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Suffering, existential distress and temporality in the provision of terminal sedation
  1. Nathan Emmerich1,
  2. Michael Chapman1,2
  1. 1 The School of Medicine and Psychology, Australian National University, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia
  2. 2 Palliative Care, Canberra Hospital, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia
  1. Correspondence to Dr Nathan Emmerich, Australian National University, Canberra, Australia; nathan.emmerich{at}

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While there is a great deal to agree with in the essay Expanded Terminal Sedation in End-of-Life Care there is, we think, a need to more fully appreciate the humanistic side of both palliative and end-of-life care.1 Not only does the underlying philosophy of palliative care arguably differ from that which guides curative medicine,2 dying patients are in a uniquely vulnerable position given our cultural disinclination towards open discussions of death and dying. In this brief response, we critically engage Gilbertson et al’s essay and seek to contextualise the perspective they put forward.


According to Cassell, we should distinguish between pain and suffering.3 The former often gives rise to the latter, but suffering has other causes. This includes existential distress, indicating that, unlike pain, suffering is not simply physiological phenomena. Suffering involves the disintegration of the person, meaning that it can impact patient autonomy. Certainly, that a patient is suffering does not equate to a lack autonomy. Nevertheless, we should take care when making decisions in circumstance where the integrity of our embodied personhood is under threat, something that is clearly the case for those who are dying, particularly those who have refractory symptoms while doing so.

Generally speaking, refractory symptoms are those which are intractable. They persist despite attempts at palliation. While this implies that such symptoms—and the suffering they cause—cannot be reversed this is not necessarily the case. Not only can the symptoms experienced by dying patients change …

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  • Funding The authors have not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Provenance and peer review Commissioned; internally peer reviewed.

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