How Doctors Tell Patients They're Dying

"There's an overall pattern of how humans deal with forthcoming death," said Sherri McCarthy, a professor of psychology and a grief counselor at Northern Arizona University. "Shock or denial is a pretty universal first reaction. Patients say 'it's not me' or 'I'll go to a different doctor.'"

Eventually, these feelings usually transform into depression or anger, McCarthy said, and then later into "bargaining," a term used to describe when patients try to rationalize the situation and convince themselves they can do certain things to prevent their death.

And when they've finally accepted their illness, what happens next depends largely on the individual patient, McCarthy said.

"With people who have the freedom to [quit their jobs], it's common to see redirection," McCarthy said. "They're likely to think that they only have a limited time and say, 'I only have so much time to do the things I really want to do.'"

Dr. Ken Doka, a senior consultant to the Hospice Foundation of America, said that everyone copes differently, and often people deal with death similar to the way they deal with other aspects of life.

"We die as we live," Doka said. "If we're an angry person, then we tend to get angry at this. Some will cope by ignoring it and going on about their life as best they can, others will frantically look to do everything they can to try to beat it."

Said Boston University's Grodin, "We deal with death and dying daily as doctors. But most other people don't. There's this assumption that people know how to do it.

"There are as many people as there are ways people die," Grodin said. "You must take each case as unique and separate."

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