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How to find meaning when death is all around us

Updated 7:47 AM ET, Sat November 21, 2020

Editor's Note: Kerry Egan is a former hospice chaplain and author of several books, including "On Living" and "Fumbling." The views expressed in this commentary are her own.

(CNN) - There's a process by which people make sense of the events of their lives -- both the things they chose to do, and the things that happened by chance, by accident, against their will, out of their control; experiences they knew were momentous while they were happening, and those that seemed insignificant at the time.

In hospice, this process is called "meaning making." As a hospice chaplain for many years, it was my job to facilitate patients' and families' meaning-making work.

While meaning-making is usually intense in the months and years before dying and is the last great developmental task of human life, this particularly human ability to make meaning actually emerges in early adulthood. Luckily, it develops and deepens all through the first years of adulthood and into middle and old age.

"Luckily" I said, because while you may not be at the end of your life or on hospice care right now, we are all currently living in a hospice world.

By hospice world I mean simply this: a community in which death is daily before our eyes. A hospice world is a world in which we are all acutely aware of our own and each others' mortality.

Covid-19 has, in a matter of months, reshaped so much of lives that it's become very difficult to not keep death daily before our eyes. Or, if not death, then at least pandemic, sickness, and danger. It was always true that death was possible. Most people just weren't necessarily aware of it.

You always could have been hit by a car, or fallen down the basement steps. You always could have died next week, and so could your loved ones. Most of us just didn't think about it. Most of us didn't really believe it.

And now, we do.

How this knowledge affects each of us will differ. But this upending of life as we once knew it demands that we find a way through all the changes and losses.

This pandemic has been a loss in so many ways. Yes, loss of life, of course. But also loss of what we thought this year would be: milestone events like weddings and graduations, relationships, jobs, dreams, even a particular sort of loss of freedom or innocence.

These losses, these changes in life that were not chosen or wanted, might consume some people, or might barely bother others right now. But at some point, they will likely demand our attempts to make sense of them.

Meaning is already being made of Covid-19. As an obvious example, look at surgical masks. What were once scraps of blue paper, a bit of metal and elastic are now either symbols of beneficence towards others and belief in science -- or symbols of oppression and loss of liberty. There's an awful lot of moral power and meaning ascribed to a disposable bit of medical equipment.

So while we are already starting to find a deeper meaning aspect of this pandemic, it always remains true that meaning-making is easiest in hindsight and hardest while you're still living the upheaval.

For those who are exhausted, who are barely coping with the demands of each Covid day, it may be too soon or impossible at the moment to think about making meaning of what's happening.

But for those who are yearning to make sense of their lives right now, there are tools you already have to help you.

Your 'spiritual toolbox'

Every person is walking around with a spiritual toolbox. This toolbox is all the different ways people try to make sense of the things they cannot make sense of. It has the tools each of us use to try to bring order to our world when our world has descended into confusion or chaos. It's what a chaplain helps a patient tap into. It's what we use to make meaning.

Every person -- whether they are spiritual or religious or not -- has these tools, but not every person's tools are the same. Some people have a bounty of ways to cope, to make meaning, to reconcile with losses. Some have very few.

Religion is often one of the best tools a person has to make sense of the big traumas and small disappointments that have marked their lives. It's not just the wisdom about the nature of the world and suffering that can help at a time like this. It's also scripture, ritual, hymns, stories and memories of holidays with family.

A pandemic, and the hospice world it throws us into, is one in which we are searching to make meaning of rapidly changing events and expectations. We're not always aware of how we're doing it.

Religion isn't the only tool people have to make meaning, however. A rejection of religion can be as powerful a tool as the embrace of it. There are plenty of other strategies people draw on: reflecting on relationships with family, friends and romantic partners, art, music, history, even the scientific method and meditating on previous life experiences.

Almost anything can be a spiritual tool if it helps someone make meaning of what seems meaningless.

I had a patient once who was a young mathematician. His life was ending too soon and cruelly, but the elegant and unwavering rules of mathematics meant that there was some goodness in the world. There was something real, true and beautiful that had always existed and always would, something larger than himself where he could find solace and strength. That was his tool.

Literature is another many people use. Poems remembered from high school, novels read on vacation, story books and nursery rhymes sung to babies. A mother I once worked with found, in reading Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's "The Little Prince" to her young child, a whole new understanding of her place in the world and her own imminent death.

Making sense of it all

Relationships with our family and friends can be the most important avenue for finding meaning in loss. This is complicated by the fact that so many of us are isolated because of Covid. But finding ways to maintain an emotional connection to the people you love is more important than ever right now.

Consciously spending time remembering and reflecting on those loving relationships is often its own immediate sense of meaning in a time of loss and change.

Each of us also has our experiences of hardship and perseverance in our pasts. Ask yourself: what other difficult, frightening, overwhelming times have you experienced? How did you get through them? How do you make sense of them now? What can you learn from other hard times you've been through?

People use the various tools in their spiritual toolbox to do the actual work of meaning-making. That work is simple, on the surface. It usually consists of telling and retelling a story, and conversely, in listening and listening again to someone tells theirs.

As you tell the story of this pandemic, the way you tell it will change each time. (You might tell the story to a friend sometimes, but usually you will be telling it to yourself, over and over. And therefore, usually you will be listening to yourself tell it.)

You will use the tools you have -- many or few -- to shape a coherent narrative, to find a way to weave this experience into the larger story of your life and the world at large. Every time you tell the story, it will be slightly different. The changes are where the meaning-making happens. How is your understanding of the story evolving?

You cannot change what happened, but you will change how you understand it. You cannot create reality, but you'll create meaning in the banal, stupid meaninglessness you might be experiencing now. It's true that there may be some losses that are so raw that meaning ultimately eludes us, no matter how many or how few tools we may have in our spiritual toolbox. It's still possible to find order in the chaos. You will find peace, even if not perfect, even if not immediate, but eventually.

I know this because I have seen it done, hundreds of times with hospice patients. We will find meaning in this chaotic time, both as individuals and as a society, because despite the pain, loss and confusion, we have the ability to make sense of a hospice world.


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