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Open Access Research article

Longing for ground in a ground(less) world: a qualitative inquiry of existential suffering

Anne Bruce1*, Rita Schreiber1, Olga Petrovskaya1 and Patricia Boston2

  • * Corresponding author: Anne Bruce abruce@uvic.ca

  • † Equal contributors

Author Affiliations

1 School of Nursing, University of Victoria, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada

2 Director, Division of Palliative Care, Department of Family Practice, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia

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BMC Nursing 2011, 10:2  doi:10.1186/1472-6955-10-2

Published: 27 January 2011

Abstract

Background

Existential and spiritual concerns are fundamental issues in palliative care and patients frequently articulate these concerns. The purpose of this study was to understand the process of engaging with existential suffering at the end of life.

Methods

A grounded theory approach was used to explore processes in the context of situated interaction and to explore the process of existential suffering. We began with in vivo codes of participants' words, and clustered these codes at increasingly higher levels of abstractions until we were able to theorize.

Results

Findings suggest the process of existential suffering begins with an experience of groundlessness that results in an overarching process of Longing for Ground in a Ground(less) World, a wish to minimize the uncomfortable or anxiety-provoking instability of groundlessness. Longing for ground is enacted in three overlapping ways: by turning toward one's discomfort and learning to let go (engaging groundlessness), turning away from the discomfort, attempting to keep it out of consciousness by clinging to familiar thoughts and ideas (taking refuge in the habitual), and learning to live within the flux of instability and unknowing (living in-between).

Conclusions

Existential concerns are inherent in being human. This has implications for clinicians when considering how patients and colleagues may experience existential concerns in varying degrees, in their own fashion, either consciously or unconsciously. Findings emphasize a fluid and dynamic understanding of existential suffering and compel health providers to acknowledge the complexity of fear and anxiety while allowing space for the uniquely fluid nature of these processes for each person. Findings also have implications for health providers who may gravitate towards the transformational possibilities of encounters with mortality without inviting space for less optimistic possibilities of resistance, anger, and despondency that may concurrently arise.