The Right To Die And Why We Struggle With It – Part 1

The Right To Die And Why We Struggle With It – Part 1

by Dr Emma Gray - 3rd November, 2016


The Right to Die And Why We Struggle With It – Part 1

Giving ourselves and others the (legal) right to die is a decision that many of us wrestle with.  It provokes a range of strong and often overwhelming emotions which makes thoughtful consideration of the topic at times practically impossible.  Understanding why a decision is challenging can make it less so.  There are a number of key factors that contribute to the difficulties we experience when we consider whether individuals should be able to choose when they die.

Previous Experiences

Our experiences from childhood through to the present day shape the way that we understand the world, they influence the choices that we make, how we feel about things and how we behave.  This means that our decisions are influenced not just by what is immediately obvious but by everything that has ever happened to us. Furthermore, the more personally important a decision the more tangled up with our past it will be.  Decisions and choices about death will therefore be linked to every loss, fear and uncertainty that we have ever experienced making the issue an extremely complex one, in other words, choices about death will never just be about death but about the whole life that has preceded it.

A reasonably straight forward example of the influence of our earlier experiences on current decisions is the common concern that giving people the right to die will be open to abuse by carers or family members who would maybe benefit from a person’s death.  This is of course something that professionals involved in the process need to be aware of, but it can be a concern that shuts down thoughtful consideration before it has even begun.  Such fears will be informed by our previous experience of others, for example, if we have been mistreated, misrepresented or abused (particularly as children when our strongest beliefs are formed) we will expect this behaviour to be repeated often regardless of the actual facts of the situation.  Such expectations make consideration of the right to die more complex for these individuals than for those who have had a different early experience.


Religion dominates the question of the right to die in the media and is a powerful influence on many people’s lives.  However, religion is a complex and controversial topic with people differing dramatically in their beliefs about not only the specifics of faith but also the function that it serves for its followers.  When we view the right to die through the lens of religion two of the most complex issues humanity faces are fused together.  Not unsurprisingly when the right to die is considered from a religious perspective resolution on the topic can feel further away than ever.


The awareness of our mortality is an ongoing challenge and one we usually tackle through avoidance.  We have become very adept as pushing the reality of our (and our loved ones) impending death to the outskirts of our consciousness, we fill our lives with distractions only giving death consideration when we have no other choice.  Allowing ourselves the right to decide when they die or even just giving it thoughtful consideration results in a head on confrontation with the subject matter. This can be intolerably distressing and a common response to such discomfort is an (subconscious) avoidance of thoughtful consideration of the issue in favour of pushing it back to the fringes of our awareness.

Survival Instinct

We have evolved to survive, everything we do can be tied to this purpose including our natural fear and attempted avoidance of death.  Considering a right to die as a basic human right may therefore sometimes feel like a fundamental contradiction of our basic programming.  Instead, nature is a blunt tool and has yet to provide us with a natural capacity to deal with such psychologically complex and challenging questions.

There seems to be no easy, pain-free and universal resolution to the issue of whether to give individuals the right to decide when they die.  However, understanding why the topic presents us with so many challenges can allow us to step back from ourselves and create a space for thoughtful consideration of the issue, we all surely have to right to that.


Dr Emma Gray

Dr Emma Gray

I am often the first person with whom my patients share significant and intimate thoughts and memories; I never take that privileged position for granted nor the opportunity to help someone to feel better about themselves and discover a more fulfilling life. One of my colleagues once described me as a natural psychologist; I guess she was alluding to the fact that I feel at ease being a therapist, I can empathise with people’s distress and discomfort but don’t feel overwhelmed by it, I can understand their problem and know how to help, it has always just felt like what I should be doing.

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