Finding Meaning in Life Following Violent Loss

Some days I worm my way out of bed thinking, why bother? Ultimately, we die. Everyone. We’re all dead. So what’s the point? Why don’t we humans do Planet Earth a gigantic favor and take ourselves out? All of us. And let Nature run its course without our destructive intervention.

Monty Python - The Meaning of LifeExcept, I know I won’t take myself out (and most of you won’t either). Been there, didn’t do it.

So, what to do? Suffer until death do us part? Watch the Monty Python movie over and over and over in a never-ending cycle, as if living out a comedy skit? Become itinerant galactic hitchhiker #42? Or make the most of the little time spent on this speck of cosmic dust spinning through the universe?

I’m not alone in this navel gazing. It’s an age-old question: What is the meaning of life?

Hitcher's Guide to the Galaxy - Douglas AdamsThing is, it’s the wrong question. Life, like a sack of flour, has no inherent meaning—we struggle to survive long enough to procreate, and our offspring adapt or perish.

So, the question should not be: What is the meaning of life? It should be: How does one put meaning in life?

How does one make life meaningful? How does one turn that sack of flour into a tasty pastry to be savored to the last morsel, even when encountering seemingly insurmountable obstacles, such as grieving over the murder of a loved one? How does one turn that grief and rage into a force for doing good? How does one die a “good death,” as described by psychologist Erik Erikson?

This I have concluded: Life has meaning only when we give it purpose.

Certainly, wiser folks than I have pondered the mysteries of life and come to their own conclusions—not the least of which are the Monty Python troupe and Douglas Adams. But to fully appreciate one’s conclusion, it needs to be experienced, to be internalized, not merely heard or read about.

A recent op/ed piece in the Los Angeles Times got me on this track again, and I began to experience that understanding. Internalization did not come immediately. That required re-reading the piece, written by Erika Hayasaki, whose best friend was murdered when they were both 16 years old.

As a fellow survivor of violent loss, I found her op/ed—“In death, the meaning of life” (January 12, 2014)—uplifting despite its morbid topic. Hayasaki, the author of The Death Class: A True Story About Life, offers the term “generativity,” coined by Erikson to describe what we give back to the world, what we create and leave behind. This gives life purpose, thus meaning.

Survivors of violent loss struggle every day with finding meaning in life. Some days are better than others. Some days we discover sparks of joy and fulfillment. Other days a “trigger”—a sight, a sound, a smell—sworls us back into that black hole of anguish and despair. On one of those trigger days, Hayasaki’s words helped me acknowledge and address my ongoing anger over the injustice of my parents’ violent deaths and see that I can find meaning in life.

Toward that end, I am editing and publishing a new book, Murder Survivor’s Handbook, by Connie Saindon, a marriage and family therapist who specializes in traumatic grief and complicated bereavement.

In the book’s final chapter, “Remembering and Missions,” Saindon addresses the concept of a “survivor’s mission,” the things a survivor does to give purpose to his or her life in the aftermath of a violent death. She says that losing a loved one to violence compels many to engage in a mission to make changes, to make a difference.

For Saindon, whose sister Tiny was murdered, that meant volunteering to do crisis intervention with the San Diego Police Department, which led to her founding the nonprofit Survivors of Violent Loss Program to “foster resiliency in the service of reducing symptoms and rebuilding lives.”

Deborah Spungen, author of And I Don’t Want to Live This Life and Homicide: The Hidden Victims, A Resource for Professionals, founded the Philadelphia chapter of Parents of Murdered Children after her daughter Nancy was murdered.

Dayna Herroz, following the murders of her daughter and grandson, has become the program coordinator for SVLP and serves as a victim’s advocate in association with the San Diego district attorney’s office.

Sam and Joyce Knott, after the murder of their daughter Cara, created what is now the San Diego Crime Victims’ Oak Garden near where Cara’s body was found.

Through writing Dare I Call It Murder?: A Memoir of Violent Loss and working with Saindon on her book I found purpose in my life. I also play fiddle in Emma’s Gutbucket Band, which raises money to support school music programs and buy instruments for students and veterans.

As I stop searching for the meaning of life and instead put meaning in life, I find the concepts laid out by Erika Hayasaki and Connie Saindon comforting and inspirational. I hope others will too.

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About Polishing Your Prose

Larry M Edwards is an award-winning investigative journalist, author, editor and publishing consultant. He is the author of three books, and has edited dozens of nonfiction and fiction book manuscripts. Under Wigeon Publishing, he has produced six books. As author, "Dare I Call It Murder? A Memoir of Violent Loss" won First Place in the San Diego Book Awards in 2012 (unpublished memoir) and 2014, Best Published Memoir. The book has also been nominated for a number of awards, including: Pulitzer Prize, Benjamin Franklin Award, Washington State Book Award, and One Book, One San Diego. As Editor, "Murder Survivor’s Handbook: Real-Life Stories, Tips & Resources" won the Gold Award in the 2015 Benjamin Franklin Book Awards, Self-Help. For a sample edit and cost estimate, contact Larry: larry [at] larryedwards [dot] com -- www.larryedwards.com -- www.dareicallitmurder.com -- www.wigeonpublishing.com
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