How to Find Meaning in the Face of Death by Emily Esfahani Smith, adapted from her book, The Power of Meaning
The psychiatrist William Breitbart lives at the edge of life and death. As chairman of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, Breitbart specializes in end-of-life care for terminally ill cancer patients. For many of his patients, the most pressing question isn’t when they’ll die or how painful death will be. Rather, it’s what makes life meaningful. They are in search of a meaning that cannot be destroyed by death.Posted by Jill Fallon at March 6, 2017 1:57 PM | Permalink
Breitbart has spent the better part of his career trying to answer that question. His ground-breaking research shows that while the specter of death often leads people to conclude that their lives are meaningless, it can also be a catalyst for them to work out, as they never have before, the meaning of their lives.
When people believe their lives are meaningful, according to psychologists, it’s because three conditions have been satisfied: They feel their existence is valued by others; they are driven by a sense of purpose, or important life goals; and they understand their lives as coherent and integrated. Psychologists and philosophers say that the path to meaning lies in connecting and contributing to something that is bigger than the self, like family, country, or God.
As Breitbart heard more stories of assisted suicide, he began to wonder what specifically was driving the terminally ill to give up on life. The assumption had been that the ill chose to end their lives because they were in terrible pain. But Breitbart and his colleagues found that wasn’t always the case. Instead, those who desired a hastened death reported feelings of meaninglessness, depression, and hopelessness. When Breitbart asked patients why they wanted a prescription for assisted suicide, many said it was because they had lost meaning in life. Unlike clinical depression, which has a specific set of diagnosable symptoms, meaninglessness was more of an “existential concern,” Breitbart said—a belief that one’s life has little value or purpose and is, therefore, not worth living.
Breitbart became convinced that if he could help patients build meaning, he could decrease their suicidal thoughts and make their lives worth living even to the very end. He developed an eight-session group therapy program where six to eight cancer patients come together in a counseling workshop. Each session, in one way or another, helps build meaning.
In the final session, the patients reflect on the part of them that will go on living even after they are dead—their legacy. That could be their soul, or it could be something they helped to create that will continue to exist—their children, a work of art, or an organization. ....
Breitbart performed three randomized, controlled experiments on the meaning-centered psychotherapy. When he analyzed the results with his colleagues, Breitbart saw the therapy had been transformative. By the end of the eight sessions, the patients’ attitudes toward life and death had changed. They were less hopeless and anxious about the prospect of death than they were before they began the program. They no longer wanted to die. Their spiritual wellbeing improved. They reported a higher quality of life. And, of course, they found life to be more meaningful. These effects not only persisted over time—they actually got stronger. When Breitbart followed up with one group of patients two months later, he found that their reports of meaning and spiritual wellbeing had increased, while their feelings of anxiety, hopelessness, and desire for death had decreased.
The time between diagnosis and death, Breitbart has found, presents an opportunity for “extraordinary growth.” One woman, for example, was initially devastated by her diagnosis of colon cancer—but after enrolling in the therapy program, she realized, “I didn’t have to work so hard to find the meaning of life. It was being handed to me everywhere I looked.” And that realization ultimately brought her—and Breitbart’s other patients—some measure of peace and consolation as they faced life’s final challenge.