Grief and the problem of meaning making

Kurt_Vonnegut_at_CWRU

Kurt_Vonnegut_at_CWRU (Photo credit: david_terrar)

I’ve been reading Kurt Vonnegut again. It is a bad habit I started as a teenager. When I began reading Vonnegut, I was a classic example of a depressed teenager, or at least that was how I saw myself.

Looking back, I realized I had many reasons to be sad. Extremely sad, even. A friend had died in a motorcycle accident when a car pulled in front of him in our own neighborhood, and then my uncle, who was 25 years old, died in a fire that consumed the mobile home he was living in. Of course, a few other bad things happened, too, and the world just seemed a little crazy to me, not fair at all.

My confusion was confounded by the fact that I would often hear family members ask one another, “Do you think someone is trying to tell you something?” They searched each devastating event for a message from God. If something bad happened, it was because we had done something wrong. At church, I learned that all the pain, all the trials, and all the trauma was part of God’s plan, even if no mortal could make heads nor tails out of the plan. I hadn’t read Kierkegaard yet, but I was told to take a “leap of faith,” and then I was thrown off a cliff of faith.

Søren Kierkegaard (Copenhague)

Søren Kierkegaard (Copenhague) (Photo credit: dalbera)

So, around that time, I read about Kurt Vonnegut’s unlucky sister. In the prologue to Slapstick, he told of how while his sister, Alice, was dying of cancer, her husband, who was to take care of their children after her death, died on “the only train in American railroading history to hurl itself off an open drawbridge.” It was bad luck—bad enough to make you feel a little depressed.

But Vonnegut always made me feel better about things. He said, “Since Alice had never received any religious instruction, and since she had led a blameless life, she never thought of her awful luck as being anything but accidents in a very busy place.” Although I have received prodigious religious instruction and led a life full of blame, that one line has gotten me though many dark moments.

Over the years, I’ve heard many people tell me that bad things were part of some tortuous plan by some deity or other, I’ve heard that children are only on earth as a “loan” from God, and I’ve heard that God won’t give us more than we can handle. It seems to me that people routinely get more than they can handle. Many people die from stress-related illness or suicide, brought about by despair and a massive inability to cope with life’s tribulations.

Ah, but the people who didn’t survive just didn’t have enough faith to get by. The message I got from this was: “Be strong—or God may kill you.” If I had no faith in the purely accidental nature of bad luck that I learned from the Vonneguts, I am not sure I could have survived my life, which really only has the normal amount of sorrow and trauma. I haven’t been spectacularly unlucky, even by first-world standards.

Thanks to some of the interpretations I have heard of the meaning of traumatic events, I get a little nervous when anyone starts talking about making meaning of suffering. I’m quite happy to believe that suffering is just one of the vagaries of an existence fraught with peril. According to a paper by psychologist Robert Neimeyer and his coauthors, people have an intense need to “make meaning” after an extreme event disrupts their life narrative. Through a process of making meaning, individuals are able to restore a coherent narrative of their lives.

Part of the problem, it seems, is that most people believe the world has a certain moral order, and that people who are good will be rewarded with positive outcomes. So, when bad things happen, we will surely ask, “Why me?” This is a question Alice Vonnegut never asked herself, according to her brother, anyway. The horrible luck she had did not interrupt her narrative because her narrative was one of randomness and accidental events.

Regardless of what narrative one tells regarding the moral order of the universe, many people do see their own moral or spiritual growth as a result of suffering. Indeed, when we meet young people who are self-satisfied and callous, we often think that they will grow as they meet with grief and loss, and that growth will bring wisdom. It is good to know that our loss can make us better people, but I can’t think of a time when I would not give up my personal growth in order to have a loved one restored.

It seems somehow wrong, ethically wrong, to look toward loss as an opportunity for growth, but we do not seem quite so bothered by looking backward to a loss as a catalyst for growth. Herein lies some of my discomfort with focusing too clumsily on making meaning—it almost implies approaching loss by asking, “What can I get out of this?” Alternatively, it invites people to celebrate what they gained from loss. This, in itself, can create moral distress.

To be sure, psychologists such as Robert Neimeyer emphasize accompanying the grief-stricken on their own journey without guiding them down any particular path. People will, naturally, have to determine what their loss means and also what meaning they assign to life after their loss. If they fail to find any meaning, they may lose their lives all together.

In the quest for meaning, though, I hope we can accept that we live in a world full of hazards, and they do not affect us in any rational order. It turns out that some really awful people live rather charmed lives, and the purest and most compassionate people in the world suffer, though not always.

If we have the strength, we put one foot in front of another one more time. And, maybe, once again.

About ethicsbeyondcompliance

I hold a PhD in medical humanities with an major emphasis in ethics. I began teaching college-level ethics in 2000.
This entry was posted in bioethics, dignity, ethics, Grief, Psychotherapy, Suffering and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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