The Avoidance of Human Suffering

Perspect Biol Med. Summer 2009;52(3):381-91. doi: 10.1353/pbm.0.0095.


Suffering is frequent among patients, and it is common for physicians to attempt to avoid contact with individuals who are dying, debilitated, or in pain. Both patients and physicians are harmed when this happens: patients feel abandoned, resulting in unnecessary suffering, and physicians miss moments of meaning and renewal through direct connection. Ernest Gaines's novel A Lesson Before Dying is not a medical story, yet one character, Grant Wiggins, behaves like a physician when he tries to avoid direct, personal contact with Miss Emma, a community member who is suffering. This novel illuminates the tendency of human beings (including physicians) to try to avoid suffering, and the realization of this tendency can provide opportunities for ongoing medical education to help students, residents, and faculty members recognize their discomfort about suffering and learn to address it appropriately.

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Psychological*
  • Books*
  • Communication
  • Humans
  • Literature*
  • Patient Care
  • Physician-Patient Relations*
  • Stress, Psychological*