Meaning and death, Breitbart believes, are the two sides of the same coin—the fundamental problems of the human condition. How should a human being live a finite life? How can we face death with dignity and not despair? What redeems the fact that we will die? These questions roll around Breitbart’s mind every day as he works with patients facing life’s end.
Breitbart’s interest in meaning took root in his childhood. Born in 1951, Breitbart grew up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. His parents, Jews from eastern Poland, narrowly avoided Hitler’s death camps. When they moved to America, they carried their memories of the war years with them. Breitbart’s childhood was steeped in that tragic past. Every morning, his mother would ask him at the breakfast table, “Why am I here?” Why, she wondered, did she live when so many others had died?
“I grew up with a sense of responsibility to justify my parents’ survival and to create something in the world that would be significant enough to make my life worthwhile. It’s no coincidence,” he laughed, “that I ended up at Sloan Kettering.”
Breitbart began working at the hospital in 1984 during the height of the AIDS epidemic. Young men his age were dying all around him. As he tended to them, “They were constantly asking me to help them die,” he said. He was also working with terminal cancer patients. “When I walked in the room, they would say, ‘I only have three months to live. If that’s all I have, I see no value or purpose to living.’” They told him, “If you want to help me, kill me.”
If death means non-existence, Breitbart’s patients reasoned, then what meaning could life possibly have? And if life has no meaning, there’s no point of suffering through cancer.
By the ’90s, physician-assisted suicide was a hot topic in Breitbart’s circles and beyond. The doctor Jack Kevorkian had helped his first patient end her life in 1990. As the United States debated the ethics of assisted suicide, other countries were taking steps toward normalizing the practice. In 2000, the Netherlands became the first nation to make physician-assisted suicide legal. Today the practice is legal in the United States in California, Vermont, Montana, Washington, and Oregon.
As Breitbart heard more stories of assisted suicide, he began to wonder what specifically was driving the terminally ill to give up on life. At the time, he was doing research studies on pain and fatigue at the end of life, so he tacked onto those studies some questions that asked his subjects whether they felt a desire for a hastened death. What he discovered surprised him.
The assumption had been that the ill chose to end their lives because they were in terrible pain. But Breitbart and his colleagues found that wasn’t always the case. Instead, those who desired a hastened death reported feelings of meaninglessness, depression, and hopelessness. When Breitbart asked patients why they wanted a prescription for assisted suicide, many said it was because they had lost meaning in life. Unlike clinical depression, which has a specific set of diagnosable symptoms, meaninglessness was more of an “existential concern,” Breitbart said—a belief that one’s life has little value or purpose and is, therefore, not worth living.