Finding Purpose After Loss

Finding purpose…what a very big and very grand idea, and one that we may not spend a lot of time exploring prior to loss. Perhaps because when life is “good” our purpose is pretty clear. While it may not be glamorous, or something worthy of history remembering our name, most people are finding purpose in their day-to-day lives, even if they’re not looking for it. Going to work, raising a family, finding involvement within church and community, even a hobby or past time can plan our days and fill our lives and give us direction, along with the “why” we’re getting up and out of bed each day.

When writing about loss, it’s always a good idea to be mindful of how different grievers can be. Different backgrounds, different supports, different styles of coping. What’s also very different is how far along in their grieving someone may be, and how ready they are to accept help and ideas as they’re offered. In the beginning, with the shock and numbness of loss it can be hard to see beyond the thick fog of grief and immediate pain.

This writing is for those who may be a little further along. The timeline doesn’t matter so much as the feeling. And when a griever gets there, they’ll know it. While always sad in some way, always missing their loved one and always grieving, there does come a time for most when they feel ready for the next step.

The problem is knowing what that next step is.

Sure, work and family and other commitments will still be there, but trying to step back into the same old life just won’t work for most. With this very special person gone, nothing quite looks the same, and we feel very different along with it.

Finding purpose can be a very healthy and positive step in the right direction for a griever. In his book, “Man’s Search for Meaning”, Viktor Frankl talks about the happiness we all think we’re looking for. In the foreword for this book, Howard S. Kushner writes, “Life is not primarily a quest for pleasure…but a quest for meaning.” According to him, Frankl’s three possible sources of meaning are, “in work, in love, and in courage during difficult times”.

It reminds me of what a widow once said to me. When I asked how she was coping after the loss of her spouse she told me that everyone needs, “someone to love, something to do, and something to look forward to”. Focusing on what she had and finding purpose were the only things getting her through the difficult days of grief.

So maybe a goal to be happy again after loss doesn’t sound realistic, but what about finding purpose? As potentially idealistic as it may sound, it may be as simple as asking, “what’s going to get me out of bed today?”

It’s not easy. Some may ask, what purpose could there possibly be, and what else could ever be worthy of the time and attention once put into a person loved and lost, and how could it ever provide the same satisfaction or fulfillment once found in being a parentpartnerchildsibling, friend or grandchild?

And so here’s the challenge.

First, decide that you actually want to move forward and that you’re ready to see what might come next. Like a lot of things, this first step is the hardest. While most people would say they’re tired of being sad all the time and they’re ready for a change, most would be surprised to know how hard moving forward can be. And it’s not always for the reasons you’d think.

For some, moving forward may feel like leaving their loved one in the past. It may feel disloyal, or some grievers may worry if they’re not actively grieving it means they’re not actively expressing their love either. The dark place of grief can become a surprisingly comfortable and familiar place to be. Moving beyond it can feel like a step into the unknown. That unknown could be a place filled with disappointment, or rejection. Or perhaps taking that step is simply more work or energy than a griever actually feels they have to give.

So again, the first and most important step? Deciding that you are ready to find purpose and look ahead. It doesn’t have to mean running onto a diving board and jumping into a pool at full speed. Maybe it’s the step we take off our chair. The slow walk around the edge of the pool as we try to gauge the temperature. Maybe it’s kneeling down and reaching our hand in first, just to get the feel of what it may be like.

When you think you may be ready (and remember, there’s no right or wrong answer to when this is) then the real work begins. This can be a wonderful time of reflection and research. A chance to search for what’s out there, to talk to other people and find out…how are they spending their time? What is meaningful to them and how are they finding purpose?

It can be a chance to do the thing you always wanted to do and never had time for. It can be the cause that you always believed in, or it can be helping people who have suffered in ways you can relate to.

Because in the end, that’s the best advice I can give. To really truly find purpose, and to make the next step forward in life there’s one thing I think helps more than anything else…

Get out of your own head.

I don’t have to tell you what a really difficult place that can be, especially after loss. Getting out of our own head and finding a way to help others can be one of the most meaningful and productive things a griever (or anyone for that matter) can do. By taking the focus off ourselves and turning it to someone or something else where there’s a need will be one of the most soothing and healing ways we could spend our time.

And be certain that your next step isn’t to come up with all the reasons you can’t help. There is time for the things that matter to us. There are ways to do the things that we care about. Even being homebound doesn’t restrict us. If you are able to read this blog it means you have access to a smartphone or a computer. A phone and a computer are probably 2 of the most powerful tools we can have in reaching out to others today, but only when we decide we truly want to and that we’re ready, can we do it.

Spend some time today thinking about finding purpose and what comes next. If you don’t necessarily have interests of your own, that’s okay. A lot of caregivers have spent many years putting their wants and needs aside. Not knowing what you want is something so many people who have cared for a loved one can relate to. So think about your loved one. What was meaningful to them? Can you feel closer to them by finding a way to honor them or by being part of something they cared about or belonged to?

I met a woman who had recently lost her spouse after years of caring for him. She had no idea what to do with herself, but she knew she was ready to move forward with her life. Her husband had been a volunteer fireman for many years, and as she visited with some of his friends, and they shared old stories, it occurred to her – she could volunteer with the fire department too. And that’s just what she did. No, she didn’t participate in the very physical and dangerous way he might have, but she did get herself out in the community for every fundraiser and every special event they held. It allowed her to not only find some meaning for herself, but it got her out of bed, out of the house and kept her busy while staying alongside those people who knew him best. Volunteering for the fire department is the last thing she would have ever pictured for herself prior to her loss, but once her husband was gone it became the perfect fit. She tells me all the time that the fire department she works with has saved many people…and she considers herself one of them.

Remember – we may never get answers for all the “why”s of loss…why it happened, why now, why him/her? But we can find meaning in what comes next by creating meaning and finding purpose in our lives.

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