Grief and End-of-life Surrogate Decision Making

In John K. Davis (ed.), Ethics at the End of Life: New Issues and Arguments. New York: Routledge. pp. 201-217 (2017)
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Because an increasing number of patients have medical conditions that render them incompetent at making their own medical choices, more and more medical choices are now made by surrogates, often patient family members. However, many studies indicate that surrogates often do not discharge their responsibilities adequately, and in particular, do not choose in accordance with what those patients would have chosen for themselves, especially when it comes to end-of-life medical choices. This chapter argues that a significant part of the explanation of such surrogate failure is that family surrogates are likely to undergo anticipatory grief when making end-of-life decisions. After clarifying both the emotional structure and object of grief, I propose that the pending death of a loved one induces an emotional conflict in surrogates between the care demanded by their responsibility as surrogates and the attachment surrogates feel toward their dying loved one, an attachment surrogates "resolve" in the direction of attachment rather than care. This hypothesis helps to explain both surrogates' general inability to exercise "substituted judgment" on behalf of their loved ones and a wide swath of the particular data regarding this inability (e.g., that surrogates more often err by choosing overtreatment). I conclude by considering possible clinical and philosophical responses to this hypothesis.
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