yourself about what happened.
We “engage in a process of negotiating” grief after a significant loss and make meaning “by retaining, reaffirming, revising, or replacing elements of” our previous thinking and beliefs, according to the authors of “The Meaning of Loss Codebook: Construction of a System for Analyzing Meanings Made in Bereavement” (Gillies, Neimeyer, & Milman), published in the journal Death Studies in 2013. To let go of grief and trauma and “develop more nuanced, complex, and useful” beliefs, you must find meaning in your suffering. You can transcend it by making meaning out of it and learning what it can teach you—by making yourself better for having gone through what you did.