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Palliat Support Care. 2012 Mar;10(1):27-36. doi: 10.1017/S1478951511000551.

"In pain waiting to die": everyday understandings of suffering.

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  • 1Faculty of Education, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Canada.



The notion of "suffering" is understood in very different ways in a variety of contexts. In palliative care, the relief and prevention of suffering is considered to be a fundamental goal (Pastrana et al., 2008). However, the avoidance of suffering has also been used as an argument by those campaigning for the legalization of euthanasia and assisted suicide (Finlay, 2009). In reflecting upon suffering in these two contexts, we were intrigued by Finlay's (2009) contention that to laypeople, the phrase "'unbearable suffering' conjures up images of patients on their deathbeds wracked with uncontrolled pain" (p. 1841).


This article explores how suffering is used and understood in an "everyday" discourse, by analyzing comments posted to a website debating assisted suicide in the context of the Canadian case of Sue Rodriguez.


Using a broad social approach to discourse analysis (Tonkiss, 2004), three themes emerged in our analysis: (1) when people suffer, (2) how people are understood to suffer, and (3) how suffering should be dealt with. We also examined what was not said in this discussion: there was little consideration of the more holistic goals of palliative care and how suffering might be understood and managed in ways other than within the frame of assisted suicide.


Paying attention to the everyday discourse of suffering is important because, as members of society, we all play a role in negotiating the meaning of suffering. Such meaning has a significant impact upon patients and palliative care professionals alike.

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