Find information on medical topics, symptoms, drugs, procedures, news and more, written in everyday language.

Introduction to Death and Dying

by Elizabeth L. Cobbs, MD, Karen Blackstone, MD; Joanne Lynn, MD, MA, MS

A century ago, most people who suffered major injuries or contracted serious infections died soon afterward. Most people expected little more than comfort measures from doctors. Today, because medical procedures commonly extend the lives of people who have serious illnesses, death is often mistakenly seen as an event that can be deferred indefinitely. However, death is an intrinsic part of life, and talking about the likely outcomes of illness, including death and dying, is an important part of health care.

Doctors and patients vary in the language they use and in their comfort level regarding such discussions. People also vary in their comfort level regarding the amount of information and involvement in decision making that they want. Seriously ill people and their loved ones should generally try to understand the likely future course of their illness as well as the options for living with their particular disabilities and family situation. People should make any preferences about treatment and family support known (see Advance Directives). People who do not talk with their families and health care providers about their preferences for care near the end of their life may receive treatments (such as chemotherapy or surgery) or end up living in situations (such as a hospital or nursing home) they would not have wanted.