I believe it is often essential to find meaning in suffering before you can move past it. When I say this to people, their typical response is, "How am I supposed to do that?" There is no universal answer to that question. Still, I believe it is vital for a person who is suffering to find a satisfactory answer before he or she can move beyond his or her pain.
A lot of my patients are people who have experienced some sort of trauma. Some of these patients are able to "recover" from the symptoms caused by their trauma (or traumas); some patients are not. Some patients seem to fall into despair. One thing I've noticed about those who fall into despair is that they often view their suffering as meaningless. When they look back on the trauma and consider the pain they have endured and how much they have struggled as a result they conclude that they are somehow being punished or that they are irrevocably damaged. They say to themselves, "All of this pain, all of this suffering, and for what? For nothing!"
So how can a person grow from his struggles? How can he look at a terrible experience and see a silver lining? Again, every person must answer this question for himself. Still, there are some common "categories of meaning-making." These "domains" were developed after an extensive review of the research on posttraumatic growth and were ultimately incorporated into something called the Posttraumatic Growth Inventory (Tedeschi & Calhoun, 1996). They are:
1. An increased appreciation for life (especially its simple pleasures) and a change in priorities: I've heard survivors of potentially terminal illnesses (like cancer) talk about appreciating a sunset for the first time. Minor irritations and petty squabbles no longer seem important. Time with family and friends seems more precious and is therefore appreciated more.
2. Closer, more intimate relationships with others: People might rally around a person who has experienced a trauma, offering love and support; this can lead to closer relationships with these people. In addition, people who have had similar traumatic experiences (e.g., rape victims, children of alcoholic parents, bereaved parents, etc.) often find particular comfort from one another. This can lead to a whole new network of mutually supportive relationships based on common past experiences.
3. A greater sense of personal strength: After surviving a trauma, a person might conclude, "If I can survive that, I can survive anything!" You can't really know how strong you are until you are faced with a situation that forces you to tap into your inner strength. You might find that you are stronger in a crisis than you thought you would be.
4. Recognition of new possibilities or paths for one's life: Sometimes an event changes a person's life so completely that he is forced to change paths. In his quest to renegotiate his goals for the future, a person might find himself considering possibilities that had never before come to mind.
5. Spiritual development: Perhaps you've heard the saying, "There are no atheists in foxholes." People often look to a higher power when confronted with a life or death situation. Sometimes, when faced with his own mortality, a person begins to seriously consider some of life's existential questions. This in and of itself can be a profoundly spiritual process.
Just some things to consider...