Making Meaning of Death

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Death is a universal transition that knocks on every family's door.5 It is perhaps the most stressful event family members will face10, depriving them of an irreplaceable person that they love.1

Death launches a process of grieving that takes families time and effort to work through.5 Some families find their core beliefs shaken when faced with this life-altering experience while other families are less traumatized.5,11 Whatever the reaction, it is possible to regain feelings of peace and security after the death of a loved one.3 The loss can even nourish remaining relationships and renew faith, wisdom, and purposefulness.5

Making Meaning

Understanding research about what death means to families and how they cope with it can help those who are grieving.11 Dorothy Becvar points out in her book In the Presence of Grief that finding meaning in the death of a loved one enables us to endure the pain and survive the loss.3 With meaning, family members are better able to gain a sense of control and find order in the chaos.12 People grieve in different ways, so the journey to meaning will be personal and unique to each person.3,7

Research shows the following factors influence the meaning that people make of death:

  • Culture or ethnicity. Rituals around death and the way emotions are expressed differ from culture to culture. The mourning period, the role of extended family, the roles of men versus women, and coping strategies all vary according to culture.10 What one culture views as normal another may see as abnormal.13    
  • Gender. Research suggests that women are more likely to take on caregiving roles and men are more likely to manage tasks such as burial, finances, and funeral arrangements.10 Men seem to benefit more from counseling while women need help rethinking and reshaping their lives.13 Often married couples experience differences in the way they grieve.10 
  • Religion. Religious beliefs, religion, and spiritual support are important resources for coping with death.11,8 Religion can provide an anchor and a feeling of divine purpose.3
  • Family beliefs. How a family views the world influences its coping strategies.10 For some families open displays of emotion are acceptable while for others they are not.15

Experiencing Grief

Grief includes many components, including denial, shock, pain, volatile emotions, resolution, and acceptance.10 A grieving person might also feel separation anxiety, emotional numbness, and despair.14 Below are common stages of grief, though not everyone goes through all the stages or experiences them in the order presented.2 It is important to remember that every individual experiences grief differently.13

  • Denial. A common initial reaction to the death of a loved one is to deny it. Individuals may have thoughts such as "this can't be happening" or "this is only a bad dream." Many people feel anger, guilt, and resentment during this stage.
  • Despair. As the reality of death sinks in, the bereaved begins to realize that life will never be the same. She might experience deep sadness, confusion, separation pain, and episodes of volatile emotions.
  • Detachment. At this stage, feelings of isolation, loneliness, withdrawal, and indifference toward the world often occur. Depression and a wish to withdraw from others are common.
  • Recovery. Over time, the bereaved comes to accept the death. He recognizes that life must go on, though the person who has died will never be forgotten and life will never be the same. He begins to take renewed interest in life and is able to move forward.

Understanding these stages can be comforting, but they are only a rough guide. Not everyone will experience every stage, and some might go back and forth between stages several times before arriving at recovery. In some cases, a person is not able to move into the recovery stage without professional help.

The Importance of Rituals

Becvar says that rituals, such as funerals and memorials, are basic to the structure of society. They offer a connection with the past, stability in the present, and guidance for the future. Research has found that rituals can help families adapt to loss by fostering a sense of group identity, growth, and change.3 

Rituals are personal. Bereaved families need not feel obligated to follow the rules and traditions prescribed by society but rather should design unique rituals that fit their needs.3

Below are suggestions to help families sort out issues around rituals related to death:

  • Funeral or memorial services. Planning rituals surrounding the death of a loved one can be daunting. Some may experience fear from past experiences or concerns about truly honoring the loved one who has passed.3 Ceremonies can offer closure to feelings of unfinished business and supplement or complement other services.3
  • Holidays. Holidays after the death of a loved one can be challenging, especially the first holidays.3 Those closest to the deceased might want to skip holidays.
  • Birthdays and anniversaries. Birthdays and anniversaries can be especially hard. Creating a regular routine for these occasions can ease these times and even make them welcoming.3 Families might visit the grave site of the loved one, take trips, or eat food and enjoy activities that were favorites of the deceased.3 During holidays associated with gift giving, individuals may choose to donate an amount similar to what they spent on presents for the deceased to charities.3 Other healing rituals that have been found to be helpful include writing letters tithe deceased, mending relationships, and becoming involved in a cause.3

Helping Adults After the Death of a Loved One

Friends and extended family can help or frustrate the grieving process. When supporters have unrealistic expectations, such as thinking a survivor should "move on" within a specific period of time, they can complicate the grieving process.10 A grieving person needs time and support to make meaning out of his or her new world.13

Here are ideas for supporting the grieving:

  • Give individualized support. Becvar says that good intentions are not enough.3 Instead, we must match our emotional support with the specific needs of the grieving.12 That means taking the time to study out their needs. It can be helpful for grieving families and those who want to support them to sit down together, listen to each other, and accept different perceptions of the death and grieving.7
  • Let the bereaved talk. Those who are grieving often find it helpful to talk about their experience3 and to share positive memories of the deceased.5 Talking- and being heard - gives the grieving an emotional release and encourages a search for meaning.3  
  • Allow full expression of feelings. Let those who are grieving cry, rage, and despair this freedom validates their feelings and provides them with a sense of security.3
  • Provide empathy and understanding. Being empathic means being with others in their pain. It means allowing full expression of feelings without judgment -- not trying to offer solutions, fix their pain, or pressure them to move on. For survivors of suicide, it can be healing to help them realize what the deceased might have been experiencing and that he or she likely was not thinking clearly enough to make a thoughtful decision.
  • Take care of practical needs. Even the simplest tasks can feel overwhelming to someone who is grieving. Help with child care, meal preparation, housecleaning, or even a car wash can feel like a godsend.5
  • Create symbols in honor of the deceased. Offering to plant a tree or help with a photo album can be reassuring.5 Some individuals find it helpful to write down and read memories about the loved one.3
  • Avoid clichéd comments. Remarks such as "It's God will" or "She's no longer suffering" or "He's in a better place" are rarely comforting.5 More helpful are words such as "I'm sorry" or even "I don't know how to help" -- along with a willingness to listen.5
  • Don’t expect the pain to eventually stop. Bereaved individuals report that the pain of losing a loved one never fully goes away. It is always present to some degree, and survivors must learn to live with it as a constant companion.5 Becvar describes how survivors have explained these feelings to her: "Closure? No. A wound may heal into a scar. Excruciating pain may become a dull ache. Knowledge may become wisdom. Memories that brought anguished tears may now bring a small smile. I don't think closure is an appropriate concept. It seems to imply an ending or finishing to a relationship. Some relationships will always endure. They may evolve into another order, but they will endure".3
  • Encourage professional help if needed. If it appears that a person is not moving through his or her grief, professional help might be needed.13 Supporters can help grieving individuals get in touch with support groups or others with similar experiences.3 Some bereaved persons will suffer mentally and physically for longer than necessary unless he or she receives appropriate help from trained professionals.13     

Supporting Grieving Children

Diane Bales offers several ways adults can help children grieve the death of a parent:

  • Use careful word choice that tells the truth. Children take what you say literally. If you use the word "sleeping" to describe death, some children may become afraid to go to sleep. If the death results from illness, stress that the parent was very, very sick. Otherwise the child may be afraid of routine illness.
  • Be honest about your feelings. It's all right for children to see adults cry. Allow them to know that those who are grieving feel sad, angry, or lonely. Let children share their own feelings and cry. But don't make them feel bad if they don’t want to or don't need to cry.
  • Provide words to explain feelings. Children often don't have the vocabulary to express their feelings. If you use descriptive words to describe your own feelings, such as angry, sad, and lonely, you can help children explain what they feel. Reading children’s books about death can also help children learn how to express their feelings.
  • Give non-verbal opportunities to express emotions. Offer children different kinds of outlets for expressing negative emotions. Music, dance, writing, art, or physical play can all help them release emotions. Some children express themselves better through actions than words.
  • Give assurance. Let children know that they have a safe home and secure place to live.
  • Share religious beliefs. Talk about your beliefs about God and heaven. But remember that children are literal. If you say "God loved Mommy so much that he took her to heaven," you might trigger fear that the child will die if God loves him.
  • Help memorialize the deceased. Continue to display photos of the parent or loved one who has died. Talk about him or her. Help children plant flowers or a tree as a reminder of the loved one.
  • Understand that children's grief has cycles. As children grow and enter new stages of development, they might experience their grief in new ways. A child who lost a parent as a preschooler might experience a new level of grief as she enters middle school and begins to understand more fully what death is. When she graduates from high school, she might experience new grief at not having a parent present for such an important event.


Death poses the most stressful life event most families will face. But much can be done to provide support and comfort for those grieving the death of a loved one. Both the bereaved and those supporting them can benefit from understanding the grieving process and from searching for meaning in the loss of a loved one.

Written by Jaelynn R. Jenkins, Research Assistant, edited by Susanne Olson Roper and Stephen F. Duncan, professors in the School of Family Life, Brigham Young University. 

Additional Resources

The following Web sites might be helpful to those experiencing a loss:

Journey of Hearts: An online healing place for anyone grieving a loss

Cruse Bereavement Care


  1. Attig, T. (2001). Relearning the world: Making and finding meanings. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
  2. Bales, D. (2003). Grandparents raising grandchildren. Putting knowledge to work.
  3. Becvar, D. S. (2001). In the presence of grief: Helping family members resolve death, dying, and bereavement issues. New York, NY: Guilford Press.
  4. Bonanno, G. A. (2001). Grief and emotion: A social-functional perspective. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
  5. Carroll, J. S., Robinson, W. D., Marshall, E. S., Callister, L. C., Olsen, S. F., Dyches, T. T., & Mandleco, B. (2000). The family crucibles of illness, disability, death, and other losses. In D. C. Dollahite (Ed.), Strengthening our families: An in-depth look at the proclamation on the family (pp. 278-292). Salt Lake City, UT: Bookcraft.
  6. Fletcher, P. N. (2002). Experiences in family bereavement. Family and Community Health, 25, 57-70.
  7. Gilbert, K. R. (1996). We've had the same loss, why don't we have the same grief? Loss and differential grief in families. Death Studies, 20, 269-283.
  8. Greeff, A. P. (2004). Resilience in families in which a parent has died. American Journal of Family Therapy, 32, 27-42.
  9. Horacek, B. J. (1995). A heuristic model of grieving after high-grief deaths. Death Studies, 19, 21-31.
  10. McKenry, P. C., & Price, S. J. (2005). Families and change: Coping with stressful events and transitions. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.
  11. Murray, J. A. (2001). Loss as a universal concept: A review of the literature to identify common aspects of loss in adverse situations. Journal of Loss & Trauma, 6, 219-241.
  12. Nadeau, J. W. (2001). Family construction of meaning. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
  13. Parkes, C. M. (2001). A historical overview of the scientific study of bereavement. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
  14. Schoka, T. E., Hayslip, B. Jr., Kaminski, P. L, & York, C. (2003). Relationships between grief and family system characteristics: A cross-lagged longitudinal analysis. Death Studies27, 575-601.
  15. Shapiro, E. R. (2001). Grief in interpersonal perspective: Theories and their implications. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.