Smart Foundation helps candidate study end-of-life ‘Existential Maturity’
Sometimes patients say striking things like: “Cancer is the best thing that ever happened to me.” And patients' loved ones say things like: “Accompanying him on his last journey is the most inspiring thing I have ever done.”
Sometimes palliative care clinicians say equally odd things. Like: “I could never find the vitality that we have in palliative care in another medical discipline; it comes from the people we care for.”
Comments like these across a career in medicine inspired Linda Emanuel, MD, PhD, a candidate in the Institute Psychoanalytic Education Program’s Child Analysis Committee, to investigate what she has come to call “existential maturity.” She coined the phrase to refer to a state she’s observed in patients old and young who are facing their own or another person’s mortality.
“Existential maturity is a state of balance in which the essential, integrated reality is death. That reality can be unspeakably painful, but it is in place with the rest of life and the greater world,” Emanuel says. “This way of being seems particularly capable of love, finds or creates meaningful value, tenderness, and acceptance, even along with other emotions that may be passionate, turbulent, and pained.”
Grant Support; Partners
Emanuel recently received support from the Smart Family Foundation and the International Psychoanalytical Association to work with children and adults who have terminal cancer in order to explore what existential maturity feels like experientially and how psychotherapists can assist in achieving the state.
Other partners in the project include the Supportive Oncology Services at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital, and the Institute.
Emanuel came to the Institute with deep expertise in palliative care and a research interest in understanding what moves people when mortality seems near.
Many times, she says, “inhibitions that impeded loving relationships before would lift, and people become freed to relate and love fully.” She also observed that often people have not known how to think about death and as they learn how to do so they achieve needed skills in approaching it.
The partners in the research project will work together to produce insights that they expect will be reported in papers based on cases of children and their family members with whom they work.
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