Palliative care is designed to provide comfort and peace to individuals facing terminal illness and end-of-life transitions. Caregivers who watch over someone in palliative care often get to spend precious moments with their loved ones in ways that would not be possible in a hospital or nursing setting. Individuals who are dying can benefit from palliative care by having those closest to them with them during their last days allowing for final wishes to be expressed and sentiments to be shared.
When death is sudden and tragic, as with an accident or unexpected illness, caregivers can experience shock and traumatic responses. Prolonged grief (PGD), also known as complicated grief, can occur when symptoms of grief are exacerbated and persist over lengthy periods of time. Experiences such as reliving the death event; being reminded of the death through mental, visual, or auditory stimuli; and even experiencing intrusive thoughts are all symptoms of posttraumatic stress (PTSD), which is not uncommon among bereaved parents and survivors of disasters or abuse.
But until now, few studies have examined whether or not caregivers of individuals who die expectedly are at risk for PTSD. To explore this issue, Christine Sanderson of Cavalry Health Care Sydney in Australia recently interviewed 32 caregivers grieving the loss of a patient who died from ovarian cancer six months prior.
The caregivers’ responses were assessed for signs of grief, emotional reactions to stimuli, language, and trauma response. For the most part, Sanderson found that the caregivers had high levels of resiliency, although some exhibited symptoms of PGD and PTSD. Specifically, trauma symptoms included strong reactions to sounds, smells, and sights that caregivers remembered from the palliative setting and also intrusive thoughts related to the death and the predeath period.
Sanderson believes that palliative care can be a cathartic experience for some, providing time for a dying person to be with family in the last days of their lives. But for some caregivers and loved ones, watching the death of someone close to them, while making no attempt to stop it, can be excruciating and lead to shock and extreme emotional distress.
Because caregivers are at increased risk for negative physical and mental health outcomes when compared to those who are not caregivers, exploration of resiliency or susceptibility after a patient’s death is essential. Sanderson added, “Skillful care of caregivers requires an understanding of the nature of their experiences, if we are to reduce traumatisation of vulnerable individuals.”
Sanderson, Christine, et al. (2013). Signs of post-traumatic stress disorder in caregivers following an expected death: A qualitative study. Palliative Medicine 27.7 (2013): 625-31. ProQuest. Web.
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