Meaning-Focused Therapy

Meaning centered counseling Lecture No 6

The Meaning of Death

Paul T. P. Wong, Ph.D. C.Psych
Tyndale University College, Toronto, Ontario

What is the meaning of death?

Death by any other name is still death. No matter how we euphemize it, the “D” word would still evoke feelings of discomfort or dread.

  • Death is the unwelcome intruder, the spoiler of happiness, the enemy of life!
  • Death is the only certainty in life, the only universal human experience that overshadows all our activities.
  • Death affects life in more ways than we care to know.
  • Regardless of what we think about death or how hard we try to put it out of our mind, we can never escape its domain.
  • The time will come for each one of us, and it may come at any time, when our life will end with a last gasp for air.

In spite of its significance in human existence, death remains under-researched and much misunderstood.

  • What is the meaning of death?
  • Has modern medicine changed its meaning?
  • Does culture protect us from death?
  • Does religion change our attitudes towards death?
  • If death has been swallowed up by victory, why are so many Christians still troubled by death?
  • Do you agree with Paul that “For me, to live is Christ, and to die is to gain”? (Phil.1:21).

Kierkegaard (1941):

  • “I can by no means regard death as something I have understood.
  • I would thus have to ask whether it is in general possible to have an idea of death, whether death can be apprehended and experienced in anticipatory conception.
  • If the answer to our question is affirmative, the question then arises as to what death is, and especially as to what it is for the living individual.
  • We wish to know how the conception of death will transform a man’s entire life, when in order to think its uncertainty, he has to think it in every moment, so as to prepare himself for it.
  • We wish to know what it means to prepare for death, since here again one must distinguish between its actual presence and the thought of it.”

Death anxiety

Many factors contribute to death anxiety:

  • Lack of personal knowledge and understanding of death.
  • Fear of a slow and painful process of dying.
  • Fear of dying all alone.
  • Fear of not being able to care for those left behind.
  • The uncertainty of when death will come and what will happen after death.
  • Lack of adequate preparedness for its arrival.
  • Lack of time to complete our major life projects.
  • The sudden and irreversible ending of ongoing life.
  • The complete breakup of all relationships.
  • The loss of self and the world as we know it.
  • The termination of all opportunities for meaning potentials.
  • A permanent departure from the world of the living.
  • A permanent goodbye to all the people and things we love.

Would you go through the five stages of Anger, Denial, Bargain, Depression and Acceptance as proposed by Kubler-Ross, if you were told of an impending death?

Would you weep bitterly and plead with God to extend your life as did Hezekiah? (2 King, 20)

  • God of mercy, remember me and have mercy on me.
  • Lord, grant me more years so that I can see my children grow up.
  • Spare my life that I may continue to serve your people faithfully.

Would you bargain for an extra day, an extra hour of life? Would you cling to life tenaciously? But death beckons and death does not wait.

From time to time, we think about death and how it will change our life completely. We are not sure when we will be ready for a visit from the Angel of Death.

Regardless of whether our attitude to death is one of Avoidance, Fear, Neutral Acceptance, Escape Acceptance or Approach Acceptance, our thoughts about death are always tinged with anxiety.

According to Erwin Yalom, death anxiety is the inevitable result, given our existential anxieties about freedom, alienation and meaninglessness.

In contrast, Paul Tillich concludes that death anxiety is responsible for anxieties about meaninglessness and guilt. In his book The Courage to Be, Paul Tillich provides an insightful analysis of the three types of anxiety which threaten three types of affirmation: ontic, spiritual and moral.

  • The anxiety of fate and death is most basic, most universal, and inescapable.
  • The anxiety of death is the permanent horizon within which the anxiety of fate is at work.
  • The anxiety of meaninglessness is anxiety about the loss of an ultimate concern, of a meaning which gives meaning to all meanings.
  • This anxiety is aroused by the loss of a spiritual center, of an answer, however symbolic and indirect, to the question of the meaning of existence.
  • Emptiness and loss of meaning are expressions of the threat of nonbeing to the spiritual life.
  • Man’s being, ontic as well as spiritual, is not only given to him but also demands of him. He is responsible for it; literally, he is required to answer, if he is asked, what he has made of himself.
  • This situation produces the anxiety which, in relative terms, is the anxiety of guilt; in absolute terms, the anxiety of self-rejection or condemnation.
  • The threat of fate and death has always awakened and increased the consciousness of guilt.
  • Despair is an ultimate or “boundary-line” situation. One cannot go beyond it. Its nature is indicated in the etymology of the word despair: without hope. No way out into the future appears.
  • In view of this character of despair it is understandable that all human life can be interpreted as a continuous attempt to avoid despair.”

Overcoming death anxiety

How do we overcome death anxiety and despair?

  • Paul Tillich suggests courage.
  • Yalom favors creativity.
  • Frankl emphasizes responsibility.
  • Frankl affirms the existence of ultimate meaning and the human responsibility to live meaningfully regardless of the negative givens.
  • There is a distinct note of optimism pervading all Frankl’s writings about life and death.
  • Frankl recognizes the tragic triad of human existence: unavoidable suffering, inerasable guilt, and inescapable death.
  • Yet he affirms the possibility of transforming all three negative human experiences into human achievements through the defiant human spirit and responsibility towards meaning.

Here is one example of the heroic human spirit. French writer Tristan Bernard and his wife were taken to a Nazi concentration camp. While they were marching in a column of despairing Jews, Bernard said to his wife, “Up to now we have lived in fear; from now on we will live in hope” (Fabry, p.46)

The meaning of life and the meaning of death

For Frankl, the meaning of death is predicated on the meaning of life.
Similarly, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross (1997), in the face of her own death, concludes: “Death is nothing to fear. It can be the most wonderful experience of your life. It all depends on how you have lived” (p.289)

  • Facing death means to become aware of the transitoriness of human existence.
  • We can be preoccupied either with defense mechanisms against the terror of death or with responsible efforts to make the most of life.
  • How we have lived in responding to the transitoriness of life determines the meaning of our death.
  • The finiteness of life gives meaning to human existence rather than robs it of meaning.

Frankl’s arguments against death as the negation of meaning

  1. Immortality rather than mortality renders life meaningless.
  2. Death challenges us to make the most of our opportunities.
  3. Our responsibility in life is sharpened because of temporality and singularity (i.e., we only go through life once and encounter each situation only once).
  4. A life cut short can be very meaningful if it is lived responsibly and heroically.
  5. Quality of the life lived is more important than the number of years lived.
  6. Our interest in movies and theatres proves “the meaningfulness of the historical element”.
  7. “Either life has a meaning and retains this meaning whether it is long or short, whether or not it reproduces itself; or life has no meaning, in which case it take on none, no matter how long it lasts or can go on reproducing itself” (p.67).
  8. “If the thing is meaningless, it does not acquire meaning by being immortalized” (p.67).
  9. “Life transcends itself not in ‘length’ – in the sense of reproduction of itself – but in ‘height’ – by fulfilling values or in ‘breath’ in the community” (p.68).
  10. The singularity of life and the uniqueness of the person make life meaningful.

Uniqueness of every human being

  • Human limitations contribute to the meaning of life rather than cancel it.
  • “If all men are perfect, then every individual would be replaceable by anyone else” (p.69)
  • The very imperfection of men makes them unique, for each is unique in his own fashion.
  • “The meaning of the individuality comes to fulfillment in the community” (p.71)
  • “True community is in essence the community of responsible persons; mere mass is the sum of depersonalized entities” (p.73)
  • Part of the singularity of life is the singularity of every situation; singularity contributes to individual uniqueness.
  • Part of individual uniqueness is his unique destiny.
  • Both destiny and death are essential to the meaning of life

Freedom and destiny

  • Without freedom, life has no meaning.
  • The capacity of freedom and the responsibility of choosing one’s own future make life and death meaningful.
  • It is not possible to think about human freedom without boundary or restrictions.
  • “Freedom without destiny is impossible; freedom can only be freedom in the face of a destiny, a free stand toward destiny” (p.75).
  • Man is free, but he is also surrounded by restrictions and contingencies beyond his control.
  • “During no moment of his life does man escape the mandate to choose among possibilities” (p.76).
  • “Man…is always free to decide on the nature of his being” (p.77).
  • “Freedom of the will is opposed to destiny” (p.78).
  • “What has passed is intrinsically fate. Nevertheless, man has some freedom even with regard to destiny as embodied in the past” (p.78).
  • We can learn from past mistakes to shape a better future.
  • “It is never too late to learn – but neither is it too soon; it is always ‘high time” we learned whatever is to be learned” (p.78).
  • Destiny can be defined in terms of disposition (biological destiny), situation (sociological destiny) and position (psychological destiny)
  • “A faulty upbringing exonerates nobody; it has to be surmounted by conscious effort” (p.87).
  • “A person’s spiritual attitude has free play” (p.87). because one can always choose one’s attitude towards all three kinds of destiny.
  • The attitude of acceptance of fate can contribute to healing of psychic illness.

Optimism in the past

“The moment becomes eternity if the possibilities hidden in the present are converted into those realities which are help safely in the past for all eternity. That is the meaning of all actualizing” (p.79)

Frankl (1962, p.120): “I never tire of saying that the only really transitory aspects of life are the potentialities; but as soon as they are actualized, they are rendered realities at that very moment; they are saved and delivered into the past, wherein they are rescued and preserved from transitoriness. For, in the past, nothing is lost but everything is irrevocably stored. “

“Optimism of the past” (Lukas, 1990). Nothing can be taken away from our past. Every valuable thing we have done, every meaningful thing we have experienced, and every suffering we have courageously born – all these things become the monuments of the past, and the essence of our identity.

“Our deep longing for salvation and our existentially rooted search for meaning indicates that what has remained of each of us in our past does matter. It becomes our monument (Lukas, 1989).

Optimism in the future

Life retains its dignity until its very end.

In old age, the strength of the spirit depends on a mature philosophy of life, a meaning orientation, a secure value structure, an abundant and unique life,

In the moment of death, the spirit joins eternity (Frankl & Krentzer, 1994)

Frankl (1994) believed that the human spirit is not confined by time and space, nor restricted by the body or grave.

Exercises to make clients aware of their responsibility

  1. Back to the future – rewriting history
  2. Live on camera – irreversible history
  3. Sculpturing life through chiseling and hammering