Dr. Viktor Frankl’s classic is as relevant today in helping with bereavement and grief as it was when he wrote it in 1946
Title: Man’s Search for Meaning
Author: Viktor Frankel
Publisher: Beacon Press
Genre: Popular Psychology Psychotherapy
Release Date of this Edition: June 1, 2006
“We should not ask ourselves what we want from life. We should ask ourselves, what does life want from us?” –Viktor Frankl
Many of us lost loved ones last year. Some through the natural aging process but a significant number due to COVID-19. Pandemic rules dictated that funerals be limited in size so only a tiny number of relatives and friends could attend and support the bereaved. Added to that, traditional mourning customs often had to be modified or abandoned due to virus concerns. Following the funeral, people had to face the business of going on living, and with so many job losses and furloughs, together with travel restrictions and limit on family gatherings, they were deprived of the usual coping mechanisms.
Dr. Viktor Frankl (1905-1997) was an Austrian-Jewish neurologist, psychiatrist, philosopher, and author. He was also a survivor of the Nazi concentration camps. He is the author of the classic Man’s Search for Meaning. I first read it in college and reread it recently for help with my own bereavement and grief.
Dr. Frankl was the founder of logotherapy. Verywellmind.com describes it as “…a theory that … through a search for meaning and purpose in life that individuals can endure hardship and suffering.”
In the first section of Man’s Search for Meaning, Dr. Frankl describes the stages of shock an inmate of the concentration camps endured once they got off the cattle trains. Some people gave up while others found the strength to go on through thoughts of reuniting with loved ones and/or going back to their professions. Survival in the camps depended quite a bit on luck: finding a sympathetic guard to offer assistance, having a skill the Nazis found useful, and/or finding a fellow inmate for support. But diseases like typhoid were rampant, the prisoners performed hard physical labor from early morning to night, and they were undernourished. Dr. Frankl was one of the lucky ones who survived. However, upon his liberation, he found out his pregnant wife, his parents and his brother had perished.
The second section of the book is about logotherapy. Here are only three takeaways from the book’s treasure trove of useful advice:
1.) Human beings need a certain degree of tension in order to maintain their mental health. By tension, he is referring to “the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task” (p. 105). Being in a tensionless state with nothing to be preoccupied or involved in is actually unhealthy.
2.) The concept of meaning in life is different for every individual. In fact, it can differ from day to day, even at different times during a day. Frankl describes it best: “Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfillment. . . Everyone’s task is as unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it” (p. 109).
3.) Many of us need a change in attitude toward life. Instead of focusing on what we expect out of life and what is the meaning of life, we should be asking what life expects of us. This means taking responsibility and pursuing the right course of actions and behavior.
I close by retelling a story from the book. It was the only thing I remembered from reading it in college. After the war, Dr. Frankl stayed in his native Austria to practice psychotherapy. One day an elderly doctor came to see him. He had lost his beloved wife and was so overcome with grief that he could not go on. Instead of counseling him, Dr. Frankl asked him what would have happened if he died before his wife. The man replied that his wife would have suffered terribly. Dr. Frankl then told him “You see, Doctor, such a suffering has been spared her, and it was you who now have to survive and mourn her” (p. 113). The doctor then shook his hand and left the office, needing no further treatment.
Idelle Kursman is the author of two novels, True Mercy and The Book of Revelations.