Meaning Making and Coping: Making Sense of Death

By Marcu, Oana | Cognitie, Creier, Comportament, June 2007 | Go to article overview
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Meaning Making and Coping: Making Sense of Death

Marcu, Oana, Cognitie, Creier, Comportament


Meaning making processes are crucial for finding coherence when confronting disruptive life events. This study explored the meaning making processes and the coping strategies that people use in order to adjust to the death of a loved one. In order to gain understanding of these processes from the individual's point of view, I used interpretive phenomenological analysis, which resulted in identifying meaning making strategies, contents, ways of coping, social norms and beliefs and self and group change associated to loss. The results could be useful in developing an in-depth understanding and developing nonpathologizing counseling models for grief.

KEYWORDS: grief, meaning making, coping, phenomenological analysis.


Psychological aspects of end-of-life and grief are an important concern for health psychology and developmental psychology, both for counseling and exploratory purposes. From a biomedical perspective, death and end-of-life have been analyzed following an objectifying, quantitative perspective, followed by a subjectivist approach, out of which Kübler-Ross' qualitative studies are representative (Kübler-Ross, 1969). Social aspects of death and dying have also been of interest for research, as dying patients needed to be considered active actors of their life, not mere objects of medical practices (Feifel, 1990; Riper, 1995).

Some of the first psychological models of adjustment to dying and bereavement are stages and tasks models (Brammer 1981; Kavanaugh, 1972; Kübler-Ross, 1969; Parkes, 1972; Worden, 1982). These models, elaborated using qualitative research, suggest that adjustment to dying and loss is done by passing some universal stages or by accomplishing necessary tasks. The main assumptions of the task and stage models are that grief needs to be confronted and stages and tasks are necessary in order to solve grief. They suggest that there was an ideal path for adjustment to loss by confronting it, and actively, continuously and putting an effort for adjusting to it emotionally. Although these models have been particularly useful in developing interventions, the main critics are the lack of trans-cultural validity, omission of the social aspects of adjustment, and stages and tasks being prescriptive for experiencing dying or loss (Riper, 1995; Stroebe & Shut, 1999).

The current approaches in bereavement and death emphasize: a) passing from universal models to idiographic approaches; b) extensive use of qualitative research; c) introducing concepts such as meaning making, positive re-appraisal, and identity rebuilding; d) adopting non-pathologizing, change models; e) developing explicitly narrative models of bereavement (Neymeier, 2001).

In light of these theoretical outlines, the study aims to explore the processes involved in grieving from the meaning making perspective, and to offer a non-pathologizing description of the cognitive strategies that adults use for coping with loss.

1. Meaning making

Meaning making is the process of (re-)construction of schemes and representations, so that the feeling of order, coherence is reestablished. These representations comprise the perspectives that a person has on the world and the self, the goals that the person wants to achieve and relevant events for these goals. In order to recover when experiencing a disruptive life event, the person initiates, both consciously and unconsciously, a search for meaning. This search takes place both at individual and group level (Thompson & Jungian, 1988, apud. Nadeau, 1998). Such meanings are strongly connected to cultural values and beliefs and to the social context in which meaning-making takes place. As Shin, Cho, and Kim (2005) show in their ethnographical study of death meanings in a Korean clan, cultural values such as hierarchy, reciprocity and collectivity influence meaning making and are crucial to understanding these processes.

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