Date of Award


Document Type

Open Access Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Clinical Psychology

First Advisor

Laurel Wainwright

Second Advisor

Ester Shapiro

Third Advisor

Heidi Levitt


Employing Neimeyer's theory of meaning reconstruction as a guiding framework, this study examined meaning making in a diverse sample of bereaved university students. The aims of this study were to 1) identify types of meanings made about loss, 2) examine socio-demographic and bereavement-related characteristics that might influence meaning making, and 3) investigate associations between types of meanings and post-loss psychological adjustment. Participants were 229 students from an urban commuter university. This was a cross-sectional study, employing self-report data collected on a secure, Web-based system. Participants were 18 years or older and had experienced the loss of a friend or family member within the last three years. Bereavement-related meaning making was assessed using four measures of sense-making, cognitive appraisal, religious/spiritual meaning, and impact on identity. Participants were diverse in age (18 - 61 years, M = 24.18), race (55% White/Caucasian, 15.3% Asian, 14.4% Latino/a, 14.4% Black/African American, and 10.4% multi-racial/other), and religious background (25% atheist, 28% agnostic, 53% affiliated with a religion, and 6% spiritual/not religious). The majority lost a family member (66.7%), rather than a friend. Cause of death was due to natural (64.5%) or unnatural/violent causes and the mean time since death was 17.2 months. Principal components analysis identified five interpretable factors of meaning making: 1) personal growth, 2) positive reframing, 3) spiritual/religious meaning, 4) causal attribution, and 5) rumination/impact on identity. After controlling for covariates, each of the factors was regressed onto positive affect (PANAS), depression (CES-D), posttraumatic stress (PCL-S), and prolonged grief (PGD-13). Results of this study indicated that bereaved students made positive and negative secular and religious meanings about loss. Meaning making factors were influenced by socio-demographic and bereavement-related characteristics, in particular a closer relationship with the deceased, cause of death due to unnatural/violent causes, and younger age of the deceased when he or she died. These characteristics may make it more difficult for survivors to make sense and find meaning in a loss. Difficulty making sense was associated with higher distress, including symptoms of depression, PTSD, and prolonged grief as well as lower positive affect. Future studies are warranted to examine specific cultural influences and the clinical significance of ascribing meaning to loss among underserved groups.