Does Life Have Meaning After Trauma?
By Michele Rosenthal
Juliette is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. Today, she is in her late-30s with a husband and children of her own. In the past few years she’s experienced a descent into dark depression, lack of motivation for even the most simple of tasks, and a deepening sense that her life has absolutely no meaning or purpose.“What meaning can life have,” she asked me, “If such horrible things can happen to such innocent people?”
Juliette brings up a good question. Finding meaning in life can be extremely difficult after trauma. None of us deserves to suffer, so how do we make peace with the fact that we do?
In the early stages of my post-trauma life I struggled with this question all the time: I was thirteen years old, had an idyllic family and childhood and found my world devastated from the weeks of pain and panic I experienced during my trauma. When I was finally released from the hospital and told to resume my ‘normal’ life the idea of that seemed preposterous. What was ‘normal’ before my trauma seemed unattainable afterward, especially given the fact that my trauma had taught me that life can go horribly, utterly wrong in an instant and there’s nothing you can do about it.
For many years I mulled over the idea of how to find meaning either in my present life or in my traumatic past. However, we can’t always (ever) find that reconnection to meaning when our worldview has been challenged or shattered. It makes absolute sense that we might deny meaning altogether as we struggle to rebuild a life that makes sense.
In our session, I shared with Juliette what I learned on my own journey: It took me many years to discover the truth about meaning and the truth is meaning isn’t something bestowed upon your life, it’s something you create.
Technically meaning is the ‘significance of something’. The significance of something, the weight of it, the place of importance it holds in your life, is a value only you can ascribe to it. Your beliefs, ideals, desires and intentions form a value system that allows you to assess the meaning of an event, experience, object or person. The benefit of this? You and you alone are in control of the meaning in your past, present and future.
You and you alone are in control of giving your life meaning, or taking it away. While trauma can challenge the meaning, it can only do just that. When trauma challenges the meaning of your life you have the choice to respond: (re)define the meaning and so (re)claim your life, or let the trauma win.
It took me over twenty-five years to learn all of this, and then another few years to put it into practice. Juliette is at the beginning of the process of making the choice. How do you put meaning into your life after trauma?