How to Find Meaning in the Death of a Loved One

Toby Hazlewood
Suffering ceases to be suffering when it serves a purpose
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We humans are relatively unique as a species in that we live with awareness of our eventual death. Nothing brings that awareness to the fore quite like the impending death of a loved-one.

Right now my father-in-law is lying in bed at home, dying. It’s approaching 2 years since he was diagnosed with prostate cancer so it’s not come as too much of a shock. That said, I don’t think any of us could have been prepared for the thoughts and feelings it has evoked.

As much as any of us were expecting an end, it’s hard to find meaning in it.

He had been getting progressively weaker for a while now. Then, two weeks ago he fell down some stairs. Injuries from the fall initially seemed superficial, but it later turned out that he’d suffered a brain-bleed. Further complications have since arisen and his situation has worsened.

After a brief spell in hospital we managed to get him home. Since then he’s been in the care of his wife and daughters (my wife among them) along with a team of kind and compassionate nurses from our national health service and a local hospice. None of us knows how long he has left — it’s a miracle he hasn’t passed already given that he last ate or drank over a week ago.

The human body has a miraculous instinct for self-preservation in the face of tremendous adversity.

I don’t know how I imagined his end would come but I didn’t picture it like this.

On some level I envisaged a slow and gradual decline where he’d eventually pass in his sleep. I suppose that’s basically what is happening, albeit accelerated and brought on by his fall.

I’ve learned from speaking with family and friends that the terminally-ill often meet their end when some event or accident triggers complications that bring it forth.

I find myself wondering how my own death will come about (hopefully not for many, MANY years yet). It seems logical that when confronted by death, we cannot help but spend a bit of time thinking about it and discussing it with others. I don’t see it as morbid, but instead a logical side-effect of a significant event in our lives.

It’d be comforting to think that one day (hopefully having achieved a ripe old age) that I would lay down for the last big sleep, knowing and acknowledging that it was my time. And then closing my eyes, drifting off and never waking again.

I wonder if that’s how it seems to him? Has a part of him already passed on? I’m certain that he’s aware on some level that he’s home, surrounded by those who love him. I hope he’s at peace with things, if indeed he’s aware of his predicament at all.

My wife came home from her parents this morning for a brief visit, to shower and change before heading back to her dad’s bedside. We talked about how the last few hours had been and she shared that she now wished that he would die. I felt relieved to hear her say that, and confided that I felt the same way.

I know that deep down, we’re all thinking the same at this point although it’s hard to admit it without accompanying guilt.

None of us wants to fast-forward to a place and time when he’s no longer here with us. In many ways though, he’s been gone for a while now. He’s still breathing and occasionally responsive to our voices and touch but we know his end is nigh.

A few days ago in a moment of lucidity he clearly recognised me, said my name and mumbled a few words that I was able to decipher. He gave me a small ‘thumbs-up’ gesture. I told him I loved him and reassured him I was there for him and his family.

I’d have been contented to keep that as my last memory of him and in truth, it probably will be even though I’ve visited and sat with him many times since.

In recent days I’ve been listening again to the audiobook of Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. An account of life in a Nazi concentration camp might not seem the most uplifting book to choose at this time, but having heard it a few times it seemed most appropriate to me.

In the book, Frankl shares the core tenets of Logotherapy, the school of psychotherapy centred on finding meaning in life. One of these is the principle that meaning can be found in enduring unavoidable suffering — if the suffering serves a purpose, then it ceases to be suffering alone and provides meaning.

He demonstrated this through the example of one of his former patients — an elderly man who was severely depressed two years after the death of his wife. Frankl posed the question to the man — how would his wife feel had their situations been reversed and he had died instead of her. The man relayed that the suffering would have been unbearable for her. Frankl was then able to point out that the meaning behind the mans suffering now, was to bear his pain knowing that he’d spared his wife suffering the same.

The realisation could not bring her back nor change the sense of loss the man felt, but it helped him to bring meaning to a situation that was previously lacking it.

Situations that are inherently painful and which cause us emotional suffering, whether being imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp or losing someone we love can be made more bearable if we can find some purpose to the suffering. It’s when things happen that are beyond explanation or rationalisation that we can feel desolate.

It seems to me then that the key to getting through the pain I’m currently feeling is to see the meaning in it all.

Looking at my father-in-law’s suffering now, I see a great deal of purpose that has been served through his suffering throughout his illness:

  • His suffering has reminded those who love him the importance of not taking a moment of our lives for granted, and the urgency of living each moment to the full.
  • It has brought us together, rallying around him and around each other. We’re reminded of all that we have to count on and to be grateful for in our lives.
  • In the dignity he has brought to his suffering, he has shown us that even in the face of adversity it is possible to carry on living and to make the best of life.
  • As was the case in the example mentioned by Frankl, I know for certain that he would have been ruined to see any one of his family suffering in the way that he has. For that reason, in us bearing it together, we’ve spared him any suffering should the situation have been reversed.

Recognising there is meaning in all this makes me feel a little better at least. Each of us must find our own way of rationalising things and moving forwards, but I can say with certainty that I’ll never consider his suffering or his passing as meaningless.

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