VUB researcher aims to ease discomfort around end-of-life suffering

VUB researcher aims to ease discomfort around end-of-life suffering

Death and the process of dying are increasingly the remit of clinical and medical professionals, creating a cultural and social distance. This distance from death has a major impact on how comfortable or uncomfortable many people feel about the idea of dying. What do you say to someone who is seriously ill and wants to talk about death? What do you do when you see someone suffering significant mental deterioration? Often, our attitude makes us feel insecure and we choose to avoid those people.

© Bert Quintiens
© Bert Quintiens

To better understand the discomfort people feel when they witness someone suffering or dying, and whether these feelings are related to specific personal characteristics or experiences, Bert Quintiens of the End-of-Life Care research group at the VUB conducted a broad survey for his doctoral research. Nearly 1,900 people from across Flanders provided data about their emotional experience of having seen another person die. “Not unexpectedly, we found that having to watch people suffer in pain or having to give someone the news that they are going to die caused the most discomfort,” says Quintiens. The study also found that the feeling of discomfort decreases significantly if a person has had previous contact with death through a professional and/or cultural experience (such as through working as a nurse, or having read about death or dying), by having been a carer, or if they have knowledge of palliative care. “This means we can remove the taboo around death and end-of-life guidance by increasing people’s exposure to this natural phenomenon through cultural and personal experiences, as well as by increasing general knowledge about palliative care,” Quintiens says. “Our study is a great example that helps to identify social elements of compassion, and it aligns with the VUB’s statement of intent as a Compassionate University.”

The study was published in the November 2023 edition of the Journal of Pain and Symptom Management:

Quintiens, B., Smets, T., Chambaere, K., Van den Block, L., Deliens, L., Sallnow, L., & Cohen, J. (2023). Discomfort with suffering and dying, a cross-sectional survey of the general public. Journal of Pain and Symptom Management, 66, 529-540.e6.


Bert Quintiens 02 477 47 10

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