Death denial: obstacle or instrument for palliative care? An analysis of clinical literature


  • Camilla Zimmermann

    1. Division of Medical Oncology and Haematology, University of Toronto and Department of Psychosocial Oncology and Palliative Care, Princess Margaret Hospital, University Health Network.
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Address for correspondence: Camilla Zimmermann, MD, MSc, FRCPC, 610 University Avenue, Suite 16-744, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, M5G 2M9


As a society and as individuals, we have come to recognize ourselves as ‘death-denying’, a self-characterisation particularly prominent in palliative care discourse and practice. As part of a larger project examining death attitudes in the palliative care setting, a Medline search (1971 to 2001) was performed combining the text words ‘deny’ and ‘denial’ with the subject headings ‘terminal care’, ‘palliative care’ and ‘hospice care’. The 30 articles were analysed using a constant comparison technique and emerging themes regarding the meaning and usage of the words deny and denial were identified. This paper examines the theme of denial as an obstacle to palliative care. In the articles, denial was described as an impediment to open discussion of dying, dying at home, stopping ‘futile’ treatments, advance care planning and control of symptoms. I suggest that these components of care together constitute what has come to be perceived as a correct ‘way to die’. Indeed, the very conceptualisation of denial as an obstacle to these components of care has been integral to building and sustaining the ‘way to die’ itself. The personal struggle with mortality has become an important instrument in the public problem of managing the dying process.