Traumatic Loss

A Crisis of Meaning

In grief, mourners often experience a “loss of meaning,” some way in which the order of the world is disrupted and must be mended again. This commonly occurs because we have, consciously or unconsciously, held an important “meaning” story related to that which we’ve lost, be it a person, a job or perhaps cherished items stolen from us by a house fire or theft. We feel the sudden void left by this vanishing, and a sense of meaninglessness can ensue.

When it comes to traumatic loss, the crisis of meaning can be profound. Trauma is identified as a special circumstance precisely because of its ability to undermine meaning, destroy one’s sense of “self” and cause entire belief systems to collapse.

Philosophers, psychologists and other “thinkers” aside, most of us don’t spend too much time identifying and evaluating the myriad assumptions and beliefs we hold that describe our view of “how the world is supposed to be.” We operate in a universe to which we have, usually largely unconsciously, ascribed a set of rules and orders.

A traumatic loss is often one that strips away the veil of our illusions and shows us a world that has much less structure and predictability in it than we’ve come to rely upon.

Life can suddenly become terrifying — or just random and empty. Where we once we may have looked upon difficult situations with some sense of optimism, we may instead… see with startling and cruel clarity that we can’t take anything for granted anymore, and sometimes this awareness initiates an existential crisis. This often manifests as profound wondering, with great heartache or cynicism, about the meaning and purpose of life and feeling reluctant to make close connection with others. People struggling with an existential crisis often say, to themselves or others, “What’s the point if we’re all just going to die anyway?”

This crisis may be understood as a significant challenge: To resolve it poorly can result in chronic, persistent feelings of depression or anxiety; to resolve it effectively means to come to acceptance of life’s unpredictability and learn to embrace the present moment, perhaps even allowing one to cherish life and relationships more than ever.

Although most of us have the innate ability to pass through grief and heal from loss, a crisis of meaning is one that often requires some help from others to successfully overcome. Counselors, pastors, spiritual mentors and thoughtful philosophical friends may all be of help in this situation.

(But not family.  Not THIS “family”, at any rate.)

…the main power that transforms such events from upsetting experiences into trauma can be found within the stories we tell. Trauma tends to undermine preciously held belief systems, be they naive (e.g., “Bad things only happen to bad people”) or more complex (e.g., “I am capable of defending myself”).

When a belief system collapses in the face of disturbing and powerful contradictory evidence, narratives of shock, injury, loss and despair often emerge first from the powerful emotional and psychological fallout. These stories are real and meaningful. Alas, when they dwell primarily in the wounding and do not evolve, they tend to embed trauma more deeply and reframe our worldview with afflictive perspectives that serve as a barrier to healing.

Recovery involves a widening of the narrative lens, an exploration of alternative ways to look at what happened. It’s not about spinning a yarn of fantasy; new fictions are undermined just as easily, if not more so, than the original belief. Rather, it becomes about exploring the trauma fallout for even bigger and more powerful themes that often emerge from traumatic events: of personal or community resiliency, shared humanity, the grace of survival, transcendence, transformation.

Find Compassion and Forgiveness 

To the injured, ideas of compassion and forgiveness often sound like exoneration of the perpetrator that could allow traumatizing behaviors to continue unfettered. To the contrary, when it comes to trauma recovery, compassion and forgiveness are tremendous sources of healing that transcend traditional notions of assessing fault and of the guilty making their contritions.

One hard truth about trauma is that many who suffer it never get to confront the sources of it…

In the end, we must learn to release ourselves from the grips of our own anger and outrage. For this, there is a tried-and-true cure: compassion and forgiveness.

Compassion is often defined as a deeply empathic response to the suffering of others. Indeed, it can be helpful to seek understanding of those who caused the trauma we experienced…

Often in trauma recovery, the greatest compassion we need is for ourselves… we may need to show ourselves kindness and compassion in recovery from hurt and injury, releasing expectations we may have about being who we “used to be.”

And forgiveness? Well, it is most important to differentiate that forgiveness is not the same as condoning, excusing, forgetting, pardoning or promoting the undesired behaviors or events that transpired. Rather, it is about releasing deeply held afflictive feelings about them, such as wishing them harm or the desire to seek revenge.

When we set down bitter and acrimonious feelings, we spare ourselves. We cease to deplete precious resources of energy otherwise used to maintain these feelings. Forgiveness is the process not by which we let the perpetrator off the hook; it’s the means by which we liberate ourselves from the lingering effects of their deeds.

If trauma is the experience of having one’s worldview intimately undermined or damaged in some way, it’s generally impossible to return to the old way of seeing things. We discover the world is not as we assumed, and the heart aches in acknowledging it.

“A loss is considered traumatic if it occurs without warning; if it is untimely; if it involves violence; if it was caused by a perpetrator with the intent to harm; if the survivor regards the loss as preventable; or if the survivor regards the loss, or manner of loss, as unfair and unjust.”

After a Traumatic Loss One May Experience:
Shattered assumptions about the world, themselves, and others: 

Many people live with the assumption that the world is a predictable, fair, and just place.  They believe that they are in control, that they are generally safe and secure, and that other people can be trusted.  Experiencing a traumatic loss, something that feels profoundly meaningless and unjust, can shatter each of these assumptions and lead to a sense that the world is unsafe and unpredictable, that others are malicious and evil, and that one is powerless in protecting themselves. 

( At least from a certain, formerly trusted, group of people.)


It is common to ruminate about a loss regardless of the circumstances.  However, someone who has experienced a traumatic loss might experienced increased rumination as they seek to answer questions such as…

  • Why did this happen?
  • Who is to blame?
  • Could this loss have been prevented?
  • What is the meaning, reason, or purpose for all of this?

Unfortunately, many people fail to find the answers they are searching for and they continue to struggle with the randomness and senselessness of the loss.

Poor social support:  

Evidence suggests that social support can reduce the impact of stressful life events.  Sadly, after a loss many people don’t receive effective support for a number of reasons.  This is especially true after a traumatic loss when the enduring impact of acute grief can last much longer than society has been taught to expect it.  A few reasons why people do not receive effective support after a loss include:

  • People don’t know how to provide grief support
  • People make comments that minimize grief, discourage expression of grief and discussion of loved ones, and push mourners to move on
  • The bereaved may be inclined to physically and emotionally isolate, especially when they feel misunderstood by others
  • The bereaved may feel they feel ashamed, abnormal, or weak because they continue to struggle
  • The bereaved may seek support from therapists who are not trained in grief and/or trauma
  • (The bereaved may have had their entire lifelong support system turn on them.)

First, let’s do a refresher on what forgiveness is, and what it isn’t.  There are many definitions of forgiveness, but the one we prefer is:

A willingness to abandon one’s right to resentment, negative judgment, and indifferent behavior to one who unjustly injured us, while fostering the undeserved qualities of compassion, generosity and even love toward him or her” (Enright et al in Enright and North 1998).

Some important points there – forgiveness does NOT mean excusing something or eliminating the mistake.  It means you make decisions about what to let go of and what to hold on to.

(Choose to let go of unloving, unsupportive, hostile people, regardless of cultural notions of family or “blood”.)

The problem isn’t the missing witness, but the missing listener

Missing in most cases is not the witness, but the conscientious listener.  A survivor can know her own trauma without others to hear it, but healing takes place when someone listens carefully, over and over and over again.

An understanding listener will be present tomorrow and the days after that.  It’s not the narrative that heals, it’s the relationship with the people who listen, ask questions, make small talk when necessary, while remaining a trusted and reliable presence.  It is the attachment to this trusted presence who is willing to hear the unspeakable that heals.

…a relationship with someone who cares and listens to the victim’s testimony over and over again heals.  

…trauma cannot be told unless there is someone there to listen. 

It’s essential to talk about it, again and again. It’s a way of remastering the trauma, although it can be retraumatizing when people refuse to listen. In my case, each time someone failed to respond I felt as though I were alone again in the ravine, dying, screaming. And still no one could hear me. Or, worse, they heard me, but refused to help.

Listening well and carefully, being present and available over some period of time–that too is a type of love.  It can be given by a friend, a spouse, a support group, or a therapist.

…we really don’t want to hear them… Of course, sometimes the traumatized say that their experiences are indescribable.  Sometimes they say this when they don’t want to talk about it.  Other times when they are afraid no one will really listen, an experience familiar to many.

Severe trauma is an accident of private history, even if it takes place within a world historical context, such as war.  But finding meaning and purpose in life is not a private act.  It requires others who care enough to listen.