Committee for Children Blog

How to Make Meaning After Traumatic Events


I’ve been thinking of Viktor Frankl. Some of you might know him as a psychiatrist and author, most famously of the book Man’s Search for Meaning. You may or may not know that Dr. Frankl was a concentration camp survivor and lost much of his immediate family to Nazi concentration camps. Man’s Search for Meaning is about his experience and the experience of other survivors. After his release, Dr. Frankl spent the remainder of his career developing what’s called “existential psychology,” which is about how we, as humans, make sense of our roles in the world, particularly amid struggle, hardship, and crisis.

Meaning-making is how we construe, understand, and make sense of life events. It is often thought of as the last stage of recovery from trauma. It is the process by which we integrate events into our core beliefs and worldviews, the process by which we answer questions such as “How did this happen?” “What’s the point?” “What do I do now?” “What is my role in all this?” It is important for both adults and children – when your children and students ask you questions about what’s happening and why, they are engaging in their own meaning-making process.

Meaning-making is critical not just for our recovery but for our growth.

Although we’ve all heard the word “unprecedented” plenty this year, it really is true that many of the things that happened in 2020 and the first week of 2021 were the first of their kind in my lifetime. I imagine this is true for many of you. As a human race, we grappled with a novel virus that spiraled into a global pandemic. In the U.S., we saw startling political division and a reckoning of systemic inequities. Many of us suffered losses, both personal and financial. As for myself, I was more challenged mentally, socially, psychologically, and emotionally than I had ever been before.

In his research on concentration camp survivors, Dr. Frankl found that people made meaning in three ways:

  1. Purposeful work
  2. Love, connection, and relationships
  3. Finding strength in the face of adversity

For the rest of his life, Dr. Frankl made meaning of his unfathomable experience by focusing on his purpose in life. He has said:

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

Viktor E. Frankl

That’s what I would like us to do now, to find our own meaning in the current chaos.

Acknowledge What Happened

The first step in meaning-making is to acknowledge what’s happened and how it’s impacted us. Take a look at the emotion wheel below. What emotions come up for you when you think about the last 12 months?

Personal Reflection

Next, read the below and decide which one(s) apply to you. Select all that apply.

As hard as these last 12 months have been, the events reminded me or helped me to:

[   ] Realize what’s most important in my life.

[   ] Realize a strength, skill, or resource I didn’t know I had.

[   ] Develop new skills, strengths, and resources.

Now, expand on your answer in more detail. What is it that’s truly important to you? What’s the strength you developed or connected with? Who or what helped you to cope?

Looking Ahead

The final step is looking forward. I’d like you to ask yourself this question: What is ONE thing you will do differently based on what you learned?

Viktor Frankl’s story humbles me because it reminds me that, even though this is a first in my lifetime, it is not the first time humanity has been challenged. And that helps me tap into the strength and resilience that connects us all with each other and with the humans who have survived—and thrived—in the past.

Together, let’s rediscover our sense of hope and purpose and recommit to doing what needs to be done.

Winter Well-Being videos will pick back up with Week 7: Listening to Understand on Monday, January 18 on Committee for Children’s YouTube playlist here.