Canadians who meet eligibility requirements can opt to self-administer or have a clinician administer these medications; the vast majority of people choosing MAiD have had their medications delivered by physicians or nurse practitioners. Canada is the first country to permit nurse practitioners to assess for medically assisted dying eligibility and to provide it.
Our most recent research involved interviews with 59 nurse practitioners or registered nurses across Canada who accompanied patients and families along the journey of medically assisted dying or who had chosen to conscientiously object. Nurses worked across the spectrum of care in acute, residential and home-care settings.
Neither of these perspectives do justice to the complexities of MAiD as it is enacted. Without an understanding of those complexities, it is difficult for patients and families to make good decisions.
Nurses accounts of MAiD
Nurses told us that medically assisted dying is about so much more than the act itself. Medically assisted dying is a conversational journey with patients that lasts weeks or even months.
These discussions patients have over time with skilled and compassionate health-care professionals help to determine whether this is what they really want, or whether there are other options that might relieve their suffering.
Conversations between patients and their families are essential to negotiating a common understanding and moving forward together.
Indeed, evidence has suggested that these conversations, when experienced as meaningful by patients, may help to alleviate the suffering that leads to the request for a medically assisted death. This is particularly true if the suffering has arisen from the sense of isolation.
If and when patients decide to proceed with MAiD, then conversations are required to ensure that all of the organizational details (what, where, when, how) are patient-centred choices and that those who are involved know the part they are to play. After the act of medically assisted dying, it is compassionate conversations that support families in navigating an uncharted bereavement process.
So yes, medically assisted dying is about supporting autonomy, but it is also about understanding that autonomy exists within, and is shaped by, our constellation of relationships. We need to be talking more about the essential nature of what it means to have a good death.
Complex reasons to choose death
MAiD is often spoken of as the definitive intervention that ensures control over the alleviation of suffering. But, we have learned that MAiD can also be chosen as the antidote to a system that fails in compassion or equitable palliative care access.
We heard a story of one man who had overstayed the time allowed on a palliative care unit. His doctor was a conscientious objector to medically assisted dying so each time health professionals planned to transfer him to residential care, the man asked for a medically assisted death. In doing so his stay in palliative care was assured.
So, while medically assisted dying does promise control over people’s suffering, it can also be used as a form of resistance to a challenging system or depleted support.
We need to plan ways to ensure that inequitable access or lack of caregiving networks do not become the default reasons for requesting a medically assisted death.
Nurses emphasized how important it is to have preparatory conversations repeatedly. Organizing an assisted death is labour-intensive for all involved; it requires thoughtful and detailed planning within the care system and among families and support networks.
Often the first time that patients and families hear a detailed explanation of the process is when the nurse or the physician first assesses eligibility. Nurses said it is not uncommon for patients to experience uncertainty, to vacillate in their decision around an assisted death, or to experience fear at the moment of death.
It is tough to talk about your uncertainty when so many have invested time and energy into planning your death. At the time of assisted death, nurses and physicians go to extraordinary lengths to ensure a “good death” by normalizing the process, fulfilling patient wishes and providing exemplary clinical care.
Despite all of this, the death is often deeply impactful because it is so different than the death we have known where people gradually fade away. Persons receiving medically assisted death are fully there one minute, and gone the next.
Within minutes they go from talking, to unconscious, to a grey pallour that signifies death, and this “greying” affects even seasoned health-care providers. The death can provoke an array of overwhelming emotions in health-care providers and families alike, both positive and negative.
With the changing landscape of medically assisted dying in Canada, the need for reflective conversations becomes ever more urgent. We need to better understand how medically assisted dying changes the nature of death to which we have become accustomed and how those changes impact all those involved.
Death may be the great equalizer but the availability of good end-of-life care is rarely equitable. Now, a new mobile palliative care program designed to address that inequity is providing care and dignity to people with life-limiting illnesses who are homeless and living in poverty in Victoria.
The Palliative Outreach Resource Team (PORT) is a collaboration of the University of Victoria, Island Health, Victoria Cool Aid and Victoria Hospice. PORT acts as a bridge between people with serious illness and their caregivers, palliative care, and other health and social support systems.
The program is built upon lessons learned from a three-year study led by UVic palliative care researcher Kelli Stajduhar, lead investigator of the Equity in Palliative Approaches to Care program with the Institute on Aging & Lifelong Health and the School of Nursing. The study followed 25 people living homeless or barely housed while struggling with life-threatening medical conditions. The 2018 report Too little, too late: How we fail vulnerable Canadians as they die and what to do about it, found that homeless and barely housed people have to navigate many systems—health care, housing, social care—and that as their health declines, their ability to access these systems also declines. The big takeaway: despite a terminal diagnosis of cancer, heart failure or lung disease, those who were able to access palliative care actually experienced an improvement in quality of life.
For PORT’s first year, the clinical team will be funded by Island Health and Saint Elizabeth Health Community Enterprise, a social enterprise with a commitment to end-of-life care for marginalized communities. Mirroring similar models in Toronto and Calgary, people can self-refer or be referred by their caregivers to a palliative care nurse and a physician who provide whole person care, manage the pain and symptoms related to life-limiting illness, support chosen family and caregivers, and provide grief and bereavement support. Chosen family and caregivers in this population include “street family” and shelter, housing, harm reduction, and peer and support workers from inner-city community organizations who are doing the bulk of end-of-life care for people living in poverty.
The Vancouver Foundation is funding the UVic-led evaluation of the program, as well as the development of initiatives to increase access to and quality of palliative care in the inner city. The PORT team, which began service in July, has supported three deaths and is currently supporting seven people who are dying.
“For almost a decade, providers in our community have cobbled together resources to meet the needs of our clients who are living with unmet palliative needs,” says Grey Showler, director of health and support services at Cool Aid. “We are thrilled to see PORT come to life.”
“Over the next year, we will be implementing this model of palliative care in collaboration with organizations and people who have expertise in care and support for homeless and vulnerably housed people at end-of-life including street families,” says Jill Gerke, director of the palliative and end-of-life care program with Island Health. “We are using research and promising practices to inform the development of this model adapted to our community that bridges existing support and services.”
“Palliative care isn’t a ‘thing’ or a ‘place’ but an approach that focuses on whole-person care for the person, their family and community. This approach necessitates a community response where everyone sees their responsibility and their part in care for dying people,” says Stajduhar.
Ivette Jeffries-Logan and Omisade Burney-Scott are friends for life – and collaborators in death. Three years ago when a mutual friend realized she wouldn’t survive pancreatic cancer, the two central North Carolina women were within the circle of friends she summoned.
Over the course of about three months, the women stayed at Cynthia Brown’s side, as the community activist and one-time Durham City Council member went about the process of dying.
They rubbed her head, kept a watchful eye on her pain, and helped her decipher doctorspeak. And when her spirits appeared to lag, they’d tell her jokes and sing at her bedside.
This, Jeffries-Logan says, was a good death: “If I can help someone at the end of life heal and be clear, I will. There are some things we are required to do alone, but we are not isolated. We are community people. What happens to my nation happens to me. What happens to me happens to my nation.”
Jeffries-Logan and Burney-Scott are death doulas; their form of caregiving is both old and new. The ancient Greek word “doula,” meaning “woman servant” or “slave,” was repurposed in the 1960s to describe birth workers who offer encouragement, back rubs, and other assistance during childbirth.
These days, end-of-life doulas, sometimes called death midwives, are an emerging profession in the growing death positivity movement, which urges a paradigm shift for thinking and talking about death as natural and not inherently traumatic.
They provide nonmedical support to help ease the final transition for the terminally ill. But it’s not merely about that culminating moment, “The End.” They help the dying and their loved ones navigate death with all its “before and afters” – including sickness, acceptance, finding resources for all the legal housekeeping, funeral planning, and bereavement.
For Burney-Scott and Jeffries-Logan, it’s the highest calling.
Sisters in ritual, they performed sacraments of soothing and release drawn from their West African and Indigenous spiritual traditions. Burney-Scott is African American and was initiated in the West African Ife religious practice, and Jeffries-Logan is a member of the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation, a tribe rooted in the North Carolina Piedmont region.
Being a death doula “is not fun. But it’s an honor,” says Burney-Scott, a healer and longtime advocate who most recently worked as a reproductive justice organizer in North Carolina.
She stumbled into the practice when her mother’s dear friend, a hospice nurse, showed Burney-Scott what to do at her mother’s passing.
“I didn’t want to do it,” she says. “The thing I feared most, from when I was a little girl and even when my mom was healthy, was losing my mother. She was that mom that all my friends would talk to, the mom who could let you know [you] were the most special person in the world even when she was yelling at you to do your laundry.”
Near the end, her mother made her retrieve a manila envelope containing her will, insurance information, deeds – the bureaucracy of death. But without ever using the word “doula,” her friend guided Burney-Scott in ushering out of this world the woman who had brought her into it.
“Aunt Cora” encouraged Burney-Scott to whisper her love in her mother’s ear, to hold her hand, play music, and to be present in “an organic practice.” One day, when her mother struggled to breathe, Cora assured Burney-Scott that she didn’t need to fetch doctors – that nothing was wrong.
“She’s leaving,” Cora told her, a simple statement that’s also a tenet of end-of-life care: Death can’t be controlled, but you can prepare for some aspects of it.
Because there is no universal or official training, no licensing and no regulation, there is no official estimate of how many death doulas operate in this country.
But death and dying are constant. And beyond the eulogies and coffins, there’s a clear and growing need for death-related services. The number of Medicare-approved home- and hospital-based hospices, for example, rose from barely 30 to slightly more than 3,400 between 1984 and 2009. A decade later, more than 4,500 exist, according to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.
Groups such as the International End-of-Life Doula Association and others train and certify doulas, providing hands-on experience, like a practicum. Still, many death doulas enter the field as Burney-Scott did, pressed into duty by a family member’s passing.
Few can make it into a full-time, paying job. Others have a background in the clergy or are people of faith, are volunteers involved in work with the sick and shut-in, or are shamans or healers.
Still others start end-of-life doulaing because they are nurses, midwives, or health care professionals who, through experience, have come to know that end of life is more than just what happens to your body.
Merilynne Rush, a nurse and home-birth midwife, co-founded Lifespan Doulas, an organization that trains and certifies end-of-life doulas. In three years, she says, the group has trained 200 people. She sees the need to educate and vet death doulas even while she thinks that community-trained doulas are valuable and necessary.
“There are so many people who are called in their communities [to do this] that no one should tell them they can’t,” Rush says. “I’d never be able to go into every community. That’s one reason for never having any kind of regulation that imposes a state-sanctioned structure that says you are in or out.
“At the same time, when you are working within a medical organization, they need to know you are OK and there are some standards,” she adds. “Training should never be mandatory, but optional.”
A diversity consultant who focuses on Native communities and trauma, Jeffries-Logan distrusts what she believes is a move toward professionalization.
Her death doula work is grounded in Indigenous customs, and communicating with the ancestors does not happen through curricula. Heeding a call from her ancestors, she did a traveling ceremony, designed to pave a deceased person’s road to the afterlife, for an infant relative who died before he turned a year old.
As part of a common tribal custom, she won’t speak the name of the deceased aloud for a year; to do so could keep the spirit tied to its temporal life – now a thing of the past – and distract it from the arduous journey to the ancestors.
Neither she nor Burney-Scott takes money for what they do. Rather, they extend their services to family and friends based on existing connections and an understanding that death is cultural and clinical. “It’s not like I was going to roll up and do this with just anyone. I don’t do shallow-ass relationships,” Jeffries-Logan says.
She questions what happens when the training moves out of informal community pedagogy and into a classroom.
“Who’s the certifying body? Who has the funds to pay for services?” she asks. She thinks of formalizing death doula work in the same vein as yoga, an Indian spiritual system that has been co-opted from communities of color and networks of caring to be dominated by White instructors who teach a fraction – the poses, the breathing – of the whole for pay.
Both women know that communities of color lag in accessing end-of-life care – whether due to cultural beliefs, experience and well-founded fear of racism in medical settings, lack of insurance or financial resources, or misconceptions about what’s available.
For example, Black people represented 8% of those receiving Medicare-funded hospice benefits in 2017, compared to 82% for White people.
In many Southern Black communities, people won’t talk about death, Burney-Scott offers. “There is truth in our mouth. You can manifest things with your word. Don’t talk about death [lest] you invite it in.”
That goes for other communities, as well. A 2010 study comparing Latino immigrant to White cancer caregivers found that the Latinos were surprised and even disturbed by transparent talk about death in hospice pamphlets and consultations.
Furthermore, Rush says that generally when death is imminent, “most people are overwhelmed and don’t know where to turn. They don’t even know that they can get hospice earlier. And even then, they may have a nurse come in for a few hours or an aide, but they aren’t there all the time. People have to rely on their community and network.”
And that’s just what Cynthia Brown did once she accepted that she wasn’t going to beat cancer, calling on the women her family members sometimes referred to as “Cynthia’s girls.”
“She invited us into the process from the very beginning. We swung into action on the logistical things: running errands, taking her to appointments, making meals,” Burney-Scott says.
“And then she said, ‘I want to cut my hair.’ She had 12 braids left. Each one of us cut two braids. Then, she called and said, ‘Hey, will you come over and help me write my memorial?”
She summoned Jeffries-Logan and another friend to help her assemble and bless her ancestors’ altar. With trademark precision and humor, she even planned who would cook at her funeral repast or meal: not her many loving White friends; she didn’t trust their chops in the kitchen.
Her death doulas and friends, in turn, called on each other, their own histories of loss, and their ancestors to help guide Brown through her own departure.
And when the end came, the friends all rolled to the hospital one last time. Burney-Scott donned her trademark white head wrap and packed a bag with crystals and Florida water, a citrusy blend believed to have calming properties.
Jeffries-Logan carried tobacco as an offering; red cedar to represent blood and life force; water from the Eno River, which courses through her tribal nation’s territory; and a ceremonial turtle rattle, used by tribes in special ceremonies.
“Cynthia fed me, I laid up on her couch, we carpooled to anti-racism trainings around the state,” Jeffries-Logan says, her eyes moist and a catch in her voice. “And when we did a ritual for my mother [who died from Alzheimer’s disease] in the ocean, Cynthia told me, since she had lost her parents at a young age and had to be like a mother to her younger siblings, she knew what it was like to be a motherless child. I was going to do whatever I could for her.”
She didn’t want her beloved sister-friend “scratching and clawing to stay here.” So she stroked the soles of Brown’s feet – which got cooler and cooler as death approached – not to bring back sensation, but to help untether her from this earth.
When Brown took her last breath, Burney-Scott’s and Jeffries-Logan’s hands were among those resting on her body. It was a fitting end: a social death for a community advocate who told her friends, “You continue to fight the good fight, and you have to promise me that you won’t leave anyone behind.”
A sociologist explains how to get the most out of the final months of life
By Bob Holmes
We are all going to die — and most of us will be able to see death coming, months or even years before it happens. That foreknowledge means we should embrace the end of life as a distinct life stage, just like childhood, adolescence and maturity, says Deborah Carr, a sociologist at Boston University. In the 2019 Annual Review of Sociology, Carr and her co-author, Elizabeth Luth of Weill Cornell Medicine in New York, explore how to make the most of this final stage in our lives.
Carr spoke with Knowable about how to find a good death. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
You claim that the end of life is a life stage that’s unique to the modern world. Why do you say that?
In past centuries, people tended to die younger, but more important, they tended to die quickly after they became ill. The end of life was basically a week, if that. People died at home. Today, with people dying of conditions like dementia and cancer, someone can experience a month or 10 years between diagnosis and actual death. And today, ventilators and feeding tubes allow people to prolong the length of their life, even if not the quality of life. So it’s a longer and more uncertain stage than in the past.
Is it fair to say that the objective of the end of life is to find a good death?
I think that is one of the main objectives. And that’s a new construct. In the days when people died suddenly, death was really a discrete event. You didn’t have to find ways to soothe them or provide music or other amenities. Today, because people tend to die over prolonged time periods, there’s a real emphasis on ensuring that the quality of that experience, whether it’s a week, a month or six months, is as positive as possible.
What are the components of a good death?
A good death typically has several pillars. First and foremost is freedom from pain. A sizeable portion of dying patients have physical pain and difficulty breathing. So the use of painkillers, palliative care, devices that allow someone to breathe comfortably, is very important.
Another is self-determination. Dying patients and their families want to have some control over the process. They want to choose where they die: at home or in a hospital. They want to choose what kind of treatment they get, whether they get life support.
And the third pillar is a broad category called death with dignity. People want to be treated as a whole person. They want their spiritual and psychological needs met. People even think about planning a funeral that has their favorite music and foods. They want to die being the human being they were in their younger years.
Are there socioeconomic factors that affect access to a good death?
A good death, like a good life, is often a matter of socioeconomic privilege. There are stark race differences in satisfaction with pain treatment at the end of life. There are a lot of explanations for that, but one is discriminatory practices in prescribing painkillers.
Economic factors probably matter most for advance care planning. Low-income people don’t tend to have living wills. One of the main reasons is they can’t afford a lawyer, or they don’t go to a lawyer for a property will because they don’t own a home. Usually it’s when you go to make a will that the lawyer asks if you would like a living will as well.
Socially isolated people are especially vulnerable to a bad death. Family and loved ones are critical in advocating for quality care, for ensuring that one has a clergy person by their side, getting help, making decisions in a sensible way. That’s a lot more difficult for those who don’t have a spouse or child or close friend nearby. So social isolation is a risk factor for a low-quality death.
This is a life stage that most of us will pass into, and we can only do it once. What can we do to make it as good as possible?
Data show that as people get closer to death, they often change their minds about things. Their values change, they start to value things like comfort, spiritual comfort, relationships with family, and they stop fighting. There’s less of a desire to live longer, and more to live better. People need to think about priorities, think about what’s important to them and their families, and adhere to their values, whether personal or religious. That really guides a lot of decision-making. Open and honest communication, along with formal preparations like advance care planning, are healthy approaches that bring both patients and their families peace.
Families and patients can prepare for the end of life by doing things like writing a living will, and specifying what kind of treatment plan one wants, even specifying how much money to leave behind for one’s children and one’s spouse. All of that planning is guided by some sense of when one’s end is coming. That’s why it’s really important that doctors try to give some estimate of how long someone’s future lifespan is. But that’s very hard to do, both psychologically and technically.
The other thing is to communicate with the people close to you. People need support, both practically and emotionally. They need people to talk to, and literally to hold their hand, but they also need people to help them with decision-making, financial decisions, figuring out whether they’re going to spend their last week at home or in a hospital. That communication can be very helpful.
What is society doing right today?
We have rising numbers of people using hospice, which emphasizes soothing of pain and palliation, rather than treatment. I think that’s a real advance. Patients and family members who receive hospice care are almost uniformly positive about the social support they receive.
The proportion of Americans who have living wills, or who appoint a family member to be decision-maker, has skyrocketed. And under the Affordable Care Act, doctors are reimbursed for the time they spend discussing end-of-life issues with their Medicare patients. That’s really important, because doctors are so rushed today. Being reimbursed to take the time to ask older patients what they want has been another real advance. Some private insurance plans cover end-of-life discussions and others don’t. But nearly all older adults in the United States have Medicare, so in practice, nearly all older adults have this benefit. People under age 65 with a permanent disability also may qualify for Medicare, and consequently are eligible for this benefit.
What are we doing wrong?
Despite all the positive trends, there are still millions of Americans who do not take steps to prepare adequately. It goes back to fear and discomfort about death. People are afraid to talk about these issues — they may think “Oh, it looks like I’m after my mom’s inheritance if I talk about it.” But these are conversations that everybody needs to have. Just like parents should have the drug conversation, people should have the death conversation, to talk about their hopes for what they will experience at the end of life. You aren’t going to achieve what you want unless you articulate it to people who can help you sort it out.
If we can normalize and destigmatize death, and recognize it as a normal part of life and aging, that will empower people to discuss these difficult issues.
The other problem is that for all the strengths of hospice, the number of nonprofit hospices has been diminishing dramatically, and the number that are for-profit has been increasing dramatically. The people who work for hospices are for the most part kind and loving workers, but the for-profits are motivated to make money, so they’re often treating only the patients who are less expensive to treat. They’re often not delivering care to rural residents who need a lot of travel time. They’re shifting hospice care to nursing homes, because that’s cheaper. But that means fewer people are given the opportunity to die at home if they wish. The move to for-profit hospice is undermining the quality of care, and it’s limiting who gets that care.
So far, we’ve been talking about the needs of people at the end of life. But does the final stage of life offer opportunities as well?
One is the opportunity to construct a “post-self,” the self people want to live on after they die. You often hear that people want to leave the world a better place. End of life is a time when they can really think about what kind of legacy they want to leave behind, whether it’s financial or emotional or social.
It’s also one of those rare opportunities to be wholly introspective. There’s long been a theory that as we get older we care less about possessions and the larger social network, and want to spend our final days dedicating our energy to those people who are nearest and dearest to us. This is an opportunity to show gratitude towards loved ones, to focus on spiritual needs, review one’s life and give love and support to those you’re going to leave behind. It’s sometimes important for dying people to tell family members, “I’m ready to go now, and you can be OK with it.” Having those difficult conversations can make people feel more prepared for the transition.
What are the areas we need to work on in the future?
A big one is physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia. That’s not something that’s taken hold in the US. There’s certainly attitudinal support for it — all the survey data show that people think if someone’s terminally ill, with no chance of recovery, and of sound mind, they should be given the option for euthanasia. I think that’s going to be one of our big questions over the next 10 years about end-of-life care.
Unlike most people, Anne-Marie Keppel isn’t afraid to talk about death. From her home office on Craftsbury Common, she works as a death doula and life cycle funeral celebrant through her businesses Stardust Meadow and Village Deathcare. When jewelry maker and Hardwick resident Cecilia Leibovitz lost Michael Secore — her partner of nearly 18 years — to cancer last September, Anne-Marie was there to help ease the transition and provide support to the family during their time of grief.
Now Cecilia makes memorial jewelry to commemorate loved ones, using pieces of clothing and personal artifacts. We sat down around Anne-Marie’s table with glasses of mint tea to talk about our experiences with death and why we are so afraid to discuss it openly.
It’s not quite the peaceful drifting off I’d imagined for my dad.
By Harriet Brown
At age 86, my father had survived both colon cancer and a stroke that left him with aphasia. His mind was sharp, though, and he wasn’t depressed. A crack bridge player with a passion for Italian restaurants, he was popular at his assisted living facility even though he couldn’t speak much. He told me he’d lived a good life and wasn’t afraid of dying, and he didn’t want to go through any more medical trauma. No chemo, no radiation, no surgeries, no treatment.
His advance directive read DNR and DNI — do not resuscitate, do not intubate. No one would break his ribs doing CPR or make bruises bloom along his arms trying to find a vein. As his health-care proxy, I was completely on board. I’d read Sherwin Nuland’s “How We Die,” Atul Gawande’s “Being Mortal,” Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s “On Death and Dying.” Comfort would be the priority and any pain would be “managed,” which I assumed meant erased.
Up to 80 percent of Americans die in hospitals or nursing homes, and a third spend at least 10 days in an intensive care unit before they die, many of them comatose or on a ventilator. A week after his sudden diagnosis of widespread metastatic disease, my father was lucky enough to get a bed in our town’s only hospice, a homey facility staffed with attentive and experienced caregivers. The alternative would have been a hospital bed in my living room, so it was a relief to know that my father was in the hands of professionals. They would know what to do.
And they did. The nurses and caregivers were gentle as they repositioned my father in bed, explaining each move even when it seemed he couldn’t hear or follow. When he could no longer swallow they squirted morphine into his cheek and rubbed it so the medicine would be absorbed. “This will make you feel better,” they would say, and my father would turn his head and open his chapped lips like a baby bird.
But his death was not the peaceful drifting away I’d always imagined, where you floated into a calm, morphine-induced sleep, your breath came slower and slower and then simply stopped. He vomited blood over and over. A lifelong stoic who never complained of pain — even when he’d broken a hip the year before — he twitched restlessly in bed, eyes closed, his brow furrowed and his skin clammy.
The magical “managing” of pain and nausea I’d anticipated turned out to be more aspirational than real. The hospice nurse prescribed one anti-nausea medication, then another, without success. Eventually, Ativan and Haldol settled the nausea, and morphine helped the pain. My father was lucky it helped; about 25 percent of people die in pain. One caregiver confided to me, “There are people whose pain we never get under control.”
For days we watched my father’s cheeks hollow, watched him pluck at the thin blanket that was all he could bear on his body. His kind brown eyes glazed over, and some trick of the light made them look blue under his half-closed lids. Sometimes he sat up suddenly, reaching forward, and then fell back on the pillows. I knew there was a name for this behavior, terminal restlessness, that it’s common during the dying process. I knew the gurgling sounds he made as he breathed came from his body’s inability to clear secretions, and that — according to hospice — it probably wasn’t uncomfortable for him.
Leaving the hospice facility one night, I told my 81-year-old aunt that I wished I had the nerve to put a pillow over his face. “I’ll stand guard at the door while you do,” she replied. Dying is hard work. And it’s hard to watch.
On the last night, I sat with my father until the summer sky began to darken. Then I gathered my belongings and leaned over the bed where he lay unresponsive, his eyes closed, his mouth half-open. I kissed his stubbled cheek. “Dad, I’m going now,” I told him. “It’s time for you to go too.” He died a few hours later. He was alone, as most people are when they die, so I don’t know if it was peaceful, if he made a sound or opened his eyes or just stopped breathing.
After he died, I was haunted by scenes of his suffering. I remembered looking out a hospital window nearly 30 years earlier with my newborn daughter in my arms, realizing that every one of the people I saw on the street had been born. For every person walking down Seventh Avenue, a woman had borne pain that tore her body open. It was a horrifying thought.
Drugs help with the pain of childbirth, but they can’t take it away completely. It’s the same with dying.
“Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, [like] fate and death,” wrote psychologist Viktor E. Frankl in his bestseller “Man’s Search for Meaning.” He was something of an expert, having survived nearly three years in a variety of Nazi camps.
Of course, my father’s suffering was nothing like the kind Frankl witnessed. But still, death, like birth, is a creaturely process, a force that wrenches us onward without consulting our preferences or respecting our sensibilities.
In the weeks after my father’s death, I began to understand in a deeper way the meaning of a good death. No drugs took away all my father’s physical pain and nausea. But in the care he was given, the morphine, the quiet words, the repositioning and cool cloths on his forehead, his suffering was addressed even if it couldn’t be “managed.”
And that, I think, is what we all want. Not just freedom from beeping machines and needles and the cold lighting of an ICU, though that matters, too. Not just the absence of pain, which isn’t possible for everyone. But the solace of being seen and heard and acknowledged brings comfort even in the face of deep suffering.
I hope it’s something we can remember as we move toward a society where more of us can have a truly good death.
One afternoon in the summer of 2018, Bob Gramling dropped by the small suite that serves as his lab in the basement of the University of Vermont’s medical school. There, in a grey lounge chair, an undergrad research assistant named Brigitte Durieux was doing her summer job, earphones plugged into a laptop. Everything normal, thought Bob.
Then he saw her tears.
Bob doesn’t baulk at tears. As a palliative care doctor, he has been at thousands of bedsides and had thousands of conversations, often wrenchingly difficult ones, about dying. But in 2007, when his father was dying of Alzheimer’s, Bob was struck by his own sensitivity to every word choice of the doctors and nurses, even though he was medically trained.
“If we [doctors] are feeling that vulnerable, and we theoretically have access to all the information we would want, it was a reminder to me of how vulnerable people without those types of resources are,” he says.
He began to do research into how dying patients, family members and doctors talk in these moments about the end of treatment, pain management and imminent death. Six years later, he received over $1 million from the American Cancer Society to undertake what became the most extensive study of palliative care conversations in the US.
The resulting database contains over 12,000 minutes and 1.2 million words of conversation involving 231 patients. This is the basis of the Vermont Conversation Lab, which Bob created to analyse this data and find features of those conversations that make patients and family members feel heard and understood.
Brigitte’s job in the lab that summer was simple: listen to moments of silence and categorise them. The idea was that they could indicate emotionally charged connections between doctor and patient. Once the silences were coded, they would be used to train a machine-learning algorithm to detect them automatically – and, with them, moments of emotional connection.
You might ask what place algorithms could possibly have in this sensitive realm. The reality is that healthcare communication needs help, especially in palliative care, where practitioners seek to bring patients to their deaths as meaningfully and painlessly as possible.
In 2014, the US Institute of Medicine made improving doctor-patient communication a priority in its landmark study, ‘Dying in America’. An analogous publication in the UK, Ambitions for Palliative and End of Life Care, emphasised the need for patients, family and caregivers to have “the opportunity for honest, sensitive and well-informed conversations about dying, death and bereavement”. It reiterated that doctors need to make those conversations possible.
Most of the resulting communications training seems to offer scripts and templates to help doctors deliver bad news and make decisions with patients. But this is not enough. In this context, doctors really need to understand conversations more broadly. They need to appreciate everyone’s role in a conversation. They need to learn the ability to listen and be silent. They need to confidently recover from conversational missteps.
“Oncologists are in general very uncomfortable with this kind of thing. They want to focus on treatment, and they talk eloquently about different protocols and clinical trials,” says Wen-Ying Sylvia Chou, a programme director in the Behavioral Research Program at the US National Cancer Institute. She oversees funding on patient-doctor communication at the end of life. “But sitting in the place of being a listener is not something that clinicians are trained for or necessarily comfortable doing.”
Enter Bob Gramling. Hospitals track infection rates, bed occupancy and many other measures. Why not good conversations, too?
Amiable and serene, wearing a bracelet of Buddhist meditation beads, Bob sees a big role for artificial intelligence (AI) that can detect and measure the features of clinical interactions that matter to patients, then report those measurements to numbers-oriented healthcare systems.
Once such technology is widely available, he says, “we can incentivise our hospitals to build systems to improve those interactions and reward doctors for doing it”.
“How are you?” asks the nurse practitioner, who’s just come into the patient’s room.
“Fine,” the patient says. She’s a 55-year-old white woman with stage 4 breast cancer. Neither she nor the nurse practitioner know that she’ll be dead in five days.
“No, you’re not,” the nurse practitioner retorts.
“Oh, a loaded question,” the patient laughs.
“It’s been a long – well? No,” says her spouse.
“No,” says the patient. “It’s a polite question, it’s a polite answer.”
This is a snippet of a conversation in Bob’s database that he played to his brother David, a linguistics professor at the University of Arizona. David recognised the dynamics of this specific moment. The people in that room hadn’t been talking about care or disease, but they had been doing something important in the conversation that would affect the quality of the care.
When the Gramlings’ father died, David flew home from a literature studies fellowship in Berlin. But years earlier, he’d been intimately involved as a caregiver, witnessing a “smörgåsbord of insane, irrational communication failures” with lawyers, nurses, nutritionists and priests.
For a year after their father’s death, the brothers were swallowed by family matters. As they emerged, they began talking about palliative care communication and linguistic research in healthcare settings, and began to collaborate professionally.
The most recent result is a book, Palliative Care Conversations, published in early 2019. It aims to show physicians how conversations work, such as how clinicians and patients often understand words and phrases differently. David looked at the conversations at a granular level, using the tools of a linguistic subfield called conversation analysis. He spent years listening to audio recordings of the conversations, noting moments worth closer analysis.
Meanwhile, Bob provided clinical details about medical culture. In the last few years, he has also hung out with jazz musicians, who are master communicators when they’re improvising, and visited the Stanford Literary Lab to see how digital tools can be applied to massive literary corpuses to understand patterns too diffuse for human readers to catch.
As the Gramlings note in the book, the above back-and-forth between patient, spouse and nurse practitioner is remarkable for a first exchange between strangers. They explain that’s because “the clinician is willing to risk conventional rapport-building pathways by contradicting the family member’s self-reported state of mind”. In other words, the physician has opened the door to a looser mode of relating – and it works.
Another conversation doesn’t go as well. It’s a “pragmatic failure”, as David would say.
“When I came in,” says the nurse practitioner, “I saw you were watching Scrubs.”
“Scrubs?” the patient says. He’s a 63-year-old black man with stage 4 kidney cancer, who will live for 135 more days.
“Have you ever seen Scrubs?” asks the nurse practitioner, who is white.
“Yeah,” the patient says. “No, I wasn’t watching Scrubs.”
As the exchange unfurls, it’s clear the patient and clinician won’t connect. The clinician then seems to want to force their way to the task at hand, and forget the small talk where rapport could be built.
“When you study communication in healthcare, you’ll see a lot of monologues from doctors,” Bob says. “I don’t mean that in an insulting way – it could be really good information.” In palliative care, he explains, conversations are different: “It might be just because it’s the nature of palliative care. It’s what we do and what our value is… there is a lot of turn-taking.” That’s another term he learned from his brother. It refers to the back-and-forth of conversation.
“This is not a clean, rational, logical experience that fits on an 8-and-a-half-by-11 piece of paper, it’s a human-engaged relational endeavour,” he adds. “If we’re going to develop metrics for that, we’d better be looking at both the beauty and the science from many angles.”
Research on end-of-life communicating and decision-making typically looks at what doctors or nurses say. It rarely takes into account the deeper linguistic and cognitive factors that influence patients’ abilities to communicate in the first place.
One study, by speech-language pathologists in the late 1990s, showed just how large these language challenges can be. They gave a battery of language comprehension and memory tests to 12 hospice patients: 11 of them couldn’t recall words, had difficulty understanding things and pronouncing words, and had difficulty remembering what was said to them. These symptoms get in the way of normal activities, like having conversations.
Even something as crucial as how well older patients can hear gets overlooked. In a 2016 survey of 510 hospice and palliative care providers across the US, 87% of them said they did not screen for hearing loss, even though 91% of them agreed that patients’ hearing loss impedes conversation and negatively affects the quality of the care they receive. Only 61% said they felt confident nonetheless that they could deal with patients with hearing problems.
The Gramlings pay a remarkable amount of attention to another factor: the pain, shortness of breath, fatigue and medications that can keep patients from communicating normally.
In his research, David has addressed what he calls “language in extremis”: what happens when people’s ideas about language and communication buckle under the strain of circumstances, as in multilingual experiences in Nazi concentration camps, or interpreting in border patrol detention facilities.
End-of-life medical conversations also often involve language in extremis. As cancer brings a person’s life near to its end, they may have lost some of their lifelong communicative powers to the disease or its treatments. They may have less ability to speak subtly and indirectly, which is important for politeness. Shallow breathing shortens utterances, and drugs may block word-finding. All of this reinforces an asymmetry in communication that doctors don’t always grasp.
A physician might encourage a patient to speak openly, and indicate their willingness to listen, but in practical terms, “That gesture doesn’t quite work,” David says, and doctors need to understand why.
At the same time, people still hew to lifelong social conventions about being a user of their language. They might be dying, but “They don’t back away from their interactional responsibilities,” David says. They honour turn-taking; they don’t interrupt. They tell jokes, they use family language, and they create mini-rituals of inclusion and exclusion, often to deal with the communication asymmetries.
“If I were picturing the developmental arc,” says David, “it wouldn’t be coasting down into death. It would be all the way and sometimes heightened. The kind of complex literacy you need to use in a hospital setting in a serious illness, and managing all your oncological terms – it’s almost like the competencies themselves get expanded in this end of life.”
In his lab, Bob is examining even more fleeting aspects of conversations, such as pauses. It’s an interesting choice, because pauses might be considered as a sign that a speaker has lost their way or that an interaction is breaking down. On the other hand, pauses are easy to locate in the acoustic signals of recorded conversations. And they might indicate where someone is listening or about to say something important, so they might be a good thing.
Bob’s team used machine learning to identify pauses of 2 seconds or longer in spoken conversations, then human coders like Brigitte Durieux tried to categorise them, looking for ones that were more than just silence.
Because they didn’t have access to what the doctors or patients were actually thinking, they looked for the presence of emotional words and other sounds like sighs or crying on either side of the pause. Did a question about the quality of life, treatment hopes, prognosis or dying precede the pause? If so, the pause may have been because the doctor invited the patient to consider something.
The team found that during some of these pauses, some connection, shift or transformation was occurring. These “connectional silences” were rare. Out of a set of 1,000 clips with pauses, a mere 32 were connectional in nature. They were brief, as well, most lasting less than four seconds. But there’s still power in them.
The dynamics of a conversation change dramatically after such a connectional silence. Suddenly, a patient will be talking more than they did earlier. They’ll be directing the conversation, not the doctor. It’s as if the mutual agreement to pause for two seconds spilled into an agreement to shift roles.
“No, for some reason I guess I just in my head was gonna be on [chemotherapy] for the rest of my life and everything was gonna be hunky dory and…” a patient begins.
A 2.9-second connectional silence follows. The doctor inhales audibly, to signal they will respond, which makes the patient pick back up.
“You know. I knew early on, I mean you told me early on it’s not like and then this will be the rest of my life. Something, you know, might go down.”
The doctor responds. “Something. That can be a very hard thing to think about. That here we found something that’s helping but you can’t stay on it for the rest of your life.”
In other moments, the silence comes after a doctor has said something empathetic.
“It’s rare of me to tell somebody point-blank you’ve got to stop. However, I will say you have my permission to set limits,” the doctor says.
“Okay,” says the patient, then falls silent for nearly seven seconds.
His wife chuckles. “He can’t stand the thought of it. I can tell by his laugh,” then she laughs.
“I know he can’t stand the thought of it,” the doctor says.
“No, that’s okay,” the patient says. “I’ll get used to it.”
Or in another instance, the doctor tells a patient’s spouse, “what you feel is really hard. It’s really hard.” There’s a 2.8-second silence.
“I just wish he had a better quality of life.”
“I know, I know,” says the doctor.
Even though these connectional silences don’t happen often, Bob thinks they’re good linguistic markers of connection exactly because doctors don’t commonly use them. When someone good at monologuing and interrupting falls silent, it may mean they’re allowing something else to happen.
Bob surmises, “More often than not, the conversations that have a lot of space in them are probably going to lead to people feeling more heard and understood.”
Judy had a question. Having come to the hospital at the University of Vermont to recover from the flu, this elegant, 83-year-old woman was lying in her bed. Two doctors had come to her room bearing news. It was cancer, not the flu, and it had spread from her liver. She could undertake a course of chemo, or she could have her pain managed as she died.
She turned to her daughter, Kate, sitting beside her. “What should I do?” she asked.
When the doctors had requested this meeting, Kate had dropped everything to be there. It seemed unusually serious. Now she knew why. She wondered why she hadn’t seen the signs of her mother’s cancer. Judy’s skin had started to look yellow, she recalled. But instead of recommending a check-up, she bought her mother some pinker make-up.
In this pivotal conversation, the doctors presented the options but also wanted to know what was important to Judy. They knitted the science together with thoughtfulness and compassion. Kate was struck by their slow, almost languid approach to delivering the news.
Slowly it dawned on her that this was a conversation about her mother’s death. Neither of them had prepared for this. Not now, not so soon.
“It had the nature of a conversation with a clergyperson rather than a doctor,” she remembers. Pastoral kept coming to mind.
At the end of the conversation, one of the doctors gave her his card. It was Bob Gramling. Kate has since seen the bright blue spectrographs showing gaps in conversation – where the pauses occur. She thinks these are important moments as well.
“Where there’s silence, where there are gaps, that’s where the caring shows up,” she says. “I think it’s incredible work to point out to doctors there’s a lot going on in the silences.”
Bob and David have only scratched the surface of how these conversations work. So far they have only studied English speakers, for example; pauses work differently in other cultures, so they need data on those moments, too. And because their data comes from people with cancer, there’s a concern that the analysis may be skewed.
With cancer, says Wen-Ying Sylvia Chou of the National Cancer Institute, most patients have time: “They continue to be themselves and continue to be part of the conversation and any ongoing discussion.” With other diseases, though, there could be more risk that the person would “lose cognitive function or physical function”. In those cases, she says, conversations “would look very different”.
Healthcare’s use of natural language processing – technologies that treat language as data – is expanding, and the chances are good that research like that of the Gramlings will expand to cover conversations with people who have other serious illnesses.
Bob isn’t the only researcher exploring the use of artificial intelligence in palliative care. In 2017, James Tulsky, a palliative care physician at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston and a Harvard professor who studies health communication, stressed that “mass-scale, high-quality automated coding will be required” to give feedback that helps clinicians improve their expressions of empathy.
Tulsky turned to Panayiotis Georgiou, a computer engineer at the University of Southern California, to develop automated detection of emotional connections between doctors and patients. In 2017, a team headed by Georgiou showed that certain acoustic features of the speech of couples in counselling could be used to predict marital outcomes. What if algorithms could do the same for palliative care conversations?
“The technology in theory exists out there to do all this,” Tulsky says. “It’s just a matter of doing enough research, running enough iterative trials, training up the machines to actually get these algorithms trained well enough so you could apply them to more random talk.”
I ask Judy’s daughter Kate what she thinks of using artificial intelligence to enrich human connections. “I wouldn’t worry about the technology,” she says. “The more technology, the more sacred the conversation becomes.”
What does she mean? Anything that enables humans to use their voices more effectively with each other is a good thing, she explains: “It’s because of the increasing technology that the interaction becomes more wonderful.”
What is a conversation? It’s a setting where humans interact, often for a purpose but sometimes for none at all. People have to learn how to have conversations but when they become expert in their culture’s conventions, conversing becomes so automatic it feels natural.
Modern healthcare has hijacked conversation and made it a tool by which physicians can achieve their ends.
According to David, “The contemporary hospital still understands ‘conversation’ as ‘making a pre-determined X happen through conversation’.” This is a barrier in serious illness and end-of-life care, where the conversations need to be venues for figuring out what the X might be.
At the end of a patient’s life, there may not be effective medical treatments, just things to discuss and plans to make. This may need a more natural conversation than a medical one, a conversation in which none of the participants may know what the outcome will be.
After all, these conversations aren’t just for doctors; they’re for patients, too. And family members, nursing aides, housekeeping staff. “There are a lot of human beings who have a vested interest in this other human,” Bob says.
There are critics who don’t think artificial intelligence and machine learning have a role to play in palliative care. Bob’s view is that shying away from analysing this kind of conversation in this way means that essential opportunities for improving it will be missed.
“It is helpful, as a discipline that has historically thought of communication as just the art of medicine, to actually think that, no, this is a science,” he says. And understanding that science could help us re-engineer the healthcare system to support more meaningful conversations.
He’s aware of the delicacy in institutionalising and commodifying a human interaction, though. “As a physician,” he says, “I was afraid of being a researcher that was going to oversimplify this kind of sacred experience into something that’s measurable and convenient and essentially meaningless.”
That’s where Brigitte Durieux struggled with her feelings as she listened to thousands of audio clips of pauses. In some conversations, people were laughing, but she was struck by the loneliness in others. She had begun to recognise patients’ voices and wondered what had happened to them.
“Nobody is perfect, but there are times when one realises there’s something that could be said to make this feel less like a loss,” she says. Sometimes she whispered under her breath something the doctors could have offered instead.
After Bob found Brigitte crying, he wrote an ethics proposal to the hospital so that he could introduce a new procedure into his lab. He borrowed an idea from the hospital’s palliative care unit, where staff gather every week to say the names of people who have died, then ring a singing bowl.
Now, at the start of every Vermont Conversation Lab meeting, a researcher reads the name of one of the patients from the database and rings the bowl. So far, they have gone through the list of names twice.
The ceremony helps, says Brigitte, because it reduces the guilt of turning a sensitive moment in someone’s life into a piece of data.
“What it does ultimately,” she says, “is recognise the humanity of things.”