When Words Fail Us


When Words Fail Us


In Search of a Good Death
Program 13
When Words Fail Us
Silence as a valuable means of communication

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Dr Michael Barbato

Ours is now a culture enamoured of social media, email, SMS messaging, chat rooms and all the gadgets of new era communication. We exchange words like never before, and of course they manage to connect us in some way at some level, but they are not the whole story of communication, which can occur in ways without words, yet with telling effect.

In end of life care, the occasion of intense human vulnerability, words alone can be found wanting, and can be a tempting place of refuge for professionals and carers – refuge from fear, or feelings of inadequacy. End of life care is an occasion when a whole different kind of communication comes into its own, one anchored in a place of calm, one that recognises the value of ‘being’ caring rather than doing caring; the kind of communication that can give rise to authentic human encounters.

Simple presence, thoughtful practical gestures (so that even serving a cup of tea is comforting by its expression of care), moving in rhythm with the seasons of a patient’s and family’s changing experience. All communicate the value and preciousness of each breath that sustains life, and can bring an inexplicably profound dimension to human caring. All can permit authentic human encounters, in which together we acknowledge the fragility of our shared humanity, yet also affirm our capacity to somehow transcend our worst suffering.

Discussion Starters
1. What are some of the ways in which people commonly try and protect themselves from their own fears, sense of inadequacy, or awkwardness through the use of words?

2. If end of life care requires particular qualities of professionals and carers, what might some of these qualities be?

3. Is simple human care adequately balanced with treatment and symptom management in contemporary hospice care?

4. In what ways might professionals and carers sometimes lose sight of the value of engaging at a deeply human level, because of their need to achieve a sense of their own professional adequacy, yet at the expense of most effective care?

Dr John Ashfield
Project Consultant

Tony Ryan
In Search of a Good Death




Podcasts and Study Guides

This webpage contains a summary of all twelve programs in this series, along with links to podcasts and study guides. Missing podcasts will be added as soon as possible.