More Than “Spending Time with the Body”: The Role of a Family’s Grief in Determinations of Brain Death

  • Annie B. FriedrichEmail author
Original Research


In many ways, grief is thought to be outside the realm of bioethics and clinical ethics, and grieving patients or family members may be passed off to grief counselors or therapists. Yet grief can play a particularly poignant role in the ethical encounter, especially in cases of brain death, where the line between life and death has been blurred. Although brain death is legally and medically recognized as death in the United States and elsewhere, the concept has been contentious since its inception in 1968. Yet in most cases, families are not allowed to reject the determination of brain death. Apart from religious exemptions, families have no recourse to reject this controversial determination of death. This paper explores the role of grief in brain death determinations and argues that bioethics has failed to address the complexity of grief in determinations of brain death. Grief ought to have epistemological weight in brain death determinations because of the contested nature of the diagnosis and the unique ways in which grief informs the situation. Thus, I argue that, in some rare cases, reasonable accommodation policies should be expanded to allow for refusals of brain death determinations based on the emotional and moral force of grief. By drawing on ethnographic accounts of grief in other cultures, I problematize the current procedural and linear understandings of grief in brain death determinations, and I conclude by offering a new way in which to understand the case of Jahi McMath.


Grief Brain death Reasonable accommodation Anthropology Jahi McMath 



The author would like to thank Dr. Harold Braswell for his insightful feedback on earlier drafts of this paper.


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Copyright information

© Journal of Bioethical Inquiry Pty Ltd. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Saint Louis UniversitySt. LouisUSA

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