Write your own obituary? What kind of morbid ask is that? Many of us shy away from death at all costs. We shy away from the thought of what it would be like to die, we shy away from those who have just experienced the death of someone near to them, and we shy away from things that might bring us closer to that final moment. People fear death for different reasons, however, one of the common ones is that it reminds people of their mortality. It can be terrifying to consider the fact that the life we all live ends at some moment. Yet, that is one of the only guaranteed things in life. If you are born into this world, you will inevitably, at some point, leave it.
Existential therapy is a modality that assists clients in developing a sense of meaning in life. It does so by acknowledging our aspirations and capacities as human beings, while simultaneously acknowledging the limitations that are inherent to our existence. The theory claims that the following four givens exist for every person:
- Freedom and associated responsibility
In existential therapy, distress as we know it comes from any person’s interactions with one or more of the aforementioned givens. The modality also expresses six propositions:
- All persons have the capacity for self-awareness.
- As free beings, everyone must accept the responsibility that comes with freedom.
- Each person has a unique identity that can only be known through relationships with others.
- Each person must continually recreate himself. The meaning of life and of existence is never fixed; rather, it constantly changes.
- Anxiety is part of the human condition.
- Death is a basic human condition that gives significance to life.
So back to writing your own obituary. Morbid? Maybe. But it is an excellent way to create meaning out of the life you’re currently living. It’s a way to take inventory and figure out what kind of changes you want to make so you can live a more fulfilled life. What do you want people to say about you when you’re no longer around? How do you want people to feel when they remember you? What do you want to have accomplished and experienced before your time is up?
If we take the fourth proposition that the meaning of life and of existence is never fixed into account, then you can do this exercise every time it feels like things have shifted. It’s important to note that one does not need to wait until there is active distress to engage with this exercise. While existential therapy does give explanations for the root of symptoms and distress, it does also help clients create meaning in an already peaceful life. Having meaning allows us to feel a sense of direction. It helps us know where to anchor down and what steps we need to take to continue feeling fulfilled. Moreover, therapy as a whole can be a proactive rather than a reactive form of care. So, even if you’re 22 years old and brimming with youth, consider writing your own obituary. It can end up both life-affirming and instructive.
Center for Substance Abuse Treatment. Brief Interventions and Brief Therapies for Substance Abuse. Rockville (MD): Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (US); 1999. (Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series, No. 34.) Chapter 6 --Brief Humanistic and Existential Therapies. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK64939/