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Exploring the Complex Layers of Grief When a Relative Chooses Assisted Dying

When a Relative Chooses Assisted Dying

Today, as MPs are due to debate assisted dying in parliament for terminally ill people who are mentally sound and near the end of their lives, we thought we’d turn our attention to those left behind.

In 2020, my mother, who was dying from terminal cancer, rightly pointed out that we wouldn’t let our pet dog go through the pain she was in. We’d take him to the vets and say our goodbyes. She said it felt very undignified to be losing the use of her body and to be in the hands of carers to undertake the most basic of tasks.

I know if she had had the choice, mum would have chosen to end her life on her terms with everything in order rather than ‘death by inches,’ as she called it.

Now, Dame Esther Rantzen, dying from the same incurable cancer as my mother, is lobbying for a change in the law. She is considering travelling to Switzerland for an assisted death, so that her family could travel with her and be by her side without fear of police investigation and possible prosecution.

No matter what our view is, we wanted to acknowledge the decision of a relative to opt for assisted dying is a potentially emotionally charged matter that can deeply impact family members.

In addition to grappling with the imminent loss of a relative, those left behind may experience added layers of grief, stemming from the unique circumstances surrounding assisted dying.

The Layers of Grief When a Relative Chooses Assisted Dying

When a relative chooses assisted dying, family members may experience a range of emotions that intertwine with their grief. Some family members may feel relieved that their loved one's suffering has come to an end, particularly if they have witnessed them endure immense pain.

However, this relief may be accompanied by feelings of guilt for harbouring such thoughts or for not being able to alleviate their suffering without death.

Assisted dying can also challenge deeply held religious or moral beliefs within families. Individuals may grapple with feelings of conflict between respecting their loved one's autonomy and adhering to their own ethical principles.

Despite increasing acceptance of assisted dying, there might be a stigma surrounding the choice to end one's life in this way. Family members may fear judgement or condemnation from others, leading to feelings of isolation and alienation.

The nature of assisted dying can result in a type of ambiguous loss, where family members experience uncertainty and lack of closure. Unlike a natural death, even though the end is more predictable and can be managed in terms of having last meals, last days, and goodbyes, the deliberate nature of assisted dying might complicate the grieving process.


With preparation, the grief after assisted dying can be made easier with compassion, understanding, and support.

Here are some strategies that may help family members cope with their emotions:

Open Communication: Encourage honest and open dialogue within the family, allowing each member to express their thoughts and emotions without judgement.

Seek Support: Reach out to friends, or find groups, or grief professionals who specialise in end-of-life care and grief support. Sharing experiences with others who have faced similar situations can provide valuable validation and comfort.

Respect Differences: Recognise that family members may have different perspectives on assisted dying based on their personal beliefs and experiences. Practice empathy and tolerance towards differing viewpoints.

Self-Care: Remember to prioritise self-care during this challenging time. Engage in activities that bring solace and relaxation, such as mindfulness practises, exercise, or spending time in nature.

The Power of Goodbye: The opportunity to say goodbye at the end of the life of your relative is a gift. Anyone who has been through a sudden loss will tell you. Assisted dying means that you can mentally prepare. Even though the end still always comes as a bit of a shock or a jolt, managing that end and having the chance to say everything really helps.

Respecting our loved one’s wishes when a relative chooses assisted dying doesn’t mean we shouldn’t communicate our thoughts and feelings. Be honest and talk through your feelings with them. Whether you agree or disagree with their choice, it is just that; their choice. How you choose to respond to it and work through your feelings is in your control.

About Maria

Maria Bailey

Maria Bailey is an Edu-Therapist and founder of Grief Specialists. Her work as an Edu-Therapist helps people resolve their emotional pain through an education and action-based programme over a short number of sessions to lead to sustainable mental wellness. You can find out more about Maria here.


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