Utne Blogs > Mind and Body

Cascading Benefits of Talking About Death

 by Julie Hanus

Tags: Spirituality, mindful living, terminal illness, death, medical professionals, institutional culture, compassion, Judy Bachrach, Obit, Julie Hanus,

doctors with patient in 1999A recent survey conducted by the Dana-Farber Cancer Center found that two-thirds of terminally ill cancer patients never hear the word death from doctors, Judy Bachrach reports for Obit. “And not just cancer patients,” she adds. “I have talked to Alzheimer’s specialists, internists, and surgeons—and their general consensus is: You’re better off not knowing.”

Bachrach, who also writes a daily advice column about terminal illness, paints a complex picture of medical professionals’ reluctance to deliver bad news: partly rooted in an institutional culture that frames a patient’s death as a “failure,” but also grounded in compassion and humility. No one can perfectly foresee the future, after all.

Here, however, is the twist: The survey also found that people who do have “candid end-of-life discussions with their doctor are no more likely to feel depressed than those who’ve been deprived of such discussions. They are also less likely to demand invasive, useless, and costly end-of-life care,” Bachrach writes. In the words of the oncologist who prepared the survey report, there are “cascading benefits” to frank talks for both terminally ill people and their caregivers.

“After being handed the gift of truth, the dying can tell those they trust what kind of end-of-life treatment they want—or don’t want. And relatives and spouses don’t have to feel ignorant (or, worse, guilty) about making medical choices for the terminally ill as the end approaches.”

Source: Obit

Image from Seattle Municipal Archives, licensed under Creative Commons.