The Right To Die – Understanding The Choice – Part 3

The Right To Die – Understanding The Choice – Part 3

by Dr Emma Gray - 9th November, 2016


The Right to Die – Understanding The Choice – Part 3

When a loved one chooses to end their life it can be a confusing and terrifying for their friends and family.  Being able to understand this choice is pivotal if those affected are to come to terms with the choice, navigate their way through the process and eventually find some peace.

What we need

Understanding someone else’s choice requires empathy, the capacity to understand someone else’s thoughts and feelings by imaging what it is like to be them.  However, having empathy is extremely challenging because our default position is to use ourselves as a point of reference (‘well I feel like this so will you too’) and to see the world through the lens of what we need.  This means we can become distracted or even consumed by what something means for us and have little left with which to consider another’s point of view.  This is particularly true in the context of strong negative emotions.  It is therefore hard sometimes to see past our own needs and feelings to those of others.

Fears of loss

A connection with those that we love is one of our core needs, and as a result the loss of a loved one is possibly our biggest fear.  From a purely evolutionary point of view our survival is dependent upon our connection with others, we are stronger together than apart, so we hard wired to fiercely protect this.  Fears of loss underlie many of the emotional and mental health problems that we struggle with (e.g. anxiety and depression) and in its most severe form this fear can dictate the choices that we make and the way that we live our lives.  How strong our fear of losing someone is will be dictated by our early experiences, for example if our parents have been emotional or physically absent, as adults our fear of re-experiencing the loss of those close to us will be much greater than if for example, our carers have been reliably available.  Our fears of loss will influence our capacity to deal with someone we love choosing to end their lives and a hard wired tendency to protect a connection with them can lead us to resist it.

Developing an Understanding

Understanding someone’s decision to end their life involves accessing real empathy for their choice and is an essential step towards accepting it and tolerating the pain of losing them.  In order to do this we must identify and then put to one side what we need from the situation (and from them) and our fears of loss.  Doing this will free us to thoughtfully consider the choice that our loved one has made, by stepping back from ourselves we will have the capacity to imagine the thoughts and feelings that the person we love is experiencing and how they have come to the decision that they would like to take control of their death.  Empathy with their choice will eventually lead to the acceptance of it.



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.

Read more about my approach to counselling here...

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