How to make meaning in aftermath of Pittsburgh and other violent acts

As the last of the funerals were held for the 11 people gunned down at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, many of the survivors, their loved ones and the world are left with terribly heavy hearts. How do we emotionally digest such hatred and tremendous loss of life? How do we make sense out of something so senseless?

As a trauma psychologist, let me say there is no single formula for recovery from traumatic events. But creating meaning and finding a coherent narrative is often very positive adaptive psychological response.

For many of us, trauma shatters our basic assumptions. The slaughtering of innocent people, be it in a place of worship, a school, a nightclub or a concert, violates our sense that the world is a good and safe place. We wonder how some people in our world have become, not only unhinged, but venomous and vile. In an attempt to make sense out of extremely stressful and traumatic events, some people find that finding or creating meaning or purpose helps them transcend the pain. Meaning-making goes beyond a surface understanding of the facts. It is a concerted attempt to process and resolve violations by restoring a sense that the world is meaningful and life worthwhile. ​It involves people reappraising their experiences and looking for opportunities to learn and grow. For some, meaning-making is a core coping mechanism, a salve to the aching soul.

Viktor Frankl’s gift to the world

Dr. Viktor Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist, was a prisoner in four different German concentration camps, including Auschwitz and Dachau, during World War II. His parents, brother and wife were all killed in the camps. Frankl witnessed people being sent to the crematoriums. He watched fellow prisoners descend from denial to apathy. How did Frankl and others like him work through their traumas and transcend such historic and mass violent loss?

Viktor Frankl in a 1995 photo. The renowned psychiatrist died Sept. 2, 1997. Ronald Zak/AP Photo
Frankl’s survival strategy in the face of such prolonged and severe trauma was to try to help his fellow prisoners re-establish their own psychological health. In 1946, he wrote a book titled “Man’s Search for Meaning,” describing his concentration camp experiences as well as a new type of therapy.

In this piece of survival literature, Frankl argued that even when an individual is transgressed upon in the most vicious and evil of ways, they must make a choice to search for value and meaning and move forward with renewed purpose. By the time of Frankl’s death in 1997, “Man’s Search for Meaning” had become incredibly influential – having sold more than 10 million copies in 24 languages.

Curbing the pain as best as possible

Extensive research has taken place on the concept of meaning-making after a wide variety of traumatic experiences and stressful events. In an examination of how 133 older adult Holocaust survivors dealt with their trauma, many reported that even while they were still imprisoned, they kept hope alive by believing in liberation, trying to envision the positives the future might hold, and cultivating constructive attitudes, such as gratitude. Post-captivity, these survivors empowered themselves by taking moral stands to fight oppression and hatred where they could.

In general, when a person is successful in meaning-making, he or she often experiences less emotional distress. But, meaning-making takes effort and is multifaceted. And, whether it’s necessary or adaptive depends on a number of factors. The meaning-making process typically occurs in one of three ways: searching for and finding meaning; searching for and never finding meaning; and never searching for meaning.