BACKGROUND: In interactions between professional caregivers, patients and family members at the end of life, silence often becomes more prevalent. Silence is acknowledged as integral to interpersonal communication and compassionate care but is also noted as a complex and ambiguous phenomenon. This review seeks interdisciplinary experience to deepen understanding of qualities of silence as an element of care.
AIM: To search for published papers which describe professional caregivers' experience of silence as an element of care, in palliative and other clinical, spiritual and pastoral care settings and to synthesise their findings.
DESIGN: Meta-ethnography: employing a systematic search strategy and line-of-argument synthesis.
PsycINFO and seven other cross-disciplinary databases, supplemented by hand-search, review of reference lists and citation tracking. No date range was imposed. Inclusion criteria focused on reported experience of silence in professional caregiving. Selected papers (n = 18) were appraised; none were rejected on grounds of quality.
RESULTS: International, interdisciplinary research and opinion endorses the value of silence in clinical care. As a multi-functional element of interpersonal relationships, silence operates in partnership with speech to support therapeutic communication. As a caregiving practice, silence is perceived as particularly relevant in spiritual and existential dimensions of care when words may fail.
CONCLUSION: Experience of silence as an element of care was found in palliative and spiritual care, psychotherapy and counselling supporting existing recognition of the value of silence as a skill and practice. Because silence can present challenges for caregivers, greater understanding may offer benefits for clinical practice.