Reconstruction of Meaning

An outline of constructivist theories of grief

Last updated: 10 November 2016

Over the past few decades, various psychologists have suggested a move towards ‘constructivist’ approaches to grief. Constructivism is the idea that people make, or ‘construct’, their own understanding of the world by learning from their experiences.

As Dr Robert A. Neimeyer, a clinician and psychology professor at the University of Memphis explains, it’s a way of using ‘imaginative enactment procedures’ to experiment with new identities. In essence, this is the idea that coping with grief is not about breaking bonds, but about building new meaning for your life after the death of a loved one.

Constructivism and grief

Constructivism is the theory that we build up our own individual idea about how the world works, based on what we have seen and experienced. As we receive more evidence in the form of life events and encounters, we begin to tell ourselves definite stories about the world and our place in it.

For example, you may hold the belief that, actually, people are generally good by nature and the world is fair. Your personal experiences may have built up this story because you have never experienced anything traumatic or, when something bad happens, you are able to rationalize it and explain to yourself why it doesn’t mean all people are bad or the world is unfair.

However, when a loved one dies, these core beliefs can be deeply shaken. You might feel as though nothing makes sense anymore. Your psyche, which has for so long been building up the idea that people are good and the world is fair, is suddenly faced with traumatic evidence that this is in fact not true.

The meaning upon which you base your knowledge of the world has been disrupted, and you must now try to find a way to build a new meaning, a new story about the world and your place in it. This reconstruction of meaning, or ‘meaning-making’, according to Dr Neimeyer, comes in two forms: assimilating and accommodating.

Assimilating the loss

The word ‘assimilate’ means to digest, understand, or take in. In this context, it means that as you grieve, you will begin to take in the new evidence you have received (for example, that people are bad and the world is unfair) and find a new way to think about it so that it does not challenge your core beliefs.

For instance, immediately after the death of your loved one, you might blame someone for their death and be coping with the idea that, deep down, all people are bad. After a while, as you assimilate the loss, your thinking might change. You might instead think, “Perhaps they’re not a bad person, they just made a terrible mistake” or “Maybe it wasn’t their fault after all”. This allows you to maintain your belief that people are good.

In this way, how you think about the loss changes, rather than how you think about the world and yourself.

Accommodating the loss

Accommodating the loss means that instead of thinking about the loss differently, you will come to think differently about the world. The death of your loved one has significantly changed how you see things.

For example, if you had always deep down believed that the world fair, the death of a loved one might change this. Immediately after the death, all the meaning you have built up over time will be torn down. Grieving means rebuilding a new meaning, for example, “The world is inherently unfair, but there’s nothing I can do about that.”

Complicated grief

If you are unable to assimilate or accommodate, you may begin to experience complicated grief. This means you are unable to reconstruct meaning and you may struggle to cope. Without meaning, you might wonder how to carry on with daily life.

In this case, you may need to seek bereavement support. A qualified counselor or therapist may be able to help you rebuild meaning.