BACKGROUND: In Switzerland, helping with assisted suicide under certain conditions is not prosecuted. With approximately 300 cases annually, this leaves behind a large group of bereaved people where its consequences are mostly unknown. The study aimed to explore family involvement in decision making prior to assisted suicide, and to examine their ways of coping during the bereavement period.
METHODS: A qualitative interview study used the principles of Grounded Theory analysis. Eleven relatives of eight patients, who died in Southern Switzerland after assisted suicide, participated in semistructured interviews.
RESULTS: The large majority of family members faced moral dilemmas during the decision-making phase. Their respect for patient's autonomy was a key justification to resolve dilemmas. Two types of involvement were identified: categorised as 'passive' when the decision making was located with the patient, and 'active' when assisted suicide was proposed by the family member and/or the relative was involved in some way. The relatives reported feelings of isolation during and after assisted suicide. Family members reported fear of social stigma and did not openly disclose assisted suicide as the cause of death. None of those interviewed received formal psychological support.
CONCLUSIONS: Bereaved families express moral dilemmas, feelings of isolation and secrecy in the management of assisted suicide in Southern Switzerland. These features seem underestimated and not sufficiently recognised by the healthcare professionals. Management of assisted suicide requests should include consideration of family members' needs, in addition to those of the patient.