Pharmacists are the healthcare professionals that constantly, on a day-to-day basis, expose themselves to patients with sadness, anxiety, negative thoughts, and unstable emotions. This could be secondary to poor health or due to other factors. However; not many people realise that pharmacists are also frequent observers of death. Being a pharmacist trained in providing palliative care dispensing and support, I have a close connection with the community care nurse specialist team at the Mercy Hospice in Auckland. Over the years, I have personally been involved with the care of countless terminally ill patients.
What I experienced this week has triggered me to write this article about the meaning of life. Just like my typical day at work, I had a phone de-briefing with a nurse specialist yesterday afternoon about a newly discharged patient’s palliative medication plan.
Palliative medicines are usually given by the route of injection or infusion to alleviate pain, agitation, hallucinations, and breathing problems in patients near the end of life to reduce their suffering.
After preparing the medication, I contacted the family only to realise that they were grieving heavily as their beloved mother has passed away merely 15 minutes before.
This whole experience resonated deeply within me. My day went from being super optimistic straight to a sense of profound sadness. I felt an extreme rush of wretchedness – a feeling that I simply cannot find the perfect word to describe. I kept asking myself: was the patient suffering a great deal before her passing? Would I have been able to help alleviate her suffering if I prepared her medicines and reached her earlier than planned? I was battling with in my mind for not being able to be of any help to the patient in her final hours.
On my way driving home that afternoon, I kept thinking about the patient and their family, and a question popped up in my mind – What is the meaning of life? If life is suffering then is life worth suffering for? These are very deep questions and most people think they require very deep and complicated answers. The reality is that the answer is usually right before your eyes. It certainly manifested in front of my eyes when I gave my son Jacob and my wife a big hug when I got home. For a split moment, I realised how blind of me to ask questions about the meaning of life when the answer was right in front of me.
We’ve all been told that life is all about finding happiness and winning – it’s something that we all should pursue. If that’s the case, what happens if we feel sad and are losing in life? Does that mean our life is worthless?
Finding happiness is important but what’s more important is finding the truth, the true meaning, and the purpose of life. We all know that life is hard. I think life is suffering and malice. It’s enduring at its core. So, benchmarking the purpose of our existence against happiness is counterproductive and unattainable. Not to mention that everyone has their own definition of happiness and it simply cannot be generalised.
It seems that in society today, people prioritise happiness over the truth and purpose. No wonder more and more people are depressed, anxious, sad, and suicidal than ever before. Many people are in fear of death – not just the people at the end of their life, but also the fear is extended to their loved ones who see the turmoil they had to go through before death. And who knows what comes after death, whether is going to be better or worse – we simply don’t know.
Being a pharmacist with experience in palliative care, I am well aware of what the negative connotations associated with death can do to us psychologically. I think we humans do not like the idea of uncertainty. Everything we do is towards ensuring our life is in an orderly fashion. We often like to think that we enjoy the element of the unknown but our biological self inclines us to prefer order and stability.
I think this is partly because of the level of complexity in our society and people’s lives today. The complex nature of our lives is a combination of the uncertainty of how the future is going to lay itself out and also whether what we know about the past is sufficient in enabling us to move forward. It’s also the inclusion of not knowing the best approach to life.
People have a default tendency to associate a high standard of living with a meaningful life. It can only be further from the truth because in order to have a high standard of living, you almost have to sacrifice the present for the future and one of the trade-offs is to be continuously running on a treadmill to keep your so-called “meaningful life” going.
In my honest opinion, sometimes it takes something as extreme as experiencing grief or death itself before we can fully appreciate the true meaning of life. It’s like when you are in a dire state and everything looks absolutely hopeless and then you get a new realisation – Bang! Everything snaps together fall into place and you come out a new person and start seeing life differently.
I believe sometimes the best approach to life is to let whatever happens to happen and don’t try to fix something that is un-fixable. Now some might argue that we should be proactive and actively seek ways to regain control in our life. Don’t get me wrong, I totally agree with that. However, what I’m referring to are times where things are outside our control (for example sickness and death). In the face of adversity and death, it is more important than ever to have this attitude and mindset, focusing on the things that are in our control, otherwise, you’ll fall down the rabbit hole, never to be seen again.
We all know life is hard and if you have a nihilistic viewpoint then it’s easy to be flooded by doubts which can lead to a life of suffocation. It’s very nice to think that the meaning of life is happiness. However, in reality, it is merely a side effect that we should be grateful for but there is no guarantee of it. Life is about finding what means right to you. It is about finding the truth and morality. Even if it means the truth might be difficult to bear or even sometimes risk offending someone else. Life is also about building meaningful relationships and restoring, reconciling, and mending lost relationships that mean something to you.
Seeing death in my daily work makes me appreciate the value of life and the importance of accepting whatever life throws at you while maintaining morality.
Let me tell you a story, years ago when I was working at another pharmacy, I had a patient who was recovering drug addict. This man was ruined, he looked like he was living on the streets, with very dirty clothes. He was so shy that he would always bend over, look down, avoiding eye contact. The way he looked at everyone was as if everyone was above him. He was not a bright man and from what I recall, he left school when he was 15 and was intellectually impaired. He had the worst life one could ever imagine – got into drugs and alcohol, served time for aggravated robberies, just the works. His life was absolute hell. However, he thought if he actively tried to engage with other people about the dark side of drugs and addiction through his own experiences despite his shyness, he might be able to help someone to give up drugs. Now that was a person who was moral even though his life was seriously destroyed in every possible way. There was literally nothing going for him in this world and he still had the moral capacity to decide that there was someone worse off than him and believe me that wasn’t easy to find. Now that’s the story of the meaning of life.
The interesting thing about being alive is that it is a game you don’t get to choose or play unless you are all in. No matter how much suffering you are going through, you need to be all in to have a chance to be better. So, I think what I’ve learned from this patient is that we might as well play the most magnificent game while we can because life is short even though there is a great deal of suffering. No one should ever need to justify their wretched existence to anyone including themselves. Sometimes you just have to pick the best thing possible that you can do to make things a little more bearable. Pick up our goddamn burden and walk up the hill no matter how steep it appears to be is probably the best strategy we have to conquer in life.
To your own journey of discovery,