Viktor Frankl was an Austrian neurologist and psychologist who founded what came to be known as the “third school of psychology,” existential psychology. Frankl called his psychological approach logotherapy. He was also a Holocaust survivor.
During his internment Frankl observed his fellow prisoners and himself, and began developing the basis of what became logotherapy. In short, Frankl thought about what made human beings capable of surviving trauma. He noted that prisoners who had something to live for, a “why” for their life, did better in their horrible living conditions than others who relinquished their “why” and found no purpose in rising every day.
After the end of WWII and the liberation of the camps, Frankl (who lost both his parents and his wife to the camps) wrote a book, part memoir, part psychological treatise, called Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl reflects on his experiences in the camps and discusses the basic principles that make up Logotherapy.
For Frankl, survival in life depends on having a reason or purpose to move through each and every day. He describes Logotherapy as a “meaning-centered psychotherapy” aimed at the future (or “meanings to be fulfilled” by a person in her/his future). The goal of logotherapy is to reorient a person to their life, to change the focus of perspective from dwelling on what happened in the past and creating anxieties about what might (or might not) happen in the future. Instead, logotherapy requires people to think about why we do what we do, what gets us out of bed, what motivates us to get through our day, what keeps us moving forward, and prevents us from becoming stuck in an “existential frustration” of boredom, meaninglessness, and anxiety.
When it comes to thinking about grief, the loss of a loved one, and how to keep going in life, I can’t think of a better reading suggestion than Man’s Search for Meaning. I wish I had found this book sooner. Frankl’s story is moving, thought provoking, and inspirational. I would really call it required reading for anyone who has ever lost someone in their life. The book doesn’t have to center on grief–searching for meaning can come after the loss of a job, the end of a marriage or any bad/dysfunctional relationship, or even during quarter-/mid-life crises when we question who we are and what we are to do with our lives.
Frankl outlines three concepts that I think are especially pertinent to grief:
After a loss, grievers can experience a loss of purpose, especially if their future was inextricably bound with the lost loved one. Husbands, wives, and partners of all types may most struggle with the question of how to move forward because their life plans were made in conjunction with the person now gone. What does retirement now look like without the significant other by your side? You wanted to travel the world, open a business, move to the country, etc., what do you do now? Children, teens, and young adults will probably fall into this category as well, since their lives are quite intertwined with parents and siblings at these points. Day-to-day living may lose meaning. What do you do without that formative guidance and support?
Frankl highlights our conformity in the twentieth century: we do what other people want or what other people do, and just follow the status quo. This potential to follow what other people what us to do, rather than follow a path that is of our own making (and better for us), also happens with grief. This process leads to what Frankl calls the “existential vacuum.” When we do what others want us to do we are living a purpose that isn’t ours, we are living someone else’s needs, and those needs might be incompatible with ours. Following our own self-care plan (provided it is mentally, physically, and emotionally healthy) is important for grievers, who need to rebalance their own lives and futures, not someone else’s. Other people’s suggestions may be helpful, but every griever should be allowed to decide for themselves whether or not the suggestion is good for them. So, grief supporters, rather than fight with grievers and end relationships because your griever won’t do what you say, remember that this isn’t your grief. Grievers need to live their own lives for their own purposes, not for yours.
Grievers may have a tendency to self-isolate, which is necessary for a short period of time. However, this self-isolation can become incapacitating when we no longer want to go out into the world and have new experiences or meet new people. Frankl notes that our life meaning is tied to the world, we must go out and be in the world to develop our purpose. We cannot reorient ourselves by remaining isolated at home. Purpose does not show up on our doorstep, we have to go out in search of it. That search may take time, but we will never encounter that thing that reorients us if we are sequestered. Grievers may find new purpose through volunteering, going out with friends, taking a class, or joining a sports team. Being in the world is especially important for grievers.
Man’s Search for Meaning is 165 pages (including two forewords, a postscript, and an afterward) and its chapters are short and digestible. This is a wonderful book for grief supporters to give as a condolence gift or for grievers to buy themselves as a means of figuring out how to plan the next part of life.