“The concept of having a meaning in life can be applied to all of us in different stages in our lives and can explain how our current social situation may contribute to our emotions and feelings of emptiness.”
A man in his early sixties was admitted to a mental health ward after he ingested 40 tablets of his blood pressure medication, his wife managed to call the ambulance and he was rushed to hospital and spent seven days in the intensive care unit. When he woke up he told the doctors that he wanted to end his life.
He was 61 years old. He retired a year ago from a job he has been doing since he was eighteen years old. His job involved working away from home and being with his family on some weekends and public and annual holidays. His family lived in the village and his wife brought up their four children. When he retired he returned to live in the village, now all his boys are grown up and have their own families.
“The first thing that hit me was the feeling of emptiness, I wake up in the morning and I have nothing to do whatsoever, most of my friends were work colleagues too, so when I left my job we stopped meeting, I felt I have no purpose in life, I gradually felt depressed and became more withdrawn and lost the will to live.”
I spent around one hour talking to this man and it strikes me how determined he was to end his life. He sat there and told me all about it, how waking up in the intensive care unit thinking and wishing he was actually dead. "Nothing in life brings me joy any more,” he stated. Understandably his wife and grown up sons were devastated, some felt sorry for him while others were angry at him as he brought shame to the family.
This encounter made me think about the concept of having a meaning in life. It also reminded me of the Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl who was captured by the Nazis during the Second World War and was imprisoned in their concentration camp. He wrote a book titled “Man Search For Meaning” after his release in which he summarised the possible sources of meaning in three concepts, purposeful work, love and courage in the face of difficulties.
Dr Viktor Frankl used this idea to develop a new psychotherapeutic school of thought which helped him personally to overcome the trauma that he experienced during his imprisonment. This concept of having a meaning in life can be applied to all of us in different stages in our lives, and looking back to my patient who tried to end his life one can see how his current social situation may have contributed to his miserable feelings.
Retirement in itself is not the only reason to how he is feeling, but it did play a part. How after all these years he felt his value in life ended as he does not have a job that fills his time and makes him feel that he is contributing to society. He may not have felt loved as his family lived without him being around. His wife and grown-up sons may not need him any more and he may have lost courage to deal with his new situations. Whatever the reasons are it is worth reflecting on ourselves and searching for what brings meaning to our lives.