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. Mitch says:

    Molly, thank you for sharing these thoughts. Each life is meaningful and important. The circle of influence may be smaller than some or larger than some but that doesn’t diminish the importance. The 3 things gives us an idea on how to “get through it” but not forget.
    Thank you

    • Mitch,

      You said that perfectly, these are steps to get through but to also further impress the story and memories into the fabric of our world.

      Love your thoughts on value, it’s not the size of your influence, it’s the value and depth to which it inspires others to be better.


  2. Jeff Turner says:

    Thank you for unpacking this idea that there is purpose in pain and loss if we actively seek it. It is the avoidance of the pain where purpose can be lost and so much opportunity for pathology in body mind and spirit can gain a foothold. In my nearly 30 years now in funeral service there are a number families that crowd my memory where the death of a child was the cause of the divine intersection of our lives. I am thankful that I can only imagine the depths of that plunge. I never want to know death like that any closer than I already do.

    Those parents, grandparents, sibling, aunts & uncles who have been thrust over the precipice only a death like this can take us, are almost enigmatic souls to me. The separateness that this kind death creates between them and the rest of us is a chasm that cannot truly be bridged. It’s not that we cannot comfort with presence and listening, rather it is grim door that is closed to us yet the ones suffering never willingly approached the threshold they find themselves having already crossed. It is where time becomes a prison for we cannot go back to prevent the event. We are forced at every turn to move further forward, yet time seems to create a false distance as the pain continues and circles back at unexpected moments.

    Like all of us, we would do almost anything to take away this pain. We are powerless to do so. I tell myself that there pain will diminish over time because I have to tell myself that in order to feel better. I pray I am right but fear that I am quite wrong. Only they know the darkness and abject poverty of joy this turn in their life has delivered them to. True despair. How do they go on? I don’t know. I can pray and hope that in time it is better. I sense that it is never actually better, it’s just different and it always will be.

    I admire them for something no one would want to be admired for.

    Thank you for sharing Ryan’s story with us. It is not what I wanted to read, but it is what I needed to read. It changes my perspective yet again.


    • Jeff,
      This is a blog topic all it’s own. I could never begin to capture the void a family walks into with the death of a child. How can it be understood by someone who has not experienced it, especially when NO ONE wants to even imagine the possibility. We are all alone in our grief to the extent that it is always unique to our singular relationship – no one will grieve like you and you will never grieve the same over any two people. But that doesn’t change the need for the support and the beauty of the impact and hope it can bring. I don’t think these parents will have an “easier” time grieving because so many people know and care, but it must be nice to just know that others are thinking of you, are looking at pictures of your son and still telling you how sweet & fun his spirit was.

      Those days will diminish and they will likely feel more alone in the future – but the impact, the compassion from the world when the world seems so dark has to be a welcomed light.
      You need to write about this – I need you to. You’re too eloquent and you only can testify to what you’ve seen.

      Thank you for sharing so much,


  3. Christopher Iverson says:

    Stories like these reconfirm the innate need for the support “of the village” for families and individuals at a time of loss. Death reminds us of our connectedness to each other. Ultimately, this connectedness is where our healthy healing and grieving lives.

    • Chris,
      You’re so right. We can make a choice to come alongside someone or pretend their pain doesn’t exist. Life is so much more rich, full and beautiful when we aren’t alone or ignored, when our pain can be shared and we don’t have to feel so alone. Likewise, I have had such richer days by reading Ryan’s story and seeing the national impact his life had – the world seems like a much better place when it is bonded & connected in this way.

      Thank you for reading & sharing,

  4. Becky Finch Lomaka says:

    Hi Molly,
    I love your blog topic and the three actions for healthy grieving. I think the act of self-reflection is so important and something that people don’t initially see value in. To allow ourselves the gift of time and space to reflect on how the death of someone close to us has changed us, can truly change our world. Through the pain we are able to re-adjust our life-values. Although we will never “heal” from the death of someone dear to us, we can find new meaning.


    • So well said Becky, I’m sure you see this more clearly than many people with your training and background. We can too often get stuck in the actions and movements of grief and even begin to allow them to distract us from tending to our interior, changed selves. Looking at insides can be far more scary to us then the adjustments to the outside.

      Thank you so much for reading, I’m so glad you enjoyed this one!


  5. Anne says:

    My heart breaks for this mom, facing each new day without her precious red-headed sunshine. What can possibly fill that hole?? Does she have other children who need her?
    That would be a mixed issue for her, too
    I know my own hole is being carefully filled with hopefully healthy soil and seeds of something worthwhile, and yet when the rains come (my tears), I find the soil sinks down and part of the hole is still a hole.
    I am of the school that everything will not make sense, but purpose and good can come out of every tragedy. When it happens to us, it truly falls under the category of tragedy.
    Now my 20 year old cat is doing poorly. I know she can’t live forever and maybe this is going to be it or maybe it is only her 7th or 8th life, but it represents further loss, so not at all comfortable at this time.
    I am slowly reading “1,000 Gifts” right now. The author lost her little sister to the same type of death as this mom when she herself was very young. This is a hard book to read, but gives many opportunities for tears and reflections, gained insights and new wisdom.
    Thanks for a beautiful blog,

    • That book sounds wonderful, Anne – maybe that will be the next thing you write about : )
      I’m thinking of you as loss piles upon loss and have so little of comfort to offer. I believe that YOU will make these losses matter, that you will give them purpose, that you will learn more about the Lord and yourself through these losses.
      My prayers are with you & I am just so very sorry for you & your cat. Those friends are some of the hardest to lose.


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