Meaning-Making: The 3 Acts That Give Purpose to Pain

Meaning-Making: The 3 Acts That Give Purpose to Pain

I recently saw an instagram post that wasn’t a weird selfie or amazing plate of food, but was in fact, something far more sad. It was a picture of a darling little red-headed boy with the hashtag #redballoonsforryan. A friend of mine had posted it with the story that Ryan had died from being hit by a car while playing at a friends’ house. Let me tell you, no matter how long you work at a mortuary and no matter how many stories you hear, you never stop feeling them – especially when there is tragedy and especially when there are children. My heart broke for his sweet parents, for his mom who’s instagram feed is full of pictures bursting with pride and joy over the sweet little boy

When I clicked on the hashtag there were already hundreds of posts from people in their community sharing support in photo form for this little boy. Now there are over 43,000 posts from people who never knew this little boy, each one commemorating his sweet life and the joy of his smile.

Death touches people.


Very often in our grief we feel a call to act, to create a meaning and a purpose that combats the questions constantly bashing through our heads, WHY DID THIS HAPPEN? WHAT’S THE PURPOSE? HOW COULD THIS HAPPEN TO ME?

We refuse to think that there might be no “greater purpose” – that life is always a chance, a risk, that grief and death don’t necessarily have a reason, they just are and they hit without bias.

I think the secret is that there is no greater purpose unless actions are taken. It doesn’t mean we should all start non-profits or scholarships in the names of our loved ones, but we feel a need to be changed and in turn change the world in some way. Simple acts of kindness, interior changes to our own attitudes and perspectives, or displays of compassion toward others can all stem out of our grief and begin a legacy of something greater.

Dr. Bill Hoy has often said, “Grief is the process of meaning-making.” We must either tend to this grief or let it rot us. It will only have purpose if you have the courage to seek it. I see 3 important actions to consider in your grief journey:

–       Act of Remembering or acknowledging their life: This can be done in myriads of ways and is unique to every relationship. Ceremonies, memory boxes, keepsakes, memorial jewelry (thumbies), telling stories and keeping photos around are all ways in which we keep their memory alive.

–       Act of Meaning-Making or how did their life change me: The person we loved changed us and now without them we face another change. Looking at ways they impacted our lives and making intentional decisions to pass on those lessons, encouragements and affections to others not only changes you but also changes the lives around you. Your circle of influence may remain small but I think it is no small thing to encourage or help someone. Each kindness put into action because of your loved one is a way of extending their life, their purpose, and their meaning to you.

–       Act of Self-Reflection or how does their death change me: Our lives change forever when we lose someone important to us. Pains like these often open us up to areas of compassion we had never known as we see life and the people around us in a changed way. Deaths often bring a sharp clarity to our lives that refocuses our priorities, and helps us make our own lives more worthwhile. Without self-reflection we can run the danger of getting stuck in the remembering and meaning-making. Processing how the landscape of our life and our heart has changed is critical to the hope of healing.

To quote John Green, author of The Fault in Our Stars, “Grief doesn’t change you, it reveals you.” With all pain there is an opportunity to learn, to face the challenge, to more deeply understand who you are, and perhaps most importantly, to find meaning once again.

We are bound to pay the cost of loving and missing something that is impermanent.

There is value in each pain, in each tear. There is value because of what it takes from you, the hole it leaves, the time you spend aching and wondering when or if it can ever feel better. We spend so much time remembering, missing, dreaming of fuller times and we spend it because it was worth it.

|| what do you think?

What are ways you have brought meaning out of loss?

How do stories like this change your perspective on your own life?

Molly Keating
Molly Keating
Molly grew up in and around funeral homes her entire life. In 2009 she began working for O'Connor Mortuary and found a bridge between her passion for writing and her interest in grief and bereavement. In 2016 she earned Certification in the field of Thanatology, the study of Death, Dying and Bereavement. She is honored to be able to write about these taboo topics with knowledge, compassion, and a unique perspective.


  1. Fitz says:

    Hi Molly,
    I enjoyed reading your blog. I have often used the phrase…You never get over the death of a loved one but you get through it. Your 3 actions provide a road map for healthy grief and a way to “get through it”
    Thank you for your words of wisdom.

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