The search for meaning appears to be a uniquely human trait. Along with hope, having purpose can sustain us through even the darkest circumstances. Noted psychiatrist Viktor Frankl spent many years in Nazi concentration camps. During his ordeal he established that a sense of purpose and a goal for the future were essential to human existence. They made the difference between surviving that tragedy with grace and dignity or succumbing to bitterness and despair. When faced with a diagnosis of serious illness, we can learn lessons from Dr. Frankl’s observations. Although we cannot control many of the external events of our lives, we do have some control over our attitudes and how we approach even a life-threatening condition. This perspective in turn can have a significant effect on the quality of our life and how we experience our days, whether we have many days left or only a few.
Finding purpose in life, both in the past as well as the present day, can transform a serious illness into a deeply meaningful event. Indeed, many family caregivers and people diagnosed with terminal conditions have said that the illness brought them gifts along with the sadness. Reflection on one’s life and one’s contributions and achievements is often cited as a source of insight into the meaning of it all.
Many people struggle with identifying their contributions and achievements and tend to count only the financial and material aspects. Few of us can be a great statesman or a brilliant architect who leaves behind a legacy to be seen and remembered by the world. All of us, however, leave behind a very meaningful legacy in our friends and families. The way we have lived our lives, the values and principles that have allowed us to touch the hearts and souls of others, and that we have passed on to our children and family, is a legacy that is every bit as important, and one that will live forever as it is passed down from generation to generation.
The world’s religions have acknowledged this need for reflection with important parables. The Christian faith describes St. Peter reviewing the life of the recently deceased at the gates of Heaven. In ancient Egypt, the god Osiris was said to weigh a dying person’s heart against the Feather of Truth.
Writing down life reminiscences is an excellent means for a patient to reflect on achievements and shortcomings. If writing is too taxing, dictating to someone with a laptop computer may be easier. This process can also help the patient identify tasks that can still be completed to rectify any missteps or misunderstandings from the past. For instance, many patients discover in this process that they want to write letters or make phone calls to reconcile family relationships.
Hope and a goal for the future are the counterparts to finding meaning or purpose. Even with a terminal diagnosis, people need to feel hopeful and have things to look forward to. The end of life, in fact, presents many opportunities for growth and change, even if one is bedridden. To learn more about finding daily meaning and future purpose, please see our article about hope.