Making sense of dying in China

Chao Fang


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Witnessing dying of a loved one could be challenging due to the distressing and disruptive nature. In facing dying, people may not only have to witness deteriorating body functions and declining agency of the dying person but could also face changes to their life routines and taken-for-granted meaning in life. Meanwhile, dying is also strongly shaped by culture, reflecting values and customs shared in certain societies. This short report summarises findings from a set of 31 interviews with bereaved people in China -from Anhui, Hunan, Liaoning, Hubei, Heilongjiang, and Chongqin mainly- to show how they tended to make sense of their loved one’s dying by negotiating their socio-cultural norms.

In the interviews, dying was largely considered difficult by the Chinese people, because the often prolonged and deteriorating process could not only afflict their loved one’s life quality, for it was also likely to undermine severely their taken-for-granted interdependence in lives. That is to say, in witnessing and perceiving the sufferings of their loved one, dying, as conveyed in the Chinese narratives, was largely related not only to the suffering involved, but also to the challenges it posed to the strong sense of shared support and responsibilities within the family. Whilst such reciprocity and family solidarity were challenged in the process of dying, many of these Chinese bereaved people also showed their determination and the actions they took to justify the dying and recover a sense of meaning.

Some Chinese bereaved people conveyed how they decided to conceal the prognosis of terminal illness from the dying person in order to reduce the emotional shock and disruption. They preferred to construct a more peaceful and harmonious environment for their loved one at the last stage of his or her life. The decision to conceal the diagnosis was strongly associated with the sense of familial reciprocity, the bereaved person feeling responsible for securing the dying person’s quality of life without being concerned about his or her own agency. Sometimes, the pressure from the larger family and broader social circles might also urge the bereaved person to following certain expectations for a more acceptable dying, thereby generally neglecting the dying person’s agency and choices. Furthermore, when facing various challenges to the interdependence and family solidarity taken for granted in their everyday lives, many bereaved people from the narratives strove to recover the reciprocal relationships with the dying person by emphasising the exchange of care and support between the two parties.

In China, family was generally the primary source providing mutual support and the sense of belonging. In facing the dying of their loved one, the Chinese bereaved people experienced various difficulties in maintaining and developing the family-based reciprocity with the dying person and other members. Moreover, due to the significance of interdependence in their sense of themselves and the priority of family in their daily lives, many of them still tried to provide support to and receive care and love from the dying person. In so doing, they were able to recover the sense of the reciprocity, which was primarily constructed and maintained by sharing support and responsibilities in the family context. Furthermore, since interpersonal relationships and solidarity of the family as a whole were profoundly emphasised in dying, the agency of individuals, including the dying and the bereaved person, could be undermined or even neglected for the sake of prioritising the collective values of family and social harmony.

Fecha de publicación: 17/08/2018