Meaning Making

The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast with Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

Music Credits: The Lawrence Collins Band, with their cover of You Can’t Always Get What You Want.

MEANING MAKING THROUGH ADVERSITY

In my work as a therapist I often find myself reflecting on what a mixed bag life is. There are moments of truth and beauty, of unconditional love and generosity, of truly noble selflessness and courage. And there are times when life smashes you to bits. 

What has been very interesting to me over the years is to observe (and, frankly, live) both of those things simultaneously: That in the darkness of devastation and ruin, those small lights of hope, growth and true goodness are often found. In fact, it is often true that going through something truly awful can stimulate growth and transformational meaning in a uniquely powerful way. 

For the record, absolutely no one wants tragedy, loss and grief to be their “path of growth.”Yet, when adversity strikes, as it does to us all, eventually, it is what we have left. The seeds of both consolation and of new hope and growth are left for us, in the rubble. But we have to find them. 

Meaning Making To Cultivate Healing

How we find hope begins with meaning making: Shaping a new story for ourselves allows light to start breaking through the darkness, and becomes a beacon leading us forward.

When you’re sitting in the rubble of devastation, having lost a loved one, after a traumatic breakup or divorce, after a job loss, or coping with a health crisis, it can feel impossible to even think about how to move on when your life is falling apart. It feels like your life is over. And in some ways, it is. Your life, as it was, is no more. How do you go on? How can you possibly reconnect with the goodness of life? Or even with hope?

If this experience is striking a chord within you, I’d like you to know that there is hope — even if it doesn’t feel like it right now. In fact, there is an ocean of hope, healing and personal growth for you. It becomes available to you when you allow yourself to begin to make meaning. When we can find the “why” and allow ourselves to be comforted by them, healing begins. 

Post Traumatic Growth

Amazingly, through the act of meaning making and healing, many people arrive at a point where they find that their lives have been transformed in astoundingly positive ways. Not in spite of their adversity — but because of it. 

Clinically, this is referred to as “post traumatic growth,” and it is very real. It can take many forms: for some it’s a new appreciation and gratitude for the remaining opportunities in their life, for others, it takes the form of deeper and more meaningful relationships, a new friendship community, a new career path, or a newfound understanding of their own emotional strength and why they matter. Yet others experience meaningful growth in their spirituality, are able to find forgiveness for themselves or forgive others, or discover a purpose in life that they didn’t have before. Some people even experience what they consider to be miracles. Powerful stuff.

The possibilities are endless, but the path itself is hard. Very hard. One of the things that can help you through this is connecting with other people who have gone through similar circumstances. Others have passed through the dark night of hopelessness and despair, and in doing so, found their “guiding light” and followed it forward. You can too.

Meaning Making Podcast

On this episode of the Love, Happiness and Success Podcast we’re sharing stories of meaning making through adversity, and how you can find yours. My very special guest today is Jennifer Sands, an author, speaker and 9/11 widow. 

She lived through her worst nightmare when her husband was killed in the attack on the Twin Towers twenty years ago. She knows a lot about what it feels like to have everything ripped away, and yet somehow, start anew even when life as we know it comes crashing down. She and I went in-depth about meaning making and the purpose of suffering, and how we can use our pain to help others.

If you, or someone you love, is currently struggling to find a light during dark times in order to heal, grow, and eventually, become a light in the life of others, I sincerely hope that you listen to this episode. You’ll hear Jennifer’s inspiring story (and I get really personal about my own), and through it all we’ll be talking about how to cultivate post traumatic growth, find meaning in tragedy, and ultimately, be a light to others.

Show notes are below, and you can find the whole transcript at the bottom of this post. I hope that this discussion helps you, if you’re feeling lost right now. If this post makes you think of someone you love who is suffering, do share this post with them. 

Wishing you love, hope and healing, 

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby and Jennifer Sands

P.S. Be the messenger. Jennifer and I both talked about the things that helped us make meaning and find “the light” in the darkness. For both of us, a well-timed message from a stranger was transformational.

If you, personally, have done some of this hard-won work and have a message that someone else might really need to hear, I hope you share it. If you’re thinking about sending someone a note, please do. Otherwise, please share any ideas that brought you hope, comfort, and meaning making so that they may benefit one of our fellow travelers who needs to hear it right now in the comments  section of this post. 

Specifically:

  • What meaning have you made from your hard life experiences?
  • What gave you strength during those times?
  • What helped you grow?
  • What was the first glimmer of hope after your grieving process?
  • What is your life like on the other side?

I hope you share your story! — xo, LMB 

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Meaning Making

The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast with Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

Music Credits: The Lawrence Collins Band, with their cover of You Can’t Always Get What You Want.

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Meaning Making: Podcast Episode Highlights

Jennifer’s 9/11 Story

Twenty years ago, Jennifer’s husband Jimmy worked as a software engineer in the Tower 1 of the World Trade Center. The morning of September 11, 2001, Jennifer bid Jimmy goodbye and said a prayer for his safety as usual.

At 8:46 AM, the first plane hit Tower 1. Jennifer heard the news just a few minutes later. And at 10:29 AM, the building collapsed. 

At that very moment, life as I knew it was over. My whole world came crashing down with those towers and I was left with a broken heart and broken dreams and a broken faith.”

However, Jennifer’s story did not end here. She was able to find life after loss

She reminds us: “Whatever you're going through, it might seem hopeless, it might seem like a dead-end street, but it doesn't have to be.”

Contrary to popular belief, living through a traumatic experience can lead to growth. You can:

Meaning Making through Spirituality

For some, trauma can lead them to undergo a spiritual change. This transformation is what happened to Jennifer. 

Before 9/11, she did not consider herself to be spiritual at all. She did pray to God, but her view of Him was superficial and short-sighted. She admits: “I never really analyzed my relationship with God until it appeared that God had failed me.

Jennifer’s anger and bitterness towards God eventually turned to hope, peace, and trust. But the process didn’t happen overnight. 

One Christmas, a Salvation Army man handed her a card with a Bible verse. It read: “I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord. Plans to give you hope and a future.”

After that incident, Jennifer started to read the Scripture. She realized that she can live the rest of her life without Jim, but not without Jesus. This realization opened up a new world and life for her where she found peace and growth.

If you are in the depths of your despair, you may find it hard to believe that a time for healing will come. However, most people who are now on the other side feel grateful for how their experiences changed them for the better.

Meaning Making and Life Purpose 

Carlos Castañeda wrote: “Death is the only wise advisor that we have. Whenever you feel, as you always do, that everything is going wrong and you're about to be annihilated, turn to your death and ask if that is so. Your death will tell you that you're wrong; that nothing really matters outside its touch. Your death will tell you: I haven't touched you yet.”

The brevity of life reminds us to think very carefully about what we want to do and where we want to invest our time and energy. 

If you were to die tomorrow, what would you want to have done?

Meaning Making After Loss

I lost my mother to COVID-19 last year. On the day of her mom’s funeral, I received a message from a listener named Barb that helped me deal with my loss. It said: 

“A person who truly chooses to be of real help and service to the people they can minister best to, and offers to do it for free or very little charge is truly a blessing and a gift to all they help.” 

It was like was magic. Barb did not know about my mom and how giving she was, yet she was able to deliver the perfect message at the perfect time.  

Service was the meaning I found from my mom’s passing, which is only one way of meaning making after loss.

Using Our Pain to Help Others

Jennifer believes that our hardships “equip us to encourage and support other people who are going through similar situations.”

Here are just some examples: 

  • Jennifer now ministers to widows, whose experiences she acutely understands. 
  • For me, I drew from my horrible break-up at age 16 to write my book Exaholics and guide others in their break-up recovery.

Truly, suffering has meaning and purpose. Often, the most powerful way of meaning making is asking “How can we use this to help others?’

We All Have a Choice

We can’t rush the process of healing. Know that you can take your time and show yourself some compassion as you work through your pain. 

However, we must choose at some point whether we want to stay miserable or find meaning in our suffering.

Another quote from Carlos Castañeda proves wise in this regard: “We either make ourselves miserable or we make ourselves strong and the amount of work is the same in either direction.” 

Jennifer is a testament to this. She used to dread waking up and facing another day without Jimmy. However, with the help of God and the people he used to steer her in the right direction, she was able to move forward and find meaning.

She says: “You can stay in bed all day and you can be miserable or you can get out of bed and see what God has planned for you, or what will come to you that day.

Finding the Message or Being the Messenger

Sometimes, we need a pinprick of light to urge us to move forward from a dark place. For Jennifer, it was the card for the Salvation Army man. For me, it was Barb’s email.

We have to be on the lookout for these signs that are knocking on our doors. 

Alternatively, you can be the messenger for others. 

I want to invite you to share your stories about the things that happened after you experienced hardships in your life. Here’s what I would like to know:

  • What meaning have you made from your hard life experiences?
  • What gave you strength during those times?
  • What helped you grow?
  • What was the first glimmer of hope after your grieving process?
  • What was your life like on the other side?

If you are willing to share these with our community, leave your thoughts in the comments below! 

Some people in our community are lost in the darkness. So, let’s all light little candles and hold them up for them until they can begin their process of meaning making and move forward, too.

Resources

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Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby: This is Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby and you're listening to The Love, Happiness, and Success podcast. Anyone who's been around this rodeo known as life a time or three knows well that things don't always work out the way that you want them to. Sometimes, truly horrible and traumatic things can happen even to very good people. We are then left in the aftermath, trying to put ourselves back together again and make sense of what happened and somehow find our way forward.

Today's episode is devoted to your healing and growth. We're going to be talking about how to use one of the most powerful and healing tools any of us have available which is meaning-making in the face of adversity. This one is for you if you are currently struggling. If you are going through a breakup or a divorce, or perhaps you've just lost someone close to you as so many people have in this, the plague years that we're living through.

But perhaps more broadly. Perhaps you've lost a dream or your health or a job. When any of us lose the most precious and important things in our lives, it is so overwhelming and it is so painful and you don't even know what to do sometimes when you're in the midst of us. In these moments, this is when finding our way towards meaning-making can be the path out. It is a light in the darkness and sometimes, it's a small light. Sometimes, this is this tiny little birthday candlelight that helps to put one foot in front of the other and just basically keep breathing. Sometimes, that's all we have and sometimes though, that light can turn into something very powerful like a lighthouse that leads you.

Sometimes, even in a completely different direction. But growth and healing happen when slowly and eventually, we do find meaning and adversity and start putting the pieces back together again. Not just emotionally, but psychologically. If you are in the thick of things right now, I want to say out loud, you do not have to rush this process. It is absolutely okay to just be devastated and broken and you do not have to make meaning immediately. It's alright just be sad and at some point, the path forward is through piecing together a story. The way we accomplish this, the psychological path of healing is through the construction of meaning.

On today's episode, we're going to be talking about how to do that for your benefit. If you're like so many who have lived through some of the hard things that I've talked about, I actually have a very special show planned for you today. Because I have actually been marinating on this particular episode for quite a while and I wanted to tie it in with an important anniversary. An important anniversary for all of us which is the 20th anniversary, believe it or not, of the 9/11 tragedy.

As you well know, that was a day that so many hopes were crashed and lives collapsed along with those planes and the towers that day. It ended lives. It started the war. It was incredibly traumatic and for many, many people. Particularly of my own generation who were 20 somethings at that time who was trying to figure things out and figure out what to do with our lives, for many of us, that day, that moment in history was galvanizing. As horrifying and tragic as it was and is. It also generated a lot of meaning. It kind of forced us into making meaning to reflect on our life path, our career path. It brought our values into a very sharp focus and at that time, many paths were altered including my own.

I am sitting here today with you, Dr. Lisa now, 20 years later making this podcast and sharing these things with you. I am now in the role of a helper because of what I experienced on 911. It is the reason that I said, “Wait a minute. What am I doing with my life?” I went to counseling school and I wanted to do something more meaningful and constructive because on that day, my cousin Jimmy was sitting at his desk in the office of Cantor Fitzgerald. Which as you may recall was one of the top floors of One World Trade Center. The floors just above where that first plane crashed into the building. He died that day as so many did and it was horrifying and terrifying.

It also slapped me awake and helped me create some important meaning that I might not have had otherwise and it launched me on a different trajectory and an incredibly meaningful personal growth process. Here we are today thanks in part to the terrible events of that day. That happened not just for me, of course. It happened to many. Thousands of families and individuals had their worst nightmare come true that day and were left in the destruction to put themselves back together again and to make meaning and they did. Not just did they heal, but beautiful things grew out of this rubble. There is much to be learned from the wisdom of these thrivers, not survivors. They are thrivers. Some of them became activists, some of them found meaning in spiritual growth, so others found meanings through service or creativity or generativity more.

One incredibly inspiring person who exemplifies the power of meaning-making on the path of healing is Jennifer Sands. Jennifer is the author of three books including A Tempered Faith, as well as an inspirational speaker who has spoken to many many thousands of people, touched their hearts. She is here today to speak with you. This is a very personal interview because I should share that Jennifer is also my cousin-in-law. Jennifer is Jimmy's widow. She is a true expert on how to use the power of meaning-making to heal in the aftermath of a tragedy. Today, I'm just so excited to have her finally, after all these years on the show. It's time to tell her story and talk about how we can all make transformational meaning to pull us through. Jennifer, thank you so much for being here.

Jennifer Sands: Thank you, Lisa, for inviting me. I'm so thrilled and honored to share my story with your listeners.

Dr. Lisa: Well, it's a long time coming. Then, so maybe we can just start there. I'm wondering if we could begin with, if you're comfortable with it, just sharing your story and your perspective of what happened that day and how it impacted you.

Jennifer’s 9/11 Story

Jennifer: Yeah. It's 20 years later and even now, I still feel like I got punched in the stomach when I think about the details of that day. Back then, no one ever would have convinced me that I would ever recover from it. No one would have convinced me that I would ever laugh again or smile again. I never would have believed anything good could ever come out of it but I've learned a lot since then. I've learned that God can bring blessings from brokenness. He can bring triumphs from tragedy. He can bring meaning from madness and that's my story. I'd like to share some of that with your listeners. I really hope that it will encourage them and inspire them and help them to see that when something terrible happens, traumatic happens, but not even anything to the scale of 9/11, but even the little stuff, God can still bring something good out of that if we look to Him and if we trust him.

My story takes a long time to tell but I'm going to condense it for you so that you can just get the basics down. First of all, you know that Jimmy and I grew up in New Jersey. We lived in the same neighborhood and lived just a few blocks away from each other for 30 something years but we never knew each other. Never even met until a dating service set us up on a blind date. This is back in 1995 so it's long before eHarmony and match.com. This was like an old-fashioned dating service where a real live person actually matched people up.

Dr. Lisa: Oh I was gonna say the algorithm knew but it was actually a human.

Jennifer: The truth is it cost an obscene amount of money to do this when we could have just walked down the street and introduced ourselves to each other. It was really pretty funny but the first day was love at first sight and we were married very soon after that. We were only married for five years. We did not have any children but we were madly in love and we just looked forward to a long life together. We were both scuba divers and Jim was also a very gifted underwater photographer, as you know.

Back then, I was working full-time in a pharmacy. I'm a pharmacist and Jim was a computer software engineer. As you mentioned, he worked for Cantor Fitzgerald. His office was on the 103rd floor of Tower 1, the North Tower. We live in New Jersey and his job was in New York. That's a two-hour commute so he would spend two hours there and two hours back so four hours a day spent traveling which was brutal for him. Because he was on the road so much, I was worried about him. Because I'm worried about everything. His car breaking down, car accidents. I worried about everything.

Every morning, when Jim left for work, I prayed for God to keep him safe. I did indeed pray that morning of 9/11. It was six o'clock in the morning and Jim left for work and I prayed for his safety. Then, 8:46 AM is when the first plane hit the first tower. That was Jim's tower. Around nine o'clock in the morning, I called the pharmacy to check in with them. I had off that day but I had left some things from the night before, working the night before. I just wanted to see if they had any questions and that's when I was told that a plane had just hit Tower 1.

I couldn't believe what I heard and then I turned on the television. Just like everybody else, I couldn't believe what I saw. It was like the end of the world. It was the end of my world and I remember frantically trying to get in touch with him. I was calling his cellphone, his pager. Back then they had pagers. His office phone and I could not get through to him and as far as I know, he was unable to… Well, I never got a call from him. I don't know if he was trying to call me but then, 10:29 AM is when Tower 1 collapsed. That's when I knew it was over. I knew he never could have gotten out of the building I knew he couldn't have survived it. At that very moment, life as I knew it was over. My whole world came crashing down with those towers and I was left with a broken heart and broken dreams and a broken faith.

But fortunately, my story does not end there. I hope that your listeners will realize that whatever they're going through right now, their story does not have to end there. Whatever you're going through, it might seem hopeless, it might seem like a dead-end street, but it doesn't have to be.

Dr. Lisa: That's good to know. Also, that is actually what it feels like and I'm glad that you're talking about that. I think you said the words like, “There is nothing else like this. I am broken. I am done. There is nothing. It's so devastating that it's impossible to imagine that there is anything on the other side.” I think people listening to this right now who are like, “Yes. I understand what that feels like. It's just impossible.”

Just as an aside, so I know, and what we have talked about on this podcast before, is the idea of post-traumatic growth. I think we always think of trauma as being this flattened view like a pancake and you never get up again. That is actually not the experience for a lot of people. Living through something really traumatic does actually lead to growth eventually on the other side if you do productive things with it. That growth can happen in a lot of different ways. For some people, it's an appreciation of life, or reinvesting in your relationships with others or new possibilities or career change, connecting with personal strength. These things are hard-won. They don't happen overnight.

But another really common factor in this is oftentimes a spiritual change. I just wanted to mention this because the listeners of my podcast might be like, “What are we talking about today?” Because typically, just as a counselor, I don't ever want to impose ideas about beliefs or religion on people because I feel that it's up for all of us to decide our own path and I have respect for many different belief systems. But because it is such a central part of your story, and also as a counselor, as a therapist, I think that connecting with some kind of belief system or faith is often such a big part of meaning-making. I really did want to dive into this deeply today.

One of my questions for you is were you a very spiritual person prior to living through what you did with Jim? Because I heard in your story that you had been praying for him. Was that there before?

Meaning Making through Spirituality

Jennifer: I would not consider myself to be spiritual at all. I would not even consider myself to be a Christian back then. I did pray to God every morning but my knowledge of God was so superficial and so short-sighted. To me, God was really no more than like Santa Claus. Don't be naughty, just be nice and he'll give you whatever you ask for. I've thought that since I'm a good person, I can ask for Jim's safety every morning and God will just keep answering my prayers with a yes. “Yes, he'll be fine.” I would go to church occasionally but only when it was convenient for me. Again, I wouldn't call myself spiritual in that sense. I could care less about Jesus back then. I knew nothing about the Bible. Never owned a Bible, never read a Bible, had no interest in it, wanted nothing to do with Jesus.

That was the extent of my spiritual life before 9/11. It was basically just praying to God every morning and assuming mistakenly that He's always going to answer my prayers the way I want it answered. I always just thought that again, that if I'm a good person, then God will do what I want. That's just not how it works and I didn't understand that back then. Then, when 9/11 happened, keeping in mind that I prayed for God to keep him safe. When Jim didn't come home that day or any day after that, I was consumed with anger. But my anger was not directed at the terrorists.

Don't misunderstand because I'm certainly not defending them or minimizing what they did. We're not even gonna go there. That's a whole other conversation. The thing is I prayed to God every morning to please keep him safe so my anger was directed at God. I knew he didn't cause it to happen but he allowed it to happen so in my mind, it was his fault. Maybe some listeners can relate to that as well, being angry at God. Maybe that's something they're dealing with right now.

Dr. Lisa: Right. It's almost like a double trauma in a way, losing Jim but also, if your map of the world was that there's an omniscient, all-powerful God in charge, I can only imagine what a betrayal that must have felt like for you too. That was just sort of ripped away. How could it possibly have allowed that to happen?

Jennifer: In fact, one of the chapters in my first book is titled God, How Dare You? Like how dare you? Very arrogant but I think, like many people, I never really analyzed my relationship with God until it appeared that God had failed me. I think that a serious life crisis will determine how we respond to God. We can either become angry with him like I did at first or we can trust Him. We can either accuse Him like I did or we can trust Him. Something like 9/11 or just any serious life crisis, it can either make us turn away from God or it can draw us closer to him.

It was a fork in the road for me 20 years ago and as I stood at that fork in the road, God used many different people to steer me in the right direction. Some of these people had been in my life all along like my family and my friends. Other people just came into my life for a fleeting moment, and then, they were gone and I never saw them again. Other people came into my life and have remained there but God really used all of them collectively in that first year after 9/11. He used them to support me, to encourage me, and to show me His love. To show me His love. Some of them helped me to realize that being angry with God was proof that I still believe there is a God. Otherwise, right?

Dr. Lisa: Yeah, exactly. It wouldn't have occurred to me to be angry with God because I don't share that sort of map of the world. But there was so much energy directed in that way.

Jennifer: Exactly. I realized that I can't be mad at someone who doesn't exist. Obviously, I'm missing a piece of the puzzle here because I believe He exists. I'm screaming at Him, I'm glaring at Him. All of these people really just helped me to be more open-minded and they really helped me to understand things that I didn't understand before. I started reading the Bible. That really helped me a lot. My anger and the bitterness, all of that eventually turned into hope and peace and trust and it didn't overnight. It was a process. It took over a year for it to happen, but it happened. I have dozens of stories that I can tell you but we don't have time for any of them. I can tell you one in particular that I think did make an impact on my life.

This is one that I would say is an example of someone that God just kind of put in my life for a fleeting moment and then never saw again. It was Christmas. It was a few weeks before Christmas of 2001. That was torture because that was the first Christmas without Jim. Somehow, I found the strength to go Christmas shopping that year. Somehow, God knew that I needed to be in a particular store at a particular time so that I would pass a particular Salvation Army volunteer, those bell ringers. I put a dollar into his red kettle and he handed me a little card which I just stuffed in my pocket.

After that traumatic shopping experience, I just wanted to go home so I ran to my car, I got in, I slammed the door, and then I lost it. I just had a major meltdown in the car, sobbing uncontrollably because all of that anger, all of the bitterness, all of the emptiness and the despair and those questions without answers. Then seeing all of those happy women in the store shopping for Christmas presents for their husbands, that really pushed me over the edge. I went into my pocket for a tissue because I was still crying and I pulled out the card that the Salvation Army man had given me.

On it was a Bible verse and it's this. It said, “I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord. Plans to give you hope and a future. Jeremiah 29:11.” I had no idea who Jeremiah was back then. I didn't know he was a prophet from the Old Testament but those words “hope and a future” jumped out at me. I realized this must be something from the Bible but it felt to me like God had just broken the silence and spoken to me which he did through that card. I never saw that Salvation Army bell ringer again but God used him that day to steer me in the right direction.

Because of that Bible verse, I started reading the Bible and I really learned a lot. I learned a lot about God, I learned a lot about Jesus, I learned a lot about myself. To make a very long story short, there came a point in time when I realized that I really can live the rest of my life without Jim, but I cannot live the rest of my life without Jesus. That is when everything changed and that's when I really did find that peace and that growth and he just opened up a whole new world and a whole new life for me literally. A whole new life for me.

Dr. Lisa: That's such a beautiful story. I'm really hearing loud and clear the crux of the meaning in that is that, I hope this isn't oversimplifying it, but it's because of that experience, it really transformed your spirituality in a very powerful and meaningful way. You might not have had that had you not gone through this experience.

Jennifer: I don't think you're minimizing it at all. I think you nailed it. It was a transformation and I don't think that ever would have happened without it.

Dr. Lisa: That's the hard thing. There's a part of me that feels bad saying this but I think that for people who are in the depths of that despair, the thought that you and I know Jennifer is people who are now on the other side who can say, “You don't know this yet, but a time will come.” I have in my role as a therapist, so many times, more times than I can count. I've experienced this personally. It was like, “That was horrible. I would not wish that experience on my worst enemy.”

The fact that I lived through that, there's a part of me now that feels really grateful for this experience in some ways because these are the things that changed for me. This is what I learned. This is how I grew. This is how I evolved because of that but it almost feels cruel to say that out loud to somebody who's in the depth. Do you know what I mean? Like it's a disconnect. Like, “Someday you'll feel grateful for this experience.”

Jennifer: It doesn't make them feel better.

Dr. Lisa: That is not what anybody wants to hear right now.

Jennifer: But it's still true. It's just you can't deny the fact that it is true. We know tough times mold us and shape us and transform us. We don't want go through those tough times but that's how we develop and change and transform.

The Brevity of Life

Dr. Lisa: My relationship, obviously, to Jimmy and to 9/11 was extremely different than yours. Just in my very small role in his life but I think that there are many dimensions of meaning-making. Part of it is spirituality and I know for me, at that time, I was reading just a lot of different books. I had recently read one by Carlos Castaneda where he was talking a lot about how the presence of deaths in our lives can really heighten our awareness of what is positive and important in our lives and help us make decisions.

There's actually a quote that I wanted to pull out from this that I think was powerful for me at that time and helped me find the meaning in the experience. It's this: “Death is the only wise advisor that we have in some ways. Whenever you feel, as you always do, that everything is going wrong and you're about to be annihilated, turn to your death and ask if that is so. Your death will tell you that you're wrong, that nothing really matters outside its touch. Your death will tell you I haven't touched you yet.”

What I hear in that isn't even so much a spiritual component. It's this idea that there's an end. That there's a hard stop and you don't get more choices after that. To think very carefully about what we want to do and where we want to invest our time and energy and values. Because it doesn't, at least in this earthly existence that might go on afterwards, but that's always around the corner.

That seems sort of morbid in some ways but it was really very significant for me at the time because it's like, “What then gives life meaning and purpose? What can I do that's valuable?” Through that experience, coming to the meaning of being of service to other people and expressing my life in some ways in that way.

Jennifer: I totally agree that there are many lessons to be learned from 9/11 but one of them is truly the brevity of life. It's the brevity of life.

Dr. Lisa: The brevity of life and the suddenness. No one saw that coming. It's just over. If I could die tomorrow, what do I want to have done?

Jennifer: That was 9/11 but we see it now with COVID. We see it with anything. Life can change in the blink of an eye. You can be done here one minute and got here one minute and gone the next. Or your loved ones could be here one minute and gone the next so I believe exactly what you're saying. I totally agree with it. We need to make the most of our lives while we're here, while we're still here and still able to do this. Let's treat everyone as if today is their last day. Let's live our lives as if today is our last day because guess what? Inevitably, one day, it will be. That's a given. It's a given.

Like you said, life will go on somewhere after we leave this planet. Eternity, right? But while we're here, we need to make the most of it and I think what you said before, kindness and service. That's also important because we all have a purpose. I believe that God has a purpose and a plan for every one of us. He also gives us free will and choices to make. We don't have to follow his plan. We can follow our own plan but if we follow His, it will truly fulfill the meaning of life that He has planned for us which will be so much more fruitful and have so much more meaning than anything we could have ever designed for ourselves.

Being of Service to Others

Dr. Lisa: Okay, so let me ask you a question though. Because again, going back to this idea of making meaning. As you know, having lost my mom to COVID last year, that was… Nobody really saw that coming either. She wasn't one of those people who was on a ventilator for three weeks. She died of a blood clot on the way to the hospital. It was so sudden and unexpected. Having the shock and the trauma and having to change that story, right? Because the first story, and this is how we have to make meaning, the first story, honestly, and I'll tell you this. I felt like I killed my mom because I didn't realize that she was that sick.

It was all the second-guessing. Like, “What if I had taken her to the hospital? What if we had gotten her care sooner?” It's just this very painful story and having to shift that narrative and to find meaning in what happened which I did. Which was, “This was probably for the best.” It's terrible that she got COVID and that she died. I'm so sad that that happened but this was the way to go. That she was spared like prolonged suffering. Even after that, and I don't want to go into too much in the podcast, but there are so many other things that have lined up since then that would not have happened had that not been her exit ramp out of the world. I think it was actually supposed to happen at that time.

Can I tell you a story? Nanny. Okay, everybody who's listening. We called our grandmother on the Irish side Nanny. Jimmy's grandmother too. She had a statue of Mary that I had kept in my office where I had been broadcasting my podcast on. It was a day or two before my mom died that I came into my office and that statue had fallen off the shelf, totally randomly fallen off the shelf and it had smashed. It was really weird, Jennifer. I walked into my office and I was like, “What happened to that statue?” It was Nanny's statue and I felt very uneasy. I was like, “Jesus.” I tried to glue it back together. “What do I do with it?” But I swept it up and I put it in the trashcan. It was smashed to smithereens but I felt this weird sense of foreboding.

What else was interesting is that my mom's been kind of sick for a couple of days leading up to that and we weren't sure if she had COVID or not. But two days before she passed, she actually called an ambulance because she was having trouble breathing. They came to her house and they said, “You're not that sick. You're fine. You're okay.” Well, it's okay though because if she had gone to the hospital, Jennifer, she never would have come out again so there's that. But my mom had tried to call me that day and I didn't answer the phone because I was working and doing things and I was like, “I'll call her back later.” What happened instead is that she called her sister and they had the most beautiful bonding conversation. I talked to my mom about it later that evening.

They had talked for a long time and there had been some ups and downs in that relationship over the years but my mom was so happy when I talked to her that night. She was like, “I had the best conversation with my sister.” She said, “When I told my sister that the ambulance came, my sister cried and she said “Pat, I was so worried about you. I don't know what I would do if anything happened to you.” My mom said, “You know what? In that moment, I knew my sister loved me.” Everything that had happened, it was so beautiful. I remember talking to her and I was like, “Mom that's awesome. I'm so glad you had that moment with your sister.” Having no idea what was coming down the pipeline, Jennifer, just a couple days later.

Looking back after the fact and being able to make that meaning and that sense that there was closure, there were sort of signs that it was coming, helped me wrap my mind around this. Like, “No, it's okay. It's okay that it happened this way.” Because before, I had been totally blaming myself and beating myself up. Actually, I want to do a shout-out right now too and to let you know this too, Jennifer. That in that period, it was actually the day of my mom's funeral. I was feeling so bad. I was feeling like I was just… I had stayed up all night the night before putting together a slideshow for her. Just all of her life and all these pictures. It was just my mom being this selfless angel doing all these wonderful things for other people. She was just such a giver.

I was just like, “Oh my god. I was such a horrible daughter. She did all this stuff for me. What did I do for her?” At my mom's memorial service, I read that book The Giving Tree because that was basically my mom. I was just feeling so terrible and I actually had a listener of this podcast, shout out to Barb, send me this random email that day, the day of my mom's memorial service. I get these every once in a while but not like this message from Barb. I actually snagged this for you. “A person who truly chooses to be of real help and service to the people they can minister best to and offers to do it for free or for little charge is truly a blessing and a gift to all they help. Your calling and your life's work makes such a large difference for so many known and unknown. Now, I am known to have been helped by you and on behalf of all the unknowns, I thank you and express my gratitude for your insight and for your continued help.”

That was the note that I got on the day of my mom's funeral when I was feeling this terrible worm. That was my mom's legacy. My mom was so generous and such a giver. Even though I hadn't been the best daughter in the world, she's here because I'm here doing this. Also, Jennifer, because of Jimmy. I feel like these things are legacies. That was the meaning that I was able to find in it was through service and I just wanted to share that story. For you so you know but also for listeners. There are so many ways of finding meaning. Mine, personally, is through service. Yours is through spirituality. There are other ways that we can make meaning.

Jennifer: There are many other ways and I think what you're saying is such a beautiful story and I thank you for sharing that and how much Barb encouraged you on a day that you really needed it. You needed it.

Dr. Lisa: That was magic. You know what? She was connected to something.

Using Our Pain to Help Others

Jennifer: Yeah, because she couldn't have known it. That's how I look at it, hindsight. You can look back on that now and you can see, again I'm coming from the spiritual aspect, I see God's hand and God's fingerprints all over that. Like, “This is what Lisa needs today and I'm going to put Barb on the job right now.” Things like that happen all the time if we look for them. If our eyes and our mind are open to that, we see stuff like that happen all the time and it's amazing.

I think that you went through such a horrific loss with your mom and me with Jimmy and so many of your listeners have gone through loss or some sort of… Whatever your problem is, whether it's financial problems or relationship issues or health problems, you name it. Everybody has something you're struggling with, but the thing is we're all on this journey. The things that we're dealing with, I think that they really equip us to encourage and support other people who are going through similar situations. To be able to reach out to them and say, “Listen, I went through that same thing. I was tested the same way. Listen to what happened to me. Listen to what God did in my life. Let me help you. Let me come alongside you.”

Because here's the thing. None of us were made to stand alone. None of us were made to stand alone. We hold each other up and it's a blessing for both sides, for the one who's holding up and the one who is being held up. There's a verse in the Bible that says, and this is just a paraphrase, that God comforts us in our troubles so that we can comfort others in their troubles. I like to think of it as God recycling our pain. He recycles our pain.

Whatever you're going through right now, it is making you so much more useful to God than you ever were before. If you're in the middle of it right now, you may not believe it or understand it, but it doesn't make it any less true. Because I believe that God wants to use you and God wants to use your experience with loss or grief or financial crisis or a broken relationship or your health problems, whatever it is, to comfort others who are going through that same thing.

Because we really can't understand what someone is going through until we walk in their shoes, right? I have a special place in my heart for widows and I can assure you that that place in my heart did not exist before 9/11. I never would have understood what they go through until I went through it myself. Now, I can have a ministry to widows because I know what they're going through and I know what they're feeling and thinking.

Dr. Lisa: Right. That part of them. That meaning is this depth of understanding and the compassion and the empathy that you have for other people and being able to connect with them in their pain. Let me ask, and I hope that this is okay to ask, but this is coming up for me right now. Here's a different situation. I don't think she would mind me sharing this but I have a personal friend and found out several months ago that her husband has a terminal brain cancer. It's a glioblastoma, I think it is. They have prime of life. They have kids, family, all that jazz and he is dying. I'll just say this.

This friend grew up in a religious tradition that was very traumatizing for her. It was not a positive experience and as an adult, she has really moved away from any kind of spirituality she identifies as an atheist. Not only does she not have this sort of opportunity to make meaning in a spiritual way, she is now in a situation where she has other people in her life who are saying things to her. Like, “God has a plan” or just “He'll be fine in the afterlife. His suffering will be over.” Those kinds of things that are not only not helpful to her because of her spiritual orientation, but they also actually feel hurtful. They feel invalidating. They feel offensive and she is not anywhere close, probably, to being in a space of making meaning.

She's really in the thick of it but I am curious what you've learned over the years. I'm sure that you've talked to many kinds of people about the path to making meaning for someone that might not be spiritual in nature. Because I think that there needs to be a space for that conversation too because that is a very powerful and important process of healing and meaning for many. I know it was for you. It was for me and in my own way but not for everyone.

Jennifer: No, I'm not sure I can speak on that because that was… my journey did include the spirituality so I'm not sure. My heart is broken for your friend because she has walked away from the faith and that's not God's fault. That's because we're dealing with fallen human beings who create a religion that is not… I don't even know what religion it was. It doesn't matter. Jesus wasn't very thrilled with religion either. He was not happy with religion. For Him, it wasn't about religion. It's about relationship and clearly, she didn't get that. She had such a bad experience that has tainted her so I feel bad that happened.

Dr. Lisa: Well, that might not be a fair question, honestly, to pose to you because I know that your perspective is very well developed but I think it also needs to be part of the conversation for people who might be listening to this, who need to find meaning in other ways. I will say that what I have experienced over the years just in my role as a therapist is that sometimes, it is in the depths of kind of pain or loss or despair that we get a lot of clarity about the things that are most important to us. That feel most valuable.

It could be relationships. It could be service. It could even be finding a passion or a cause. Even activism. I think for many people, there's a lot of meaning in justice and being able to right wrongs. As you are talking about, and maybe even in a secular way, kind of going back into the fire for someone else, that's, I think, very common theme. Like people who have recovered from substance use disorders. That they have this wonderful heart for helping other people and a lot of empathy for what that feels like. There's a lot of meaning. Or people who have lived through other traumatic life experiences, sexual abuse survivors, sexual assault survivors, to be able to help others through it. Even in a roundabout way.

I don't even know if you know this about me, Jennifer, because I don't talk about this stuff but I went through a, at the time, it was an incredibly traumatic breakup when I was a teenager. In the great scheme of things, it's not like losing a loved one to death but at the time, it was horrible. I was a teenager, I was so in love with somebody, and he broke up with me and went out with my best friend who lived across the street. It was just as bad as it gets when you're 16 years old, right? At the time, it was just awful. Social ramifications.

As an adult, I wound up writing a book about breakup recovery and how to detach from a toxic relationship emotionally so that you can move on with your life. I remember writing this as an adult and kind of reconnecting with that 16-year old that I once was. It was like imagining that crushed… Because it went on for years and it was awful. It was not a puppy love thing. It was really bad, actually. It was very traumatic at the time but reconnecting with her in the past as this adult, kind of like sending a mental message. It's like, “Because you went through this, this book was created that is now in the hands of other people who can learn and grow because of this.” I think that's a source of a lot of meaning for many people. “How can this be? How can we do something with this? How can we make this matter? That suffering isn't just suffering?”

Jennifer: Right. Suffering has meaning and purpose. It does and I'm glad you, I did not know you wrote a book about that so I'm impressed. I'm sure that it has helped many people because you're looking back all these years later and you're thinking, “Okay. Well, yes. At the time, it was traumatic but now in the scheme of things…” But there are people who are going through that right now, that need it right now and that's kind of like how I look at my books. I have three books and the first one was written less than a year after 9/11 so it's all this raw emotion. I look back on that now and when I read that book, when I read, when I skim through my first book, I'm horrified. I'm like, “Oh my gosh. I was such a different person back then. That was a totally different person but that book is helping people who are in that stage of their journey right now.”

I think you probably will agree with me on this. That writing really was such a great form of therapy for me because it forced me to confront the details of that day of 9/11 and the issues of my faith. It was cathartic and it was painful to write but it brought forth so much emotional healing, spiritual healing. I think that sometimes, in order to get through something, you have to face it head-on, full force. That book, once it's done, but I look back and I see, “Okay, I certainly wouldn't have been an author. I wouldn't be an author and a speaker right now if 9/11 hadn't happened.” All three of the books are getting out there and helping people. I know what you're saying and I agree with it wholeheartedly because what we go through really can be recycled to help other people because we're not made to stand alone. We help, we hold each other up, right?

Dr. Lisa: Right and that is often the most powerful of meanings is “How can we use this to help others?” Now, I'm coming from my perspective and I don't want to impose my belief system on it. There are many ways of finding meaning.

Jennifer: Wow. That's a great quote. So true, so true.

We All Have a Choice

Dr. Lisa: I think there's another idea here which is also actually from Carlos Castaneda. He has another quote. He says that: “We either make ourselves miserable or we make ourselves strong and the amount of work is the same in either direction.” It really is. I think, just as a final thought here, it does take an enormous amount of energy to be in pain and to be suffering and to be devastated and to do the work of grief which is to be devastated and to feel the pain and to do all of those things. You cannot rush that process and it's hard work. It's also hard work to shift into meaning and to create another story that is also true but that one that feels more hopeful and that has more opportunity. It's hard either way.

Jennifer: The amount of work is the same but the outcomes are so different.

Dr. Lisa: Yes, they are. Say more about that.

Jennifer: You have a choice. We all have a choice. It's been said many times, you can be bitter or you can be better, right? It is a choice. We can choose to stay miserable. We can choose to stay in our grief and I agree with you. You can't rush the process of grief. It's as individual as a fingerprint and everybody grieves differently you can’t ever… Don't let anybody ever tell you, you should be over that by now. You don't ever get over it. You get through it. There is a process to grief but getting stuck there and parking there is not healthy. It's toxic. It takes so much energy to stay miserable and it also takes a lot of energy to take that step forward. To get out of bed every day, to take the next breath. That takes a lot of energy too but it's going in two completely different directions.

That's the fork in the road that I was at 20 years ago. That was the fork. I could stay in bed every day, all day. I really wanted to do that. I didn't even want… I hated waking up in the morning because as soon as I woke up, the first thought in my mind was “Ugh, I have to get through another day without Jim.” I really did not want to wake up because to me, it took so much energy to wake up, to get out of bed. But once I did, I think that when we try to move forward and when we allow our minds to be open to the people that are brought into our life and who want to help, that growth will happen if we want it to. I really think it really comes down to that desire. Do you really want to stay miserable? Or do you want to make something good out of this?

I like to think of life as a big cake. I don't know if you've ever heard that analogy before but I like to think of life as a big cake which I personally believe is made by God. A cake is made up of many different ingredients, right? But some of the ingredients in and of themselves are quite delicious like chocolate and fruit and sugar, nuts. They represent the blessings in our life. They represent the gifts and all the good things in our life. Then, there are those other ingredients that are kind of repulsive in and of themselves like raw eggs and flour and oil. By themselves, they're pretty repulsive and they represent the trials and the heartaches in our life. I believe that God takes all of those ingredients, different people, good and bad, different circumstances in our life, good and bad, different events in our life, good and bad. He takes all the blessings and the gifts.

He takes all the heartaches and the trials and mixes it all together and he can make something really good out of it if we let him. That's the key is if we let him. Do you have a desire? Do you really want to be better? Do you really want to move forward? Do you really want to have meaning? Do you really want to find a purpose in all of this? Because there is purpose in suffering. Suffering is not meaningless. Do you really want to discover that? Do you want to see what God has up his sleeve for you? Because that's a choice that you make. You make that choice. You can stay in bed all day and you can be miserable or you can get out of bed and see what God has planned for you, or what will come to you that day. I really believe it is a choice that we make.

Dr. Lisa: That's very powerful. You're right that it requires effort, in that darkness, from that place of not even wanting to get out of bed, find that tiny little pinprick of light. I think the first one after my mom, for me, the meaning was that she didn't suffer and that my sister and I were both there at the hospital. That was meaningful to me as it's like trying to put all these little pieces of meaning around “Okay, this was better than what it might have been.” Those ideas brought me a lot of comfort. For the benefit of our listeners here who might be going through that and in that laying in bed part, what was that first little pinprick of light for you? That little glimmer of meaning that started to haul you back out into “Okay, there's more here.”

Jennifer: I think it's hard to say what the very first pinprick of light was but one of the first was the story that I shared with you earlier about the Salvation Army Man giving me that card. Those words: hope and a future. Yeah, to see this promise, that the Almighty says, “I have plans to give you hope in the future.” I was mad at him at the time. Really angry with him at the time and he's telling me, “I have plans to give you hope in the future.” That was that glimmer of hope. I needed to have that tiny little… I love how you said in your introduction is taking this little birthday cakes candle and turning it into a lighthouse because that's really exactly what happened. You described my whole story in that short little bit.

Finding the Message or Being the Messenger

Dr. Lisa: Yeah, well, but you know what's so interesting? What's coming up for me right now is that for both of us, that glimmer, that meaning, for me, first of all, it was like, “Okay my mom doesn't ever” but also that message. Barb's message and you had the Salvation Army guy. I wonder if there's a little kernel of truth in there for everyone which is “Be on the lookout for messages and things that are trying to knock at your door or be the messenger.”

Jennifer: Absolutely. Or be the messenger because again, whatever you're going through right now, you can help somebody else who's going through it also. Whatever you've been through.

Dr. Lisa: That is amazing… Actually no, really. Okay, how about this? How about we'll end this episode with that as an invitation? As a closing question for listeners here, me and Jennifer have been talking about our stories but I want to hear your story. Anybody listening to this, I want you to think about what meaning have you made from those really hard life experiences. Either things you learned, what gave you strength, what helped you grow. If you wanted to share anything that has happened in your life that would not have happened if you hadn't lived through that experience, or that first little glimmer of “Well, maybe there's something else here. Any of those messages.”

If you are willing to share those, you can come to… I'll do a little post on the blog for these podcasts. growingself.com/meaning-making will be the URL. growingself.com/meaning-making and just leave them in the comment section. This will be a living bulletin board of random meaning-making stories that we can all share because there are a lot of people right now who are currently lost in the darkness. They do not have any candles. They do not have any light. They are just in pain and hopelessness and devastation and do not know why any of these things happen and that is okay. That is where we all go for a while.

I think we should all light our little candles and just hold them up and they will still need to light their own candle. You will have to find your own meaning in order for this to work but I think that there is a lot of value and inspiration in hearing stories of what has been meaningful for others and other people who got it through. If you are feeling like you would like to be the messenger today, if you would like to be the Salvation Army guy or if you would like to be Barb, growingself.com/meaning-making and share your story. I'm going to read all of them.

Jennifer: That is a great, great way to just hear from your listeners. I think that we can all encourage each other in that way. To really be a source of encouragement.

Dr. Lisa: Yes, exactly. Thank you so much though for coming today, Jennifer, and for sharing your story. I hope that, particularly for people whom spirituality is an important part of their meaning-making, I'm sure that they have gotten a lot of inspiration out of that. I just want to honor the transformational process that it launched in you. But also to let you know that it also launched a transformational process in me as well. That Jimmy's life lives on in many people: in your life, in my life. That there was a lot of meaning there so thank you.

Jennifer: Thank you for inviting me to share it. Thank you listeners for listening to it. Please, I really do admire you and I applaud you for your dedication to helping people get through their life struggles. Because you've had enough life struggles of your own, that's, again, why you're able to recycle that and pay it forward in that way.

Dr. Lisa: We are definitely all in this together but I hope… I've said this to my listeners before but for you too, because of how much meaning I find in this work, it is such a positive and healing and uplifting thing for me to be able to do this. It really does give me and my life so much meaning. I think I get more out of it than anybody listening but that's just my suspicion.

Jennifer: I really doubt that. I doubt that. You are definitely made to do this. You are fulfilling your life purpose.

Dr. Lisa: Thank you, Jimmy.

Jennifer: Yes, yes. Thank you.

Dr. Lisa: Thank you again.

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