Experiencing the Sublime in a Palliative Care Unit

J Pain Symptom Manage. 2021 Jul;62(1):202-204. doi: 10.1016/j.jpainsymman.2020.05.006. Epub 2020 May 11.


All of us, without exception, must sooner or later face the inevitability of death. However, as comparative studies of different cultures show, the idea that death is something to be feared, denied or hidden away is far from universal. Undeniably, many people do not have a 'good' death, and those with a terminal illness experience suffering, pain, and even despair, a sense of dignity lost. But is this the onlypossible narrative? In 2014, and again in 2019, I had the opportunity to spend time as an observer in a palliative care unit. I hold a BA, a PhD in Humanities, and since 2014 my research has focused on end of life care. Even though I work in a clinical lab, the day to day activity in a clinical setting is a distant reality. However, at no other point in my life have I experienced a stronger sense of 'reality'-the reality of life, of death, of what it means to love someone, of one's own life entwined with that of another person. Witnessing the end-of-life can be a profound experience-what Kant would call the sublime-and it can unsettle, in a good way, anyone who comes to encounter it while unaware of its potential. My aim in this paper is to explain why I believe that the end of life in a palliative care context is an opportunity to experience the sublime and an authentic transformative experience. Finally, I describe four short stories to better understand what the experience of the sublime might be in the context of clinical practice.

Keywords: Palliative care; aesthetics; end of life care; medical humanities.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Hospice Care*
  • Humanities
  • Humans
  • Palliative Care
  • Population Health*
  • Terminal Care*