• brain death;
  • empirical research report;
  • hermeneutics;
  • intensive care;
  • narrative;
  • organ donation;
  • relatives


Title. Brain death: close relatives’ use of imagery as a descriptor of experience

Aim.  This paper is a report of a study to explore the use of imagery to describe the experience of confronting brain death in a close relative.

Background.  The brain death of a loved one has been described as an extremely difficult experience for close relatives, evoking feelings of anger, emotional pain, disbelief, guilt and suffering. It can also be difficult for relatives to distinguish brain death from the state of coma and thus difficult to apprehend information about the diagnosis.

Methods.  Narrative theory and a hermeneutic phenomenological method guided the interpretation of 17 narratives from close relatives of brain dead patients. All narratives were scrutinized for experiences of brain death. Data were primarily collected in 1999. The primary analysis related to close relatives’ experience of brain death in a loved one. A secondary analysis of the imagery they used to describe their experience was carried out in 2003.

Findings.  Six categories of imagery used to describe the experience of confronting a diagnosis of brain death in a loved one emerged: chaotic unreality; inner collapse; sense of forlornness; clinging to the hope of survival; reconciliation with the reality of death; receiving care which gives comfort. Participants also identified two pairs of dimensions to describe their feelings about the relationship between their brain dead relative's body and personhood: presence–absence and divisibility–indivisibility. Being confronted with brain death meant entering into the anteroom of death, facing a loved one who is ‘living-dead’, and experiencing a chaotic drama of suffering.

Conclusion.  It is very important for members of the intensive care unit team to recognize, face and respond to these relatives’ chaotic experiences, which cause them to need affirmation, comfort and caring. Relatives’ use of imagery could be the starting point for a caring conversation about their experiences, either in conversations at the time of the death or when relatives are contacted in a later follow-up.