Major stressful life events, particularly those that have chronic hardships, create a crisis for families that often leads to reorganization in the family's style of functioning. A major factor in this reorganization is the meaning the family gives to the stressful event. Often the meaning extends beyond the event itself and leads to a changed view of the family system and even to a changed view of the world. Building on other family stress models, we elaborate the family's definition of the stressor into three levels of family meanings: (1) situational meanings, (2) family identity, and (3) family world view. Examples from clinical work and studies of families adapting to chronic illness are used to illustrate the relationship between these three levels of meaning, particularly as they change in response to crisis. Implications for clinical and empirical work are discussed.