Background Recent research in palliative care has focused on understanding how the dying (and immediately post-mortem) process affects nurses. The literature notes the increasingly complex environments in which nurses find themselves, such as in the care of heart-beating and non-heart-beating cadaver donors, whose legal status as variously ‘alive’ or ‘dead’ is often less clear-cut in practice. Nurses often report feelings of emotional ‘burnout’ due to a lack of suitable support structures.
Methods A review of literature from 1980 to the present, predominantly from specialist nursing journals was consulted to provide an overview on the role and emotional responses of contemporary palliative care nurses. The findings were contextualised using research frameworks derived from common themes in archaeological and anthropological literature, such as personhood and liminality.
Results Themes such as the liminality of the dead are recurrent in both modern palliative nursing and in the archaeological and ethnographic record. Moreover, the need for ritual specialists to mediate in transitions between the worlds of the living of the dead is ubiquitous in the latter, as is the elevated status of these individuals within the community.
Conclusions By understanding the important and conflicted nature of their roles as mediators between worlds, and by placing their daily practices within a broader theoretical framework and deep-time perspective, nurses can better understand the inherently complex and sensitive nature of their work, and gain a degree of empowerment over their roles and associated emotional responses.
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