The Open Nursing Journal




ISSN: 1874-4346 ― Volume 13, 2019

Living in the Presence of Death: An Integrative Literature Review of Relatives’ Important Existential Concerns when Caring for a Severely Ill Family Member



Christina Melin-Johansson*, 1, Ingela Henoch2, 3, 6, Susann Strang4, 6, Maria Browall5, 6, 7
1 Mid Sweden University, Department of Health Sciences, Östersund, Sweden
2 Bräcke Diakoni Foundation, Research Unit, Gothenburg, Sweden
3 Karolinska Institutet, Institution of Learning, Informatics, Management and Ethics, Medical Management Centre, Stockholm, Sweden
4 Angered Local Hospital, Gothenburg, Sweden
5 Sahlgrenska University Hospital, Department of Oncology, Clinical Trial Unit. Gothenburg, Sweden
6 The Sahlgrenska Academy, University of Gothenburg, Institute of Health and Care Sciences, Sweden
7 School of Life Sciences, University of Skövde, Sweden

Abstract

Aim:

The aim of this study was to explore relatives’ existential concerns when caring for a seriously ill family member as well as to describe interventions that meet these concerns.

Methods:

In this integrative literature review we assessed and classified 17 papers, 12 qualitative and 5 quantitative. Literature was sought in the databases Cinahl, PubMed, Psykinfo and Web of Science in September 2009 and in March 2010. Search terms used in different combinations were: family, family caregiver, next of kin, relatives, palliative, palliative care, end-of-life care, existential, spirit*. Data were redrawn from the papers results/findings, and synthesized into a new descriptive content.

Results:

The results were categorized from 13 papers exploring relatives’ important existential concerns and 4 papers describing interventions aimed to support them in the existential area. A majority of the reviewed papers had been written in Sweden and concerned relatives of patients with cancer. One overarching theme, living in the presence of death, and three categories: responses to life close to death; support when death is near; and beyond the presence of death were created.

Conclusion:

There is an urgent demand for large-scale studies using accurate methodology, as well as a need to design qualified investigations regarding the effects of various interventions, and to determine which interventions are the most effective in supporting relatives who experience existential distress manifested physically and/or psychologically. There is also a considerable demand for educational interventions among professionals in various healthcare settings to increase their knowledge regarding existential concerns among relatives.

Keywords: Cancer, end-of-life care, family, incurable illness, nursing, review.


Article Information


Identifiers and Pagination:

Year: 2012
Volume: 6
First Page: 1
Last Page: 12
Publisher Id: TONURSJ-6-1
DOI: 10.2174/1874434601206010001
PMID: 22371820
PMCID: PMC3282885

Article History:

Received Date: 1/8/2011
Revision Received Date: 3/9/2011
Acceptance Date: 14/9/2011
Electronic publication date: 10/2/2012
Collection year: 2012

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© Melin-Johansson et al.; Licensee Bentham Open.

open-access license: This is an open access article licensed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/3.0/) which permits unrestricted, non-commercial use, distribution and reproduction in any medium, provided the work is properly cited.


* Address correspondence to this author at the Mid Sweden University, Department of Health Sciences, Östersund, Sweden; Tel: +43 63 165672; Fax: +43 63 165626; E-mail: titti.melin-johansson@miun.se




INTRODUCTION

In palliative care, relatives are often the primary care giver for persons with a serious illness. Their situation is difficult as they struggle with daily life while at the same time wanting to provide the best possible care. Relatives’ burdens increase as the seriously ill person proceeds from being quite active to becoming more and more bedridden. Care moves to other levels and new goals must be identified which may lead to feelings of aggravation and even burnout [1Doyle-Browne M. The transitional phase The closing journey for patients and family caregivers Am J Hosp Palliat Care 2000; 17: 354-7.
[http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/104990910001700514]
]. The future is unpredictable and relatives have to make difficult decisions’, often by themselves. Some relatives try to become as prepared as possible in this complex situationby searching for meaning, taking farewell and reaching religious and spiritual closure [2Steinhauser KE, Christakis NA, Clipp EC, et al. Preparing for the end of life: preferences of patients, families, physicians, and other care providers J Pain Symptom Manage 2001; 22(3 ): 727-37.
[http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0885-3924(01)00334-7]
]. In this situation many relatives need support, but little is known about existing supportive interventions.

The importance of the patients’ existential concerns in end of life care was described by Cicely Saunders in the 1960:s when she introduced the term total pain, including the physical, psychological, social, and spiritual dimension [3Saunders C. Spiritual Pain J Palliat Car 1988; 4: 29-32.
[PMID: 3183827]
], and became a part of the World Health Organizations’ definition of palliative care [4World Health Organization. National Cancer Control Programmes: Policies and Managerial Guidelines Available from http://www.who.int/cancer/publications/en/#guide lines 2nd. 2002 [Accessed: 17 September 2010];]. Existential needs are significant for patients with cancer, which is rather well described in literature [5Henoch I, Danielson E. Existential concerns among patients with cancer and interventions to meet them: an integrative literature review Psychooncology 2009; 18: 225-36.
[http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/pon.1424] [PMID: 18792088]
]. Existential needs are described in other studies as people’s intense desire to infuse life and maintain a meaning in life [6Yalom I, Ed. Existential Psychohterapy. New York: Basic Books Inc Publisher 1980.-8Chochinov HM. Dying dignity and new horizons in palliative end-of-life care CA Cancer J Clin 2006; 56: 84-103.
[http://dx.doi.org/10.3322/canjclin.56.2.84] [PMID: 16514136]
], with freedom and relations [6Yalom I, Ed. Existential Psychohterapy. New York: Basic Books Inc Publisher 1980.], as well as sustaining purpose and hope [7Ferell BR. The quality of lives: 1525 voices of cancer Oncol Nurs Forum 1996; 23: 909-16., 8Chochinov HM. Dying dignity and new horizons in palliative end-of-life care CA Cancer J Clin 2006; 56: 84-103.
[http://dx.doi.org/10.3322/canjclin.56.2.84] [PMID: 16514136]
], and a desire to obtain feelings of peace [9Breitbart W, Gibson C, Poppito SR, Berg A. Psychotherapeutic interventions at the end of life: a focus on meaning and spirituality Can J Psychiatry 2004; 49: 366-72.
[PMID: 15283531]
]. The existential threats concern the loss of functions [10Strang S. Spiritual/existential issues in palliative care Dissertation Goteborgs University 2002.], control, social role functioning, continuity, relations, independency and the future [11Morita T, Kawa M, Honke Y, Uchitomi Y. Existential concerns of terminally ill cancer patients receiving specialized palliative care in Japan Support Care Cancer 2004; 12: 137-40.
[http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s00520-003-0561-6] [PMID: 14685833]
, 12Murata H, Morita T. Japanese task force. Conceptualization of psycho- existential suffering by the Japanese task force: the first step of a nationwide project Palliat Support Care 2006; 4: 279-85.
[http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S1478951506060354] [PMID: 17066969]
]. Saunders [3Saunders C. Spiritual Pain J Palliat Car 1988; 4: 29-32.
[PMID: 3183827]
] emphasizes that meaninglessness is the essence of existential distress, and often concerns different losses. Other sources of distress are a changed personality and anxiety for death [10Strang S. Spiritual/existential issues in palliative care Dissertation Goteborgs University 2002.], dependency and feeling emotionally unrelated [13Morita T, Tsunoda J, Inoue S, Chihara S. An exploratory factor analysis of existential suffering in Japanese terminally ill cancer patients Psychooncology 2000; 9: 164-68.
[http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/(SICI)1099-1611(200003/04)9:2<164::AID-PON447>3.0.CO;2-S]
], or uncompleted life tasks and acceptance/preparation [11Morita T, Kawa M, Honke Y, Uchitomi Y. Existential concerns of terminally ill cancer patients receiving specialized palliative care in Japan Support Care Cancer 2004; 12: 137-40.
[http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s00520-003-0561-6] [PMID: 14685833]
]. Living with cancer involves issues of transcendence, and spiritual well-being is improved by a person’s religion, sense of hopefulness, having a purpose in life, and other sources of spiritual support [7Ferell BR. The quality of lives: 1525 voices of cancer Oncol Nurs Forum 1996; 23: 909-16.].

Relatives experience their situation as stressful and feelings of vulnerability are created when caring for a seriously ill family member. They want to be close to the ill person knowing that time is limited. It is also difficult being more aware about the situation than the ill family member, as is talking about death and dying in such a situation. Relatives often feel uninformed about the patient’s situation and lack guidance and support from healthcare professionals. Their needs differ from the patients as they are concerned that the care is not good enough for the patient while they are constantly by the patients’ side, struggling to prepare a situation that can differ from day to day [14Andershed B. Relatives in end-of-life care - part 1: a systematic review of the literature the first five years, January 1999 - February 2004 J Clin Nurs 2006; 15: 1158-69.
[http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1365-2702.2006.01473.x] [PMID: 16911057]
]. Relatives also experience that they are quite unprepared for the suddenness of their role and the level of responsibility entailed in caring for a seriously ill family member. Furthermore, they felt inadequately prepared for the unpredictable nature of care giving and the timing of death [15Hudson P, Aranda S, McMurray N. Intervention development for enhanced lay palliative caregiver support - the use of focus groups Eur J Cancer Care 2002; 11: 262-70.
[http://dx.doi.org/10.1046/j.1365-2354.2002.00314.x]
]. Relatives’ role as the primary caregiver in caring for a seriously ill family member, who is facing death, may alert the relative’s own existential needs. They are in a vulnerable position and more information is required concerning what existential needs are actualized while facing the death of a close family member. Furthermore knowledge regarding the kind of interventions likely to be effective in meeting these complex needs is not earlier reviewed in the literature.

AIM

The aim of this study was to explore relatives’ existential concerns when caring for a seriously ill family member as well as to describe interventions that meet these concerns.

METHOD

In this integrative literature review 17 empirical studies were analyzed qualitatively. We assessed primary sources that described what alerts relatives’ existential emotions when caring for a person at the end of life, and the kind of support the relatives require in this vulnerable situation.

Literature was sought and found in the databases Cinahl, Pub Med, PsycInfo and Web of Science. No suitable paper was found in the Cochrane database. The search was restricted to adults, not child and peer reviewed and the language was English or Swedish (Fig. 1). When samples in the paper included patients, relatives or healthcare professionals text was extracted that described existential issues from the relative’s perspective. The initial search was performed in September 2009 and a complementary search was conducted in March 2010.

Fig. (1)

Overview of sampling procedure.



All authors were involved in the stages of the review process concerning:

  1. identifying the research questions and,
  2. searching literature. The literature was divided between the authors with the aim to evade that one of the authors reviewed papers written by herself.
  3. Papers that met inclusion criteria’s were read by all authors, and
  4. classified using a tool published by SBU [16Berg A, Denker K, Skärsäter I. Evidence based nursing when treating persons with depression [Swedish] SBU-rapport 1999 Evidensbaserad omvardnad vid depressionssjukdomar SBU/SSF nr 3 [Accessed 17 September 2010]; Available from: http://www.sbu.se/sv/Publicerat/Vit/Evidensbas erad-omvardnad-vid-behandling-av-personer-med-depressionssjukd omar]. Quantitative studies are divided in randomized controlled studies (RCT), clinical trials (CCT) and descriptive studies (DS) according to Goodman [17Goodman C. Literature search and evidence interpretation for assessing health care practices. [Swedish] SBU-rapport 1993 Statens beredning for utvardering av medicinsk metodik ]. The studies were assessed according to sample size, well defined objectives, adequate described statistical methods and longitudinal studies. A qualitative study is when data are collected with interviews, narratives, or observations with the aim to get a deeper understanding of a person’s life world [16Berg A, Denker K, Skärsäter I. Evidence based nursing when treating persons with depression [Swedish] SBU-rapport 1999 Evidensbaserad omvardnad vid depressionssjukdomar SBU/SSF nr 3 [Accessed 17 September 2010]; Available from: http://www.sbu.se/sv/Publicerat/Vit/Evidensbas erad-omvardnad-vid-behandling-av-personer-med-depressionssjukd omar, 18Hartman J. Scientific thinking.From theory of knowledge to theory of methods. [Swedish]. Vetenskapligt t nkande. Fran kunskapsteori till metodteori Studentlitteratur Lund 1998.]. The qualitative studies were assessed due to trustworthiness as well described research process, interpretations and conclusions. A scale was used when assessing the quality in included quantitative and qualitative studies, high (grade I) or low quality (grade III), a medium grade (II) were used if a study did not meet the criteria’s for grade I or III.
  5. The review process continued systematically by reapplying data from results/findings compiled in a spreadsheet,
  6. coding data and sorted item per item; similar data were grouped together,
  7. categorizing the content comparing them with each other concerning similarities and differences,
  8. and synthesizing data into a new descriptive content.

A total of 17 papers were included in this integrative literature review of which 12 were qualitative and 5 quantitative. An overview of the papers presented in the result is described in Table 1.

Table 1

Overview of the Literature and Relation to Categories




RESULTS

The results from our literature review is divided into 13 qualitative studies exploring important existential concerns for relatives and 4 quantitative studies describing interventions aimed to support and guide relatives existentially. We did not find any interventions with randomized, controlled design. A total of 877 relatives, mainly spouses of patients with cancer were included in these studies. Seven studies included both patients and relatives, and one study included patients, relatives and nurses. An overview of the patients and relatives participating in the different papers are presented in Table 1. Ten papers were from Sweden, the rest were from USA (3), Canada (1), Israel (1), Taiwan (1) and Greece (1). When analyzing important existential concerns in the papers, one overarching theme, Living in the presence of death, 3 categories and 9 subcategories were created (Table 2).

Table 2

Overview of the Overarching Theme, Categories, Subcategories and Papers Related to Each Sub-Category




RESPONSES TO LIFE CLOSE TO DEATH

Social Decline

Relatives were often reminded of death e.g. due to the hospital environment [19Adelbratt S, Strang P. Death anxiety in brain tumour patients and their spouses Palliat Med 2000; 14: 499-507.
[http://dx.doi.org/10.1191/026921600701536426] [PMID: 11219880]
], and the fact that they were about to lose their everyday life - i.e. normalcy was threatened [20Milberg A, Strang P. Meaningfulness in palliative home care: an interview study of dying cancer patients' next of kin Palliat Support Care 2003; 1: 171-80.
[http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S1478951503030311] [PMID: 16594279]
]. Relatives of patients with brain tumors experienced that their partner just seemed to slip away; they lost their social life due to the patient’s changing personality [19Adelbratt S, Strang P. Death anxiety in brain tumour patients and their spouses Palliat Med 2000; 14: 499-507.
[http://dx.doi.org/10.1191/026921600701536426] [PMID: 11219880]
]. This was a kind of social death. Relatives of patients with other malignancies no longer shared the same plans for the future or long-term life plans with their partners as they had done previously [21Sand L, Strang P. Existential loneliness in a palliative home care setting J Palliat Med 2006; 9: 376-87.
[http://dx.doi.org/10.1089/jpm.2006.9.1376] [PMID: 17187546]
]. Thoughts of a common future with careers, grandchildren or retirement had to be abandoned, because they would not meet the future together. Some of the external fellowship they had shared with others ceased to exist, since the ill person no longer had the strength to socialize with friends outside the close family. The patient’s impaired function in daily life also restricted the ability to live a normal life, subsequently reducing autonomy and increasing loneliness [22Milberg A, Strang P, Jakobsson M. Next of kin's experience of powerlessness and helplessness in palliative home care Support Care Cancer 2004; 12: 120-28.
[http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s00520-003-0569-y] [PMID: 14685835]
]. Another study showed that spouses have significant lower levels of social support from friends and family compared with patients [23Hasson-Ohayon I, Goldzweig G, Braun M, Galinsky D. Women with advanced breast cancer and their spouses: diversity of support and psychological distress Psychooncology 2009; 19: 1195-204.
[http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/pon.1678] [PMID: 20029822]
].

Physical Expressions

The patient’s physical suffering reminded relatives of death and they were worried about the patient’s poor symptom control and struggle to survive [22Milberg A, Strang P, Jakobsson M. Next of kin's experience of powerlessness and helplessness in palliative home care Support Care Cancer 2004; 12: 120-28.
[http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s00520-003-0569-y] [PMID: 14685835]
]. The relatives were always aware of the patient’s suffering, deteriorating health and declining strength. The relatives felt powerless in the face of the patient’s suffering, with physical symptoms, as pain, fatigue and breathlessness [21Sand L, Strang P. Existential loneliness in a palliative home care setting J Palliat Med 2006; 9: 376-87.
[http://dx.doi.org/10.1089/jpm.2006.9.1376] [PMID: 17187546]
, 22Milberg A, Strang P, Jakobsson M. Next of kin's experience of powerlessness and helplessness in palliative home care Support Care Cancer 2004; 12: 120-28.
[http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s00520-003-0569-y] [PMID: 14685835]
]. The fact that the patient’s body began to fail and that the former physical strength was now lacking affected the relatives both emotionally and realistically [21Sand L, Strang P. Existential loneliness in a palliative home care setting J Palliat Med 2006; 9: 376-87.
[http://dx.doi.org/10.1089/jpm.2006.9.1376] [PMID: 17187546]
]. Observing how the disease or treatment changed the body also contributed to relatives’ feelings of insufficiency [22Milberg A, Strang P, Jakobsson M. Next of kin's experience of powerlessness and helplessness in palliative home care Support Care Cancer 2004; 12: 120-28.
[http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s00520-003-0569-y] [PMID: 14685835]
]. Physical expressions in the patient were related to the relatives own physical reactions to the situation, such as muscle tension, headache, loss of appetite, and sleeplessness [24Tsigaroppoulos T, Mazaris E, Chatzidarellis E, Skolarikos A, Varkarakis I, Deliveliotis C. Problems faced by relatives caring for cancer patients at home Int J Nurs Pract 2009; 15: 1-6.
[http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1440-172X.2008.01725.x] [PMID: 19187163]
].

Psychological Distress

Death became real to relatives because they were constantly reminded of its presence. They lived with a continuous fear that the disease would deteriorate [19Adelbratt S, Strang P. Death anxiety in brain tumour patients and their spouses Palliat Med 2000; 14: 499-507.
[http://dx.doi.org/10.1191/026921600701536426] [PMID: 11219880]
]. They suffered from psychosocial problems, such as depression and anxiety when the patient had “leave-takings” [22Milberg A, Strang P, Jakobsson M. Next of kin's experience of powerlessness and helplessness in palliative home care Support Care Cancer 2004; 12: 120-28.
[http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s00520-003-0569-y] [PMID: 14685835]
]. Relatives showed significantly higher levels of anxiety than patients [25Axelsson B, Sjöde´n PO. Quality of life of cancer patients and their spouses in palliative home care Palliat Med 1998; 12: 29-39.], as well as higher levels of depression and overall psychological distress [23Hasson-Ohayon I, Goldzweig G, Braun M, Galinsky D. Women with advanced breast cancer and their spouses: diversity of support and psychological distress Psychooncology 2009; 19: 1195-204.
[http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/pon.1678] [PMID: 20029822]
]. They had difficulties in expressing their emotions, such as depression and anxiety [24Tsigaroppoulos T, Mazaris E, Chatzidarellis E, Skolarikos A, Varkarakis I, Deliveliotis C. Problems faced by relatives caring for cancer patients at home Int J Nurs Pract 2009; 15: 1-6.
[http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1440-172X.2008.01725.x] [PMID: 19187163]
]. Feelings of insufficiency, powerlessness and helplessness were also experienced as the relatives felt that there was nothing else they could contribute with [21Sand L, Strang P. Existential loneliness in a palliative home care setting J Palliat Med 2006; 9: 376-87.
[http://dx.doi.org/10.1089/jpm.2006.9.1376] [PMID: 17187546]
, 22Milberg A, Strang P, Jakobsson M. Next of kin's experience of powerlessness and helplessness in palliative home care Support Care Cancer 2004; 12: 120-28.
[http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s00520-003-0569-y] [PMID: 14685835]
]. Other experienced that they had come to terms with life, mortality and death. All this aroused feelings of awareness and reconciliation of life situation as well as overwhelming feelings of their failings and losses [26Syrén S, Saveman B, Benzein E, et al. Being a family in the midst of living and dying J Palliat Care 2006; 22: 26-32.].

Loneliness and Insecurity

When patients suffering from dementia no longer could communicate, relatives experienced feelings of loneliness because they had no one to talk to [27Albinsson L, Strang P. Existential concerns of families of late-stage dementia patients: questions of freedom, choices isolation death and meaning J Palliat Med 2003; 6: 225-35.], and consequently communication regarding life and death sometimes became difficult [26Syrén S, Saveman B, Benzein E, et al. Being a family in the midst of living and dying J Palliat Care 2006; 22: 26-32.]. Relatives felt lonely when they had to take responsibility for all practical matters and they had feelings of isolation. It was not uncommon with experiences of existential loneliness in certain changes and circumstances during the disease trajectory [22Milberg A, Strang P, Jakobsson M. Next of kin's experience of powerlessness and helplessness in palliative home care Support Care Cancer 2004; 12: 120-28.
[http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s00520-003-0569-y] [PMID: 14685835]
]. Sometimes the situation was easier to endure when they were able to share their thoughts and feelings with the patient, which generated strength [26Syrén S, Saveman B, Benzein E, et al. Being a family in the midst of living and dying J Palliat Care 2006; 22: 26-32.]. Other times the relative and the patient felt that they could not protect each other from suffering. The relatives were hovering between having experienced difficulties in the past and a readiness to manage the current life situation, as well as a need for the ability to use the necessary strengths and flexibility in daily life, learning to adapt to the situation in general. Sometimes they felt helpless, not having enough resources to manage the situation and found it difficult to know how to act in certain situations. Their trust in relations with healthcare staff was limited, the care provided was not helpful, and there was an unbalance between demands and expectations [26Syrén S, Saveman B, Benzein E, et al. Being a family in the midst of living and dying J Palliat Care 2006; 22: 26-32.]. Feelings of anger directed towards the disease and healthcare staff were imminent [22Milberg A, Strang P, Jakobsson M. Next of kin's experience of powerlessness and helplessness in palliative home care Support Care Cancer 2004; 12: 120-28.
[http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s00520-003-0569-y] [PMID: 14685835]
].

Although relatives feared the occurrence of sudden adverse events, they strived to retain a positive attitude in their current situation [24Tsigaroppoulos T, Mazaris E, Chatzidarellis E, Skolarikos A, Varkarakis I, Deliveliotis C. Problems faced by relatives caring for cancer patients at home Int J Nurs Pract 2009; 15: 1-6.
[http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1440-172X.2008.01725.x] [PMID: 19187163]
].

Responsibility and Guilt

Reminded of the impending death relatives felt obligated to be faithful to their relation with the dying person, and that now was the time for them to repay all that they had previously received. Relatives were committed and involved in the care of the patient and did what they had to do without hesitation [20Milberg A, Strang P. Meaningfulness in palliative home care: an interview study of dying cancer patients' next of kin Palliat Support Care 2003; 1: 171-80.
[http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S1478951503030311] [PMID: 16594279]
, 27Albinsson L, Strang P. Existential concerns of families of late-stage dementia patients: questions of freedom, choices isolation death and meaning J Palliat Med 2003; 6: 225-35.]. Grown-up children to patients with severe or late stage dementia often felt like they had become a parent to their parent [27Albinsson L, Strang P. Existential concerns of families of late-stage dementia patients: questions of freedom, choices isolation death and meaning J Palliat Med 2003; 6: 225-35.]. Other relatives of patients with cancer could feel that they were responsible for alleviating suffering and initiating healthcare staff to act [21Sand L, Strang P. Existential loneliness in a palliative home care setting J Palliat Med 2006; 9: 376-87.
[http://dx.doi.org/10.1089/jpm.2006.9.1376] [PMID: 17187546]
]. They felt a responsibility to protect and distract the patient from negative feelings, but they sometimes experienced lack of resources to relieve suffering. The relatives could also feel “survivors’ guilt” about the disease and the situation to the dying person [19Adelbratt S, Strang P. Death anxiety in brain tumour patients and their spouses Palliat Med 2000; 14: 499-507.
[http://dx.doi.org/10.1191/026921600701536426] [PMID: 11219880]
] and they felt guilty for not being able to do enough [22Milberg A, Strang P, Jakobsson M. Next of kin's experience of powerlessness and helplessness in palliative home care Support Care Cancer 2004; 12: 120-28.
[http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s00520-003-0569-y] [PMID: 14685835]
]. Other relatives found it difficult to express their emotions, for example sadness, but had no difficulty in expressing feelings of guilt [24Tsigaroppoulos T, Mazaris E, Chatzidarellis E, Skolarikos A, Varkarakis I, Deliveliotis C. Problems faced by relatives caring for cancer patients at home Int J Nurs Pract 2009; 15: 1-6.
[http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1440-172X.2008.01725.x] [PMID: 19187163]
].

SUPPORT WHEN DEATH IS NEAR

Information and Dialogue

The relatives wished for support from healthcare professionals in the form of a dialogue regarding chaos or information [28Strang S, Strang P. Spiritual thoughts coping and sense of coherence in brain tumour patients and their spouses Palliat Med 2001; 15: 127-34.]. They expressed needs for medical, practical, psychosocial or religious/spiritual information when preparing for the death of the patient [29Hebert RS, Schulz R, Copeland VC, Arnold RM. Preparing family caregivers for death and bereavement.Insights from caregivers of terminally ill patients J Pain Symptom Manage 2009; 37: 3-12.]. Relatives wanted healthcare staff to be present and needed confirmation from staff, i.e. they needed to be seen and acknowledged. Hindrance for providing support was staff’s lack of a holistic view, fear and lack of time [30Strang S, Strang P, Ternestedt BM. Existential support in brain tumour patients and their spouses Support Care Cancer 2001; 9: 625-33.]. Relatives want to discuss issues of a religious/spiritual nature with healthcare professionals such as for example the meaning of illness, or “Who can I speak to about religious/spiritual concerns?” or “Why is this happening?” and “Will my loved one go to heaven?” [31Hebert RS, Schulz R, Copeland VC, Arnold RM. What questions do family caregivers want to discuss with health care providers in order to prepare for the death of a loved one An ethnographic study of caregivers of patients at the end of life J Palliat Med 2008; 11: 476-83.]. Spouses of patients with breast cancer reported that social support from patients, family and friends, as well as religious or belief-based support were extremely important and could quite well have a protective role concerning psychological distress [23Hasson-Ohayon I, Goldzweig G, Braun M, Galinsky D. Women with advanced breast cancer and their spouses: diversity of support and psychological distress Psychooncology 2009; 19: 1195-204.
[http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/pon.1678] [PMID: 20029822]
].

Supportive Interventions

Four papers were found which described interventions aimed at helping relatives existentially. Two of them concerned conversations, which were assumed as being helpful. The first paper was a nursing intervention consisting of three health-promoting conversations with dying cancer patients and their spouses in palliative home care. The conversations had a salotugenic approach involving the couple’s recourses within and outside family as well as on health, hope and suffering encouraging them to reflect on their life situations. Talking about existential matters such as hope and suffering had a healing effect on participants. The couples experienced that they could unburden themselves and that they found new strategies for coping in daily life [32Benzein E, Saveman B. Health-promoting conversations about hope and suffering with couples in palliative care Int J Palliat Nurs 2008; 14: 439-5.].

The second paper concerned life tape interviews with cancer patients and their relatives. The intervention consisted of 1-2 hour videotaped interviews in their home and an in-depth life story including family history, significant life events and personal philosophy. The patients had the chance to reflect on their lives and face issues of mortality in the presence of relatives. Patients and relatives shared the experience, which provided the patient with a feeling of not being forgotten after death. This provided the patient with a sense of symbolic immortality and the patient served as a role model to others in the family of how to face dying and death. It helped relatives to respond to their sense of helplessness and loss when a loved one is facing death. This may contribute to how they manage to handle the existential anxiety about their own mortality [33Rosenbaum E, Garlan RW, Hirschberger N, Siegel AL, Butler LA, Spiegel D. The Life Tape Project: Increasing family social support and symbolic immortality with a brief existential intervention for cancer patients and their families J Death and Dying 2006; 53: 321-9.].

The third intervention concerned a nonresidential 2.5 days retreat weekend for cancer patients’ relatives. Various sessions were held during the retreat in which the participants shared stories with each other, the medical system was discussed, as well as the role of nutrition and complementary therapy. Sessions were also held about stress and relaxation response, and spirituality in cancer care as well as yoga, and group therapy. The relatives experienced emotional and spiritual healing that stemmed from a feeling of community with the other participants [34Arnaert A, Gabos T, Ballenas V, Rutledge RD. Contributions of a retreat weekend to the healing and coping of cancer patients' relatives Qual Health Res 2010; 20: 197-208.].

The fourth paper targeted relatives’ well-being through soft tissue massage, and one of the outcomes was existential well-being. Soft tissue massage, hand or foot, was given to relatives of patients in palliative care in their homes for 25 minutes once a day during a period of two weeks. Relatives perceived that they felt an inner power, strength and existential well-being in everyday life after the massage, despite worries, tiredness and their stressful situation. This reflects the psychological, physical and existential needs of relatives when caring for a severely ill or dying family member [35Cronfalk B, Strang P, Ternestedt BM. Inner power physical strength and existential well-being in daily life: relatives' experiences of receiving soft tissue massage in palliative home care J Clin Nurs 2009; 18: 2225-33.].

BEYOND THE PRESENCE OF DEATH

Future Hope and Faith

Hope, purpose in life and meaningfulness were also present in the situation in that the relatives tried to find the meaning of illness [25Axelsson B, Sjöde´n PO. Quality of life of cancer patients and their spouses in palliative home care Palliat Med 1998; 12: 29-39.,27Albinsson L, Strang P. Existential concerns of families of late-stage dementia patients: questions of freedom, choices isolation death and meaning J Palliat Med 2003; 6: 225-35.]. The current meaning concerned knowledge and daily routines, and good memories could constitute the meaning in the past. The meaning in the future concerned passing on skills and interest of the patient to the next generation [27Albinsson L, Strang P. Existential concerns of families of late-stage dementia patients: questions of freedom, choices isolation death and meaning J Palliat Med 2003; 6: 225-35.]. Experiencing hope was also an issue of importance to the feeling of future meaningfulness, for example hope of patients’ improved well-being, which contributed to having something to look forward to [20Milberg A, Strang P. Meaningfulness in palliative home care: an interview study of dying cancer patients' next of kin Palliat Support Care 2003; 1: 171-80.
[http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S1478951503030311] [PMID: 16594279]
]. Contacts with dead relatives and memories of them inspired confidence in eternal life, and spiritual power or a Christian faith was a source of hope. When awareness of mortality became obvious, the future became limited and short term goals were made only for the immediate future. It was difficult to find peace, and death was considered as disgusting [26Syrén S, Saveman B, Benzein E, et al. Being a family in the midst of living and dying J Palliat Care 2006; 22: 26-32.]. Some relatives believed in God and their faith had not been affected due to the disease. Although church attendance was rare, a significant part of the relatives expressed that their faith had increased during illness [24Tsigaroppoulos T, Mazaris E, Chatzidarellis E, Skolarikos A, Varkarakis I, Deliveliotis C. Problems faced by relatives caring for cancer patients at home Int J Nurs Pract 2009; 15: 1-6.
[http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1440-172X.2008.01725.x] [PMID: 19187163]
]. In a study from Taiwan [36Lin WC, Tsao CJ. Information needs of family caregivers of terminal cancer patients in Taiwan Am J Hosp Palliat Care 2004; 21: 438-4.], it was found that relatives ranked spiritual issues as least important when caring for patients with cancer at the end of life.

A New Dimension in Life

Although living in the presence of death, relatives could sense a new dimension in life [28Strang S, Strang P. Spiritual thoughts coping and sense of coherence in brain tumour patients and their spouses Palliat Med 2001; 15: 127-34.]. They perceived the patients’ suffering, fading away and felt insufficient. Powerlessness and helplessness contributed to a deeper meaning, including existential and social aspects, such as feelings of guilt, anger and loneliness [22Milberg A, Strang P, Jakobsson M. Next of kin's experience of powerlessness and helplessness in palliative home care Support Care Cancer 2004; 12: 120-28.
[http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s00520-003-0569-y] [PMID: 14685835]
]. Relatives stuck to frames of reference from a healthy life for a longer period of the course of the illness. Step by step the former united lives separated and the patients started to conclude their lives while the relatives began psychological preparations for a changed but ongoing existence [21Sand L, Strang P. Existential loneliness in a palliative home care setting J Palliat Med 2006; 9: 376-87.
[http://dx.doi.org/10.1089/jpm.2006.9.1376] [PMID: 17187546]
].

DISCUSSION

Although there is an increased attention in research about existential needs significant for patients with cancer, our review demonstrated that the knowledge about existential concerns actualized among relatives facing the death of a close family member are limited. This could be due to that existential needs in general are ignored in palliative care because of the uncertainty over definition, lack of theoretical understanding, few documented interventions, and the lack of proper training and education for palliative care providers [37Boston P, Bruce A, Schreiber R. Existential suffering int the palliative care setting: An integrated literature review J Pain Symptom Manage 2011; 41: 604-18.].

Our review showed that a majority of papers are qualitative, have small samples and are from Sweden. Only a few individual or group interventions were found with the specific focus on how relatives’ existential concerns were met. In another review it was described that a majority of family caregiver interventions are aimed to reduce stress levels, provide information and social support. A minority is designed particularly for family caregivers, and there is little evidence on the usefulness of these interventions in palliative care [38Harding R, Higginsson IJ. What is the best way to help caregivers in cancer and palliative care? A systematic literature review of interventions and their effectiveness Palliat Med 2003; 17: 63-74.].

The lives of relatives living close to a severely ill person are influenced in many ways by the impending death. The awareness of living in the presence of death, while facing the death of a close family member i.e. mortality awareness, was a negative experience triggered by responses to life close to death. As for example social decline, physical expression manifested in different responses such as psychological distress, loneliness and insecurity, responsibility and guilt. In such a demanding situation relatives need professional and social support when perceiving a life beyond the presence of death. There are a variety of theories describing attitudes to death ranging from the strictly negative, which is rejecting death, towards attitudes of acceptance [39Tomer A, Grafton GT, Wong PTP, Eds. Existential and Spiritual issues in death attitudes . New York: Taylor and Francis 2008.]. There is a pattern in our study that the relatives moved from the torment of watching their loved one fade away, constantly being reminded of death and responding to life close to death, through the illness trajectory towards a more “accepting” position.

Living in the presence of death was the overarching theme in our study concerning relatives who were constantly reminded of death that threatened their everyday life and normalcy. How they responded to this may be an expression of existential distress. Existential threats to normalcy may lead to fears of death which in itself may be embedded in anxiety for death. Fear has different meanings, for example the fear of being separated by death from your loved ones, or the finality of death (there is no more tomorrow) [39Tomer A, Grafton GT, Wong PTP, Eds. Existential and Spiritual issues in death attitudes . New York: Taylor and Francis 2008.]. Existential distress may be an expression of death anxiety and the price one has to pay for living a genuine life [40Neimeyer RA, Ed. Death anxiety handbook. Washington DC: Taylor and Francis 1994.] that is confronting ones fears as death, anxiety and uncertainty [41Greenberg J, Koole SL, Pyszczynski T, Eds. Handbook of experimental existential psychology. New York: The Guilford Press 2004.]. We found that relative’s death anxiety increased which may be manifested in existential loneliness i.e. despite being surrounded by friends; one is quite alone in the situation. Sand expresses this phenomenon as ”experiences of being alone in a world of one's own" [21Sand L, Strang P. Existential loneliness in a palliative home care setting J Palliat Med 2006; 9: 376-87.
[http://dx.doi.org/10.1089/jpm.2006.9.1376] [PMID: 17187546]
].

Physical expressions in the patient were related to relatives own physical reactions to the situation, such as muscle tension, headache, loss of appetite, and sleeplessness. This is congruent with Merleau-Ponty who stated that people experience the world through their bodies can be seen as an object consisting of organs, bones, and flesh or a body as a subject, i.e. meaning is experienced from inside [42Merleau-Ponty M. Phenomenology of Perception Routledge London 2002.]. In a previous study [43Melin-Johansson C, Axelsson B, Danielson E. The meaning of quality of life: narrations by patients with incurable cancer in palliative home care Palliat Support Care 2008; 6: 231-38.] it was shown that a distressed body signals a message to the patient that death is approaching, and in the present study, we found that the same message is also conveyed to the relatives. Physical messages help the patients to prepare themselves for death, which is sometimes what patients want [44Nelson ML, Schrader SL, Eidsness LM. South Dakota's dying to know: personal experiences with end-of-life care J Palliat Med 2009; 12: 905-13., 45Prince PM. When hospice is the best option: an opportunity to redefine goals Oncology (Williston Park) 2009; 23: 13-7.]. Relatives own physical reactions may help them to prepare that death are imminent. Environmental messages in for example a hospital may remind the relatives of impending death, and hinder the feeling “at-home” [46Rasmussen BH, Edvardsson D. The influence of environment in palliative care: supporting or hindering experiences of 'at-homeness' Contemp Nurse 2007; 27: 119-31.]. The difference between the physical and the environmental reminders of death is that the physical reminders are inevitable. The deterioration of the body and the progress of the disease could be constrained but not totally stopped, but the hospital environment could be changed to become more welcoming and home-like.

Need of existential support was described in some papers in this review as well as opinions about how this could or ought to be provided by healthcare professionals. This is an implication for healthcare professionals to acknowledge and support relatives having existential needs, emphasize their vulnerable situation and existential distress. Nurses are of importance in providing spiritual support to relatives but are sometimes inadequately equipped to provide such support [47Kuuppelomäki M. Spiritual support for families of patients with cancer: a pilot study of nursing staff assessments Cancer Nurs 2002; 25: 209-18.]. Spirituality in nursing is described as a multidimensional concept without any consensus about how it may be defined. Many nursing authors though include elements such as “transcendence, unfolding mystery, connectedness, meaning and purpose in life, higher power, and relationships”, and spirituality may or may not be related to religion [48Tanyi R. Towards a clarification of the meaning of spirituality J Adv Nurs 2002; 39: 500-09.]. In complex situations nurses may consider being guided by openheartedness, which is being grounded in the existential dimensions of being human. This is important, especially as care today is exceptionally technical and instrumental. It can be integrated in the interaction with a dying patient and the family by being close and not abandoning them, being open to their vulnerability without treating them as objects, using all technical recourses, specialized training and lived experiences. Nursing openheartedness is responsive to patients and families’ different needs from the very practical to the most existential [49Galvin KT, Todres L. Embodying nursing openheartedness an existential perspective J Holist Nurs 2009; 27: 141-9.].

Relatives want support from healthcare professionals in terms of information and dialogue. They need to be provided with adequate information about the disease as well as having someone to confide in and continually communicate with healthcare professionals. This may prevent and/or shed a light on possible conflict of interests, which was also found in another study of relatives of patients with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) [50Bolmsjö I, Hermerén G. Conflicts of interest: experiences of close relatives of patients suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis Nurs Ethics 2003; 10: 186-98.]. Staffs themselves perceive that they have a responsibility to provide existential support to cancer patients at the end of life. But there is a gap between the patient’s wish to discuss existential issues as healthcare staff lack strategies to meet them. This gap could be bridged by healthcare staff inviting them to a dialogue on existential issues [51Browall M, Melin-Johansson C, Strang S, Danielson E, Henoch I. Health care staff's opinions about existential issues among patients with cancer Palliat Support Care 2010; 8: 59-68.]. There is a need to provide support groups, focusing on relatives’ existential distress and death anxiety, when caring for a seriously ill family member. Support groups are highly important to cancer patients and their families [52Weis J. Support groups for cancer patients Support Care Cancer 2003; 11: 763-8.]. To participate would probably increase relatives’ feeling of security when living in the presence of death, and give them a sense of security in relation to the ill family member, the illness and nursing staff [53Henriksson A, Andershed B. A support group programme for relatives during the late palliative phase Int J Palliat Nurs 2007; 13: 175-83.].

A new dimension was experienced by relatives, despite the situation being distressful. They experienced a glimpse of a new life following the period of illness. This indication was conveyed by relatives having positive feelings about future hope and faith. Hope has previously been found to be an essential resource in the lives of people with cancer helping them to cope during times of suffering and uncertainty. For relatives it was a gradual process of regaining strength and moving on [54McClement SE, Chochinov HM. Hope in advanced cancer patients Eur J Cancer 2008; 44: 69-117., 55Holtslander LF, Duggleby WD. The hope experience of older bereaved women who cared for a spouse with terminal cancer Qual Health Res 2009; 19: 388-400.]. A new dimension in life could be the result of relative’s letting go of the ill person and may be a crucial turning point. “Letting go before death” attributes recognition of the fact that the loved one is dying and will die, acknowledging the impending physical and emotional loss that will occur at the time of death, and allowing the progression of inevitable death to occur by choosing not to prolong or impede this natural process [56Lowey SE. Letting go before a death: a concept analysis J Adv Nurs 2008; 63: 208-15.]. After the death of loved a one, many relatives are in need of bereavement follow-up. They need to talk about the past, the present and the future, they need comfort in a situation of loneliness and there is a need to put words to emotions [57Milberg A, Olsson EC, Jakobsson M, Olsson M, Friedrichsen M. Family members' perceived needs for bereavement follow-up J Pain Symptom Manage 2008; 35: 58-69.].

CONCLUSION

In this paper we present the fact that research concerning relatives’ existential concerns when caring for a seriously ill family member is limited. There is a need for large-scale studies with accurate methodology both qualitative and quantitative, mainly randomized controlled studies when investigating relatives’ existential concerns. Relatives living in the presence of death and being in a transitional phase need continual support from professionals, for example through dialogue. Relatives appeal for discussions relating to issues of an existential nature, such as “Why is this happening?” and stress the need for knowledge as well as strategies among healthcare professionals. Therefore educational interventions among professionals in different healthcare settings are needed, to extend knowledge about existential concerns among relatives. It is important that healthcare professionals understand the struggle relatives experience when living in the presence of death, and that they infuse future hope and faith through continuing dialogues, which may support the relatives in the transition into a new dimension in life.

CONFLICT OF INTEREST

There is no conflict of interest concerning this manuscript.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

To The Sahlgrenska Academy, University of Gothenburg, Sweden for funding this study and to Dorothy Björklund for linguistic revision.

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"There are many scientists who can not afford the rather expensive subscriptions to scientific journals. Open access journals offer a good alternative for free access to good quality scientific information."


Fidel Toldrá
(Instituto de Agroquimica y Tecnologia de Alimentos, Spain)

"Open access journals have become a fundamental tool for students, researchers, patients and the general public. Many people from institutions which do not have library or cannot afford to subscribe scientific journals benefit of them on a daily basis. The articles are among the best and cover most scientific areas."


M. Bendandi
(University Clinic of Navarre, Spain)

"These journals provide researchers with a platform for rapid, open access scientific communication. The articles are of high quality and broad scope."


Peter Chiba
(University of Vienna, Austria)

"Open access journals are probably one of the most important contributions to promote and diffuse science worldwide."


Jaime Sampaio
(University of Trás-os-Montes e Alto Douro, Portugal)

"Open access journals make up a new and rather revolutionary way to scientific publication. This option opens several quite interesting possibilities to disseminate openly and freely new knowledge and even to facilitate interpersonal communication among scientists."


Eduardo A. Castro
(INIFTA, Argentina)

"Open access journals are freely available online throughout the world, for you to read, download, copy, distribute, and use. The articles published in the open access journals are high quality and cover a wide range of fields."


Kenji Hashimoto
(Chiba University, Japan)

"Open Access journals offer an innovative and efficient way of publication for academics and professionals in a wide range of disciplines. The papers published are of high quality after rigorous peer review and they are Indexed in: major international databases. I read Open Access journals to keep abreast of the recent development in my field of study."


Daniel Shek
(Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong)

"It is a modern trend for publishers to establish open access journals. Researchers, faculty members, and students will be greatly benefited by the new journals of Bentham Science Publishers Ltd. in this category."


Jih Ru Hwu
(National Central University, Taiwan)


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