Black people must command end-of-life care


By Brandi Alexander

As we celebrate Black History Month, one of our goals should be to change the history of African-Americans like my father enduring needless suffering when we die because we don’t prepare for the inevitable end of life.

When my father’s cancer came out of remission in 2010, he declined in a matter of months. I had never had one conversation with him about his end-of-life care goals, preferences and values, so he suffered terribly during his last days. My family spent so much time fighting over what we thought he wanted, when in reality, none of us knew what he really wanted. That experience taught me not only the importance of these discussions, but also how much of a need there is for us to start planning early, before a time of crisis.

Unfortunately, African-Americans are less likely to complete advance directives or have conversations with our families and health care providers about our their end-of-life care goals, preference and values, according to a 2014 report in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. It is critical that our community begin focusing on advance care planning about the end-of-life care options, including educating ourselves about the value of hospice and palliative care.

The sad truth is that we suffer from higher rates of health care outcome disparities caused by smoking, obesity, hypertension, heart disease and cancer. By not having frequent conversations about end-of-life care options early, to prepare before a health emergency occurs, people of color often opt for aggressive, futile medical treatments that only prolong an agonizing dying process. African Americans are less likely to access comfort care, hospice and palliative care to maximize the quality of remaining life.

In fact, while representing more than 13 percent of our nation’s population, according to U.S. Census data, we account for only 8 percent of hospice users.

Unlike many of the other disparities that impact the community, this is one we actually have some control over. It starts with having a conversation. Unfortunately too many of us are not having discussions. In fact, 20 percent of African-Americans have not talked to anyone about end-of-life care, according to research conducted by the Duke Divinity School and the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization.

Every individual has a responsibility to lead by example on health care issues, so I challenge you to start having conversations today, with your personal networks and your health care professionals. Complete an advanced directive and identify your power of attorney, the person who will make decisions for you in the case that you can not speak for yourself. The most loving thing you can do is to make your wishes known to your loved ones, it provides peace for all involved.

Tomorrow is not promised, so whether you want every treatment option available or none at all, it’s imperative to make sure it is clear to those who matter to you the most. Start this process by visiting Compassion & Choices website page, compassionandchoices.org/plan-your-care, where one can access state-specific advance directives and find other resources and tools to help, free of charge.

We even offer a diagnosis decoder that generates questions for physicians specific to a particular illness. Educating and utilizing these resources will not only empower you, it will also have a positive and lasting impact on our community as a whole and the way we experience end of life. Remember … talking about death will not kill you … advocate for yourself!

Complete Article HERE!


What should I know about dying with cancer?


From what to ask your doctor to the key considerations around dying at home, award-winning oncologist and author Dr Ranjana Srivastava offers her advice for patients, friends and family on navigating the last days of cancer

For all the world’s teachings on death and dying, the patient who doesn’t lament it for one reason or another is rare. Some people are unprepared to die. Others are worried about those left behind. Some are angry. Many are frightened. Not everyone is hungry for more life, but almost everyone at some point feels apprehensive about letting go. If you or someone you love is struggling with these issues, here are some tips to navigate the future.

Talk to your oncologist
Studies show that, when it comes to prognosis, oncologists and patients often have different interpretations of the information shared. One found that, while oncologists said they had discussed a poor prognosis, many patients felt that they’d not been made aware of it.

Your oncologist should be clear on your prognosis and what that means, but never be afraid to push for more information – it is both appropriate and valuable to ask your oncologist about what to expect. A lack of awareness or understanding of your prognosis could have major implications for acceptance and planning for the end of life.

In terms of details, dividing life expectancy into broad groups of days, weeks, months or years seems helpful for many people. Asking your doctor to describe what decline may look like can also be helpful, as can ­­getting an understanding of how people die from cancer, medically speaking – a question I’ve tackled here. If you are not sure how or what to ask, get help from your family doctor or palliative care nurse, who can help you write out some questions to take to your next appointment.

Talk to each other
While it can be heart-wrenchingly difficult to talk about the finality of dying, patients and relatives say that even one discussion around an incurable situation can be helpful. Acknowledging mortality allows doctors and families to ask the patient, directly, what they want. This kind of honesty can infuse purpose to a time of challenge by allowing the patient to openly express love, regret and desires, and the family to fulfil the patient’s wishes – whether it’s for their final days or after death.

Martin Ledwick, head information nurse at Cancer Research UK, adds that friends and relatives should leave space for their loved one to express what they need at this time:

“Take their lead about how they want you to support and care for them,” he says. “Sometimes they may want the opportunity to talk about deeper feelings, but at other times they may want to feel ‘normal’ and do some of the things they would normally do in your company. It is good to have the opportunity to be able to tell each other how you are feeling and express love, but sometimes it’s useful to be distracted from this.”

Live well before you die well
Being adequately informed about prognosis allows you control over your life. A patient who has had multiple lines of chemotherapy may be offered yet another treatment, but if they have a realistic understanding of its effectiveness, they may choose to stop treatment and focus on “quality of life” – enjoying cherished experiences: spending time with family, enjoying favourite foods or sitting in a favourite environment. Patients who accept the inevitability of death can make every day count, ultimately improving their own experience and leaving their loved ones in a better place.

Of course, as well as fulfilling any desires, many patients and their families feel grateful for some warning – allowing them to arrange finances, child provisions or decide to, for instance, move a wedding, take a holiday, or downsize a house. Key things to consider are your will, which should be written or updated as soon as possible, your finances (including any benefits you or your carers could be eligible for) and your funeral – which you may want to have input into.

Considering where to die
Most patients hope to die at home, but the truth is that with an ageing population, far-flung relatives and busy households unequipped to manage the round-the-clock needs of a dying patient, it may not be possible. Where it exists, inpatient hospice can be a relief. With a more peaceful environment and interventions aimed at comfort care, it can allow loved ones to focus on providing emotional support, with counsellors and social workers also on hand.

Going home works if there is strong community support and at least a few committed people in place. Caregiving is physically and financially demanding, and can be lonely. Many caregivers are surprised to find that visiting services only come by for short stints; the rest of the time they are on their own. Nonetheless, people experience pride and satisfaction in having nursed a loved one in familiar surroundings – there is something deeply meaningful about this kind of service. Wherever someone dies, it is important to avoid guilt and accept that there are many ways of cherishing a loved one.

If you are considering dying at home – or caring for a friend or family member – seek sound advice about the logistics of end-of-life care in a variety of settings; palliative care teams, occupational therapists, physiotherapists and social workers are expert advisers on feasibility.

“Find out what care is available for you by asking your hospital specialist or GP,” says Ledwick. “And make sure they’ve referred you to the community palliative care team, or one linked to your local hospice. Ask them if any equipment can be provided – such as special pressure-relieving mattresses or beds, or a commode if it’s difficult for you to get to the bathroom – and you might want to consider bringing a bed downstairs.”

If you think the situation is tenable, the next thing to do is finalise your support system. “If you can,” Ledwick says, “organise your friends and relatives in advance, perhaps working out a rota of who is available to give help when. And finally, talk to your local hospice to see if a temporary stay from time to time (respite care), to give your carers a break, is an option.”

You’ll also all need to be armed for the final days – managing physical changes, new symptoms and changes to eating and drinking, which your palliative team should help you understand.

Grieve in your own way
On a recent visit, an elderly patient described the aftermath of his wife’s death. “It’s like there is a ‘use by’ date to my grief. One month was OK, two months was getting long. By six months, my children wanted me on antidepressants. They couldn’t understand that after 50 years together, I feel like I have lost a part of my body. The sensation hits me suddenly and I become sad. But I don’t mind it – the sadness feels right.”

This man was not depressed. In fact, he was doing a remarkable job of coping. It’s the modern world that has lost patience with grief. Grief makes people uncomfortable; it prompts self-examination. But there is no one way to grieve, neither is there a time limit. Grief can come in waves and pounce on you at any time or occasion. Give yourself permission to be sad.

Ledwick agrees: “Relatives and friends need to be patient with grief and allow people to do it in their own way. It is natural for loved ones to want to make things OK – they can feel helpless – but it is important not to underestimate the power of listening to someone and to resist the urge to change the subject or try to cheer them up. This makes people feel like no one is listening to them or understanding how hard it is.”

Friends and relatives can be very helpful in recalling a deceased relative with affection, but if the sadness impacts your life and your ability to carry out day-to-day activities, it’s important to get professional help. “If depression persists or becomes a long-term problem, then grief counselling can be helpful,” Ledwick advises. “The local hospice, your GP or the hospital may be able to put you in touch with grief counselling services or contact organisations like Cruse bereavement care.”

It’s important to have someone to talk to, and speaking to a professional to understand your emotions and coping skills can be extremely useful in providing a template for the rest of your life.

Complete Article HERE!


‘Bucket lists’ might help with end-of-life discussions


By Randi Belisomo

Sharing your “bucket list” could be easier than discussing end-of-life medical preferences, and it might be just as useful to your physician, researchers suggest.

If you, like many Americans, have a “bucket list,” your doctor would be well-served by learning its contents, according to Stanford University researchers, who say a conversation about these goals might help guide future care.

Their study, published in the Journal of Palliative Medicine, found that 91 percent of participants had a “bucket list,” or a list of things they hope to do before they die.

Researchers say the bucket list conversation is a simple strategy to help patients consider health decisions. In learning these goals, clinicians are better suited to promote informed decision-making when discussing the potential impact of treatment options.

“The number one emotion I see in patients when they are dying is regret,” said study author VJ Periyakoil, director of the Stanford Palliative Care Education and Training Program in California.

Her team’s online survey asked more than 3,000 participants nationwide if they had a bucket list and what was on it, in order of importance. The average participant was about 50 years old.

Travel was the most prevalent desire. More than 78 percent submitted travel-related hopes. Among college-educated women, 84 percent had destinations in mind.

Accomplishing a goal, like finishing a degree and learning to swim, was important to about 78 percent.

Roughly half hoped to achieve milestones, like getting married, celebrating an anniversary and reconnecting with old friends.

Desire to spend quality time with friends and family ranked fourth, followed by hope for financial stability.

Daring activities turned up on 15 percent of lists. Respondents 25 and younger were much more likely to report daring activities, such as skydiving and swimming with sharks.

Participants who said religion or spirituality was important were the most likely to have a bucket list.

“Faith allows you to imagine something that cannot be verified,” Periyakoil explained. “The ability to imagine something is a proxy for a level of hope even in the face of little evidence. Those are the people who have things on their list and hope they can do them.”

The researchers did not have participants share their lists with physicians, nor did they ask physicians for their opinions on the idea of sharing patients’ bucket lists. Furthermore, the survey did not target people living with chronic or terminal disease.

Still, the researchers hope their findings will help shift end-of-life planning away from an over-reliance on documents.

“If we look at advance directives as the savior of our health system, it’s not going to work,” Periyakoil said. “I don’t want to wait for my doctor to tell me it’s time to do my advance directive. I would rather go to the doctor and say what’s on my bucket list.”

Such a discussion is more intimate than the more sterile conversations that sometimes accompany advance directives, said Susan Mathews, a bioethicist, nurse and instructor at Indian River State College in Fort Pierce, Florida.

“Advance directives are about death; a bucket list is about living,” Mathews said. “A bucket list, if prepared with a dose of serious reflection, gets to the heart of our relationship with self and the others for whom we care.”

Patients should still complete advance directives, she said, but with periodically updated companion documents that express goals.

Like advance directives, bucket lists can change.

The changing of a patient’s health status is one concern with the bucket list strategy, according to medical anthropologist Craig Klugman, who teaches classes on death and dying at DePaul University in Chicago. “Being asked about a bucket list could create anxiety that they should have a list and take efforts to fulfill it,” Klugman said.

Periyakoil said, too often, physicians don’t realize what patients want from life. If they ask about these desires, they can avoid the clinical vacuum in which treatment plans are too often made.

“We need patients to understand that it’s their life, have a better understanding of what they want to do, and understand that medical procedures are a pathway they are signing into,” Periyakoil said.

Complete Article HERE!


We Need to Revolutionize End-of-Life Care — Here’s Why


Because it’s time to start thinking about death differently.

By Laura Dorwart

When Victoria Chang’s mother was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis, she didn’t have a single person she felt she could turn to. Six years earlier, her father had a stroke that led to significant neurological changes, and now the young poet realized she alone would have to care for them both. None of her friends had sick or elderly parents, so she felt completely isolated.

What followed was a decade of navigating America’s imperfect end-of-life health care system, without much guidance from the doctors and specialists she so frequently encountered. When asked what she would have done differently over the course of the stressful years, Chang says, frankly, “Everything.”

“Everything was a learning curve, everything new,” she says, noting how she wished there had been more help for people like her. “Emotions were high, and we needed a case manager or a consultant or something. Hospice seemed to help, but in the end, there was only so much they could do.”

Chang’s experience caring for seriously ill loved ones is sadly not unique. Thanks to a combination of denial, a lack of know-how and flawed systems, most Americans don’t have the support they need when it comes to end-of-life care. According to a study by the California HealthCare Foundation:

Furthermore, a majority of those surveyed had not even communicated their end-of-life wishes to the loved one they would want making decisions on their behalf. That’s where Dr. Ira Byock, chief medical officer of the Institute for Human Caring at Providence St. Joseph Health, comes in. A renowned expert in palliative care and the author of The Four Things That Matter Most: A Book About Living and The Best Care Possible, Byock wants to reimagine health care as a more personal, approachable system. He wants to boost the person-to-person communication and eradicate denial — an approach he and his colleagues call Whole Person Care.

Dr. Byock

“[Whole Person Care] attends not just to your medical problems, but to your personal priorities, values and preferences,” explains Byock. “You’re someone with bodily needs but also have emotional, relational, social and spiritual parts of your life, all of which need to be attended to.”

This perspective may not seem all that radical, but it is clearly not the current practice. American medicine is good in that it’s a “problem-based system,” Byock says. “It is organized around your problem list on your chart. Everything we do, by design, responds to a problem on your list.” But life isn’t just a set of problems to be solved; patients have lives that extend well beyond the walls of hospitals and waiting rooms. Health care, in Byock’s opinion, should address this reality at all stages of life.

Perhaps most importantly, Whole Person Care includes patients’ families at every level of care. Byock emphasizes the significance of the familial role in a patient’s comfort, as well as the ripple effects of a single individual’s illness on loved ones and their network of relationships. “Whenever one person gets a serious diagnosis, everyone who loves that person shares in the illness. It’s a family and community issue.”

Chang, for one, can attest to the need for a system like Whole Person Care. “Looking back, I can’t remember the past decade because I was so busy helping everyone around me,” she says.

When asked what advice she would give to those caring for a family member or spouse dealing with a serious illness, Chang emphasizes the importance of self-care and finding community support in whatever form that might take. Remember that “it is OK to think about yourself and to take care of yourself,” she says. “Seek out groups to share with and to get emotional support. I only did this toward the end when I started reading about and writing to people on the pulmonary fibrosis foundation website. Those forums saved my life.” She also encourages folks in similar positions to consider their options, including daycare, homecare and facilities, and weigh the pros and cons of each.

Byock also encourages those faced with these situations to manage their own health: “People can experience wellbeing even in the midst of serious illness.”

Complete Article HERE!


Veteran? Terminally Ill? Want Death With Dignity? That Could Get You Evicted.


By JoNel Aleccia

California voters passed a law two years ago that allows terminally ill people to take lethal drugs to end their lives, but controversy is growing over a newer rule that effectively bans that option in the state’s eight veterans’ homes.

Proponents of medical aid-in-dying and residents of the Veterans Home of California-Yountville — the largest in the nation — are protesting a regulation passed last year by the California Department of Veterans Affairs, or CalVet, that requires that anyone living in the facilities must be discharged if they intend to use the law.

That’s a position shared by most — but not all — states where aid-in-dying is allowed. As more U.S. jurisdictions consider whether to legalize the practice, the status of terminally ill veterans living in state-run homes will loom large.

“It would be a terrible hardship, because I have no place to go,” said Bob Sloan, 73, who suffers from congestive heart failure and other serious cardiac problems. He said he intends to seek medical aid-in-dying if doctors certify he has six months or less to live.

“I’m not going to be a vegetable,” said Sloan, a Vietnam War-era veteran who moved into the Yountville center five years ago. “I’m not going to end up living in so much pain it’s unbearable.”

A CalVet official said the agency adopted the rule to avoid violating a federal statute that prohibits using U.S. government resources for physician-assisted death. Otherwise, the agency would jeopardize nearly $68 million in federal funds that helps run the facilities, said June Iljana, CalVet’s deputy secretary of communications.

California is not alone. Three other states where aid-in-dying is legal — Oregon, Colorado and Vermont — all prohibit use of lethal medications in state-run veterans’ homes.

In Montana, where aid-in-dying is allowed under a state Supreme Court ruling, officials didn’t respond to multiple requests about whether veterans would be able to use the law in the residences. However, Dr. Eric Kress, a Missoula physician who prescribes the lethal medication, says he has transferred patients to hospice, to relatives’ homes, even to extended-stay hotels to avoid conflict.

In Washington, D.C., where an aid-in-dying law took effect last summer, the Armed Forces Retirement Home won’t assist patients in any way. Those who wish to use the law would be referred to an ethics committee for individual consideration, spokesman Christopher Kelly said in an email.

Only Washington state has a policy that allows veterans to remain in government-run residences if they intend to ingest lethal medications.. At least one veteran has died in a state-run home using that law, said Heidi Audette, a spokeswoman for the state’s Department of Veterans Affairs.

Paul Sherbo, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, said the choice is up to the states.

“VA does not mandate how states comply with federal law,” Sherbo said in an email. “There are a number of ways individual states can choose to handle such situations and still be in compliance.”

To date, none of the 2,400 residents of California’s veterans homes has formally requested medical aid-in-dying, said Iljana. That includes the more than 900 residents of the Yountville center, located about 60 miles north of San Francisco.

“We would respectfully and compassionately assist them in transferring to a hospice, family home or other location,” Iljana said in an email. “We will readmit them immediately if they change their minds.”

But Kathryn Tucker, executive director of the End of Life Liberty Project, an advocacy group that supports aid-in-dying, said that CalVet is interpreting the federal regulations too broadly and denying terminally ill veterans the right to choose a “peaceful death” through medical assistance.

“Nothing exists in the federal statute’s language that would prohibit a resident from receiving aid-in-dying services at state homes, so long as they are not provided using federal funds or employees,” she said.

Ed Warren, head of the Allied Council, a group representing veterans at the Yountville site, co-signed a letter to CalVet officials protesting the ruling.

“My point of view is that it is inhumane to expect people in the last stages of dying to go through the hullabaloo of leaving their homes,” he said.

In Washington state, a 60-year-old man diagnosed with terminal chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, died in June 2015 after ingesting lethal drugs at the Washington Soldiers Home in Orting, where he lived.

“It was all done very much in the open,” said Chris Fruitrich, a volunteer with the group End of Life Washington, which assisted the man.

There has been no indication that the policy jeopardizes the nearly $47 million the agency receives each year in federal funds, said Audette, the state VA spokeswoman.

In California, additional protests have centered on allegations that CalVet suppressed information about the aid-in-dying law.

Critics at the Yountville home contend that CalVet passed the discharge rule quietly, with little public input. Then the agency refused to broadcast a public meeting about medical aid-in-dying on KVET, the center’s state-run, closed-circuit television station.

Iljana said the Aug. 21 meeting, led by Tucker and Dr. Robert Brody, also a supporter of aid-in-dying, violated state rules that prohibit using public resources to promote political causes.

“Free speech is great and criticizing the government is great, but not using the government’s own resources and paid staff to advocate for a change in the law,” Iljana wrote in an email to prohibit the broadcast.

That decision, however, prompted Jac Warren, 81, who has been KVET’s station manager for eight years, to resign last month in protest, citing censorship.

“What is at issue is whether a state may completely suppress the dissemination of concededly truthful information about entirely lawful activity,” Warren wrote in an email to CalVet.

The hour-long meeting, attended by about 50 people, was not propaganda, Tucker said, but “an educational event with information provided by an attorney and a physician who both specialize in their respective fields in end-of-life care.”

Bob Sloan, who works as an engineer at KVET for a $400 monthly stipend, disagreed with the decision not to broadcast the meeting on the system that serves residents of the Yountville home.

Sloan said he knows other residents who would like to be able to use California’s aid-in-dying law if their illnesses progress.

“The only other option that people have in this state is committing suicide,” he said. “If I can’t find some way of doing it legally, I’ll do it illegally.”

Complete Article HERE!


Doulas provide compassionate end-of-life care at North Hawaii Hospice


North Hawaii Hospice Volunteer Coordinator Bobbi Bryant developed an end-of-life doula program for volunteers earlier this year.

By Jan Wizinowich

Since 1986, North Hawaii Hospice has been providing end-of-life care and support for their local community members. The in-home care by their trained staff and volunteers has eased the journey out of life and given support to family and friends left behind.

Recently, through the efforts of Bobbi Bryant, the hospice’s volunteer coordinator, training has been offered to volunteers to become end-of-life doulas, returning to old wisdom and benefits that can be derived from it.

“Caring for the sick and dying before the Civil War happened in the home. It was just a continuation of women raising children. They cared for the elders at the end of their life,” Bryant said.

But with the rise of medical technology, the end-of-life stage was taken out of the hands of the family, and the knowledge and wisdom was lost.

“People were being brought to the hospital to die, and then they were embalmed so we weren’t really caring for people at the end of life. We lost our skills,” Bryant said.

The resurgence of end-of-life doulas are a reflection of the return of birth doulas beginning in the 1970s.

“Midwives to the dying have been around for a long time. It started as a result of the resurgence of birth doulas and midwives. The model transferred to how we can care for people at the end. There was a lack of education around the dying process and when people wanted to start caring for their loved ones, there was a lot fear. The conversation around death had come to a standstill,” Bryant reflected.

Recognizing the need for doula training, Bryant attended a conference on death and dying on Maui last April.

“When I came back, I spent the next several months creating a curriculum and trained 14 people including nurses, an ER doc and health aids,” she said.

The decision to enter hospice care can be difficult, but once made it can free the family and caregiver to focus on the patient.

“If you come for hospice support early, you can have so much support. There’s so much pain and suffering that isn’t necessary,” Bryant shared.

The North Hawaii Hospice team includes a lead, general and vigil doula. Initially, the lead doula meets with the family and the patient to provide information about all the ways they can assist them, and establishes a relationship of trust.

The doula’s role is to provide non-medical comfort and to be a facilitator; both subtle and profound. On a practical level, the doula does whatever needs to be done — offering companionship, running errands, assisting with household chores, providing healthful meals and helping with bathing and personal care.

“You just be there, be grounded and love them. You need a way to get trust from people. As soon as I get there, I get my hands on them. The medicine doesn’t always help. So when they’re in a lot of pain I’m running energy with that pain and helping them to move the pain through, and helping them to relax,” said Rose Riedesel, a hospice volunteer and healing body worker.

But a primary role for the doula is to sit, listen and be aware of what’s happening with the various aspects of the patient’s care in order to act as an information conduit between the medical care team and the patient.

“The doula is an adjunct to the professional people involved. They’ll find out some information that the care team needs to know and they’ll pass that on, or if the family needs some information the doula will pass that on to them,” Bryant said.

Emotional well-being is vital to ease the dying process. A big part of the doula’s role is to encourage the patient to “talk with people about their life and find places of deep meaning; a deep connection in life, the people who meant something to them in their life, the experiences, what their passions were and what their difficulties were. It allows the person to sink into this process of dying,” Bryant observed.

Another role for the doula is to notice any unresolved issues, which can cause anxiety and tension in the patient.

“They listen in the stories for anything that’s unresolved. Sometimes you’ll hear something about a family member who needs to be forgiven. We want that person to have as much relaxation as possible in the end,” Bryant said.

The lead doula also helps the patient and family with a vigil plan that includes the creation of a peaceful space, along with a team of doulas sitting in shifts when the active dying phase begins.

“They help create a beautiful space for the dying person to be in with things such as art, quilts, photos and a certain scent. They ask, ‘Would you like something read to you? Who do you want with you? Can somebody get into bed with you?’” Bryant said.

After the patient has passed, the doula assists the family in making arrangements, and follows up with them.

“The doula assesses how to help the family at that time and backs out. In a couple of days, they give the family a call and ask to come and talk about what happened, maybe a beautiful touch or an interaction before the person actually stopped speaking,” Bryant said.

Just as with the birth process, dying is a time of loving connection.

Complete Article HERE!


Sitting With Silence in End-of-Life Cancer Care


Sometimes compassionate silence can be more effective than action when caring for a terminally ill person.


The capacity to bear witness and respond empathically to a dying person’s suffering is inherent in end-of-life care. Holistic, relationship-centered, compassionate care is the hallmark of palliative end-of-life care.1 Yet, simultaneously, researchers have found medical training sometimes ill-equipped in preparing clinicians for the range of concerns and emotions expressed by dying patients and their families. Healthcare professionals report lacking skills in psychosocial and spiritual care of dying people, resulting in high levels of moral distress, grief, and burnout.1 Similarly, Tornoe and colleagues found “western society’s fast-paced healthcare environment conditions us to view death as a physiological event and a failure rather than a natural part of the human lifecycle and a second passage of a life.”

Modern medicine with its emphasis on cure frequently discovers itself struggling with an array of challenges in end-of-life care. Studies on the influence of compassionate silence in end-of-life care have indicated that clinicians’ focus solely on “doing” may actually be inappropriate at times and inhibit their ability to effectively address and meet the needs of the person who is terminally ill. A prominent theme was that the “do, fix, and hopefully cure” mandate in modern medicine may not be appropriate at the end of life and, in fact, may need to be balanced with the quality of being present with those who are suffering.1 Being “present” to patients who are nearing death therefore entails that clinicians possess a certain comfort level in terms of “sitting with the silence” and offering the “gift of presence.”

The Landscape of Silences

The research of Back and colleagues outlined 3 types of silences that can manifest between patients and clinicians in the clinical encounter: awkward, invitational, and compassionate. In regard to awkward silences, they write, “silence most often feels like it is dragging on too long when a well-meaning clinician thinks he should be ‘using silence.’ While we recognize that new skills have a learning curve before they can be performed smoothly, we also think that the problem with a directive to stop doing something is unlikely to produce the quality of silence that is actually therapeutic.”

Invitational silences are often intentional and used to evoke certain thoughts or feelings from the patient in an attempt to engender further dialogue and reflection. “The clinician deliberately creates a silence meant to convey empathy, allow a patient time to think or feel, or to invite the patient into the conversation in some way. While we recognize that these silences are tremendously valuable, we also note that these silences are often described as a kind of holding, which has a stage-setting, expectant quality,” explained Back. Invitational silence mentored by mindfulness can be effective in heightening patients’ awareness of the moment and help them observe their feelings and thoughts in noncritical or nonjudgmental ways. Conversely, mindfulness and the clinician’s ability to “quiet the mind” may also help to free one from distractions that might preclude attentiveness to the present moment. The clinician has to shift his or her thought from a narrative mode to one a patient perceives as more empathic or compassionate.

Although minor attention has been given to compassionate silences, researchers recently have taken note and underscored its significance in end-of-life care. Rooted in contemplative practices, compassionate silences encompass a way of being in the world and with the dying that cannot be contrived nor forced by clinicians. “Compassion in contemplative traditions is transmitted through a quality of mind … and is not a tool to be used with a specific set of indications and meanings,” Back explains. In another study conducted with hospice nurses and pertinent to the practice of consoling presence, Tornoe and colleagues found that embracing the silence demanded a mental shift from a focus on doing something for the patient to being with the patient. Compassionate silences, therefore, should never be understood as a means or device in which to create therapeutic relationships. The clinician’s ability to empathize and “join with” the suffering of the dying fosters rapport. Being present in the moment elicits openness in allowing our humanity to speak. Compassion for the other emerges naturally and freely from within. The ability to abide compassionately, amidst silence in end-of-life care and simply be provides depth and soul to the patient-clinician encounter. Clinicians who developed the ability to maintain stable attention and emotional balance, and are naturally comfortable expressing empathy and compassion can spontaneously achieve compassionate silences.


Mindfulness meditation, contemplative practices, and centering prayer are proven to help clinicians cultivate empathy and develop “consoling presence.” Although further research is needed, studies have clearly demonstrated the positive influence of these techniques in promoting a way of being and quality of mind that is crucial to end-of-life care. Whether meditative practices enhance empathic behavior is not known; however, evidence suggests that meditation has a positive effect on factors known to influence empathic mental processes.

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