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Denial of impending death: a discourse analysis of the palliative care literature

Social Science & Medicine
Publication Date
DOI: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2004.02.012
  • Terminal Illness
  • Denial Of Death
  • Palliative Care
  • Linguistics
  • Medicine
  • Psychology


Abstract Terminally ill patients and their families are often referred to as being “in denial” of impending death. This study uses the qualitative method of discourse analysis to investigate the usage of the term “denial” in the contemporary hospice and palliative care literature. A Medline search (1970–2001) was performed combining the text words “deny” and “denial” with the subject headings “terminal care”, “palliative care” and “hospice care,” and restricted to English articles discussing death denial in adults. The 30 articles were analysed using a constant comparison technique and emerging themes regarding the meaning and usage of the words “deny” and “denial” identified. This paper focusses on the theme of denial as an individual psychological process. Three dominant subthemes were distinguished: denial as an unconscious “defence mechanism”, denial as “healthy” and denial as temporary. The analysis focusses on the intertextuality of these themes with each other and with previous texts on the denial of death. Elements of the psychoanalytic definition of denial as an unconscious defence mechanism are retained in the literature but are interwoven with new themes on patient choice. The result is an overall discourse that is conflictual and at times self-contradictory but overall consistent with the biomedical model of illness. I suggest that the representation of death denial elaborated in these articles may be related to a larger discourse on dying in contemporary Western society, which both invites patients to participate in the planning of their death and labels those who do not comply.

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