Symptoms and Suffering at End of Life for Children With Complex Chronic Conditions

J Pain Symptom Manage. 2022 Jan;63(1):88-97. doi: 10.1016/j.jpainsymman.2021.07.010. Epub 2021 Jul 24.


Context: Children with cancer and cardiac disease suffer with high symptom burden at end of life (EOL). Little is known about the EOL experience for children with other complex chronic conditions (CCCs).

Objectives: To evaluate symptoms and suffering at EOL for children with noncancer, noncardiac CCCs as well as parental distress related to child suffering.

Methods: This study is a secondary data analysis of a cross-sectional, single-center survey of bereaved parents of children with CCCs who died between 2006 to 2015. The primary outcome was parent-reported child suffering in the final two days of life.

Results: Among 211 eligible parents contacted for participation, 114 completed the survey, and 99 had complete primary outcome data (participation rate 47%). Most children had congenital/chromosomal (42%) or progressive central nervous system (22%) conditions. Twenty-eight percent of parents reported high child suffering in the final two days of life. Parents reported that pain and difficulty breathing caused the greatest suffering for children and distress among themselves. Some parents also reported distress related to uncertainty about child suffering. Parents were less likely to report high child suffering if they were confident in knowing what to expect when their child was dying (AOR 0.20; 95% CI 0.07-0.60) or felt prepared for medical problems at EOL (AOR 0.12; 95% CI 0.04-0.42).

Conclusion: Nearly one-third of parents of children with CCCs report high suffering in their child's final days of life. Parent preparedness was associated with lower perceived child suffering. Future research should target symptoms contributing to parent and child distress and assess whether enhancing parent preparedness reduces perceived child suffering.

Keywords: Medical complexity; end of life; pediatric palliative care; symptom management.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Attitude to Death*
  • Child
  • Chronic Disease
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Death*
  • Humans
  • Parents