A journey to Switzerland

Is someone close to you considering assisted dying?

We hope this helps you understand some of what you may have to face in supporting your family or friends

Thinking about assisted dying

It is highly likely that the person who is terminally ill or sees their life diminishing has been considering their situation for sometime so it is possible that by the time they share their thoughts with you, the idea of dying has become familiar and seems normal, rational and a logical response to their own situation.

However, this may not be the case for you as you are listening to something that perhaps sounds alien and alarming. Not only are you coping with your own feelings about their illness but you are now being asked to engage with something that you may see as dangerous, perhaps illegal and certainly frightening.

The way you approach the idea of assisted dying will be affected by so many things — perhaps your religious views, media reports that can often be quite extreme or biased, your knowledge of palliative care and your previous experience of someone close to you dying.

Firstly, it is really important to realise that whilst a trip to Dignitas is emotionally challenging, it is absolutely not cold, clinical or corrupt. The organisation is highly professional and appears sensitive to the varied needs of all its clients. In my opinion, the experience of accompanying someone to end their life there gives meaning to the concept of dying with dignity.

There is absolutely no coercion and the person wishing to die is given many opportunities to change their mind and the compassion demonstrated by the staff involved is heart warming.

Guide to Dignitas

There is a separate booklet UK Guide to Dignitas, which lists the practical issues that hopefully will enable you to understand the necessary administration and processes involved.

At the original time of writing it was recommended that you allowed four days to cover the time you may be in Switzerland. In the meantime procedure may well have changed so the details below offer you some idea of what might happen when you are in Switzerland.

A doctor’s appointment can be arranged for the day of arrival. In exceptional circumstances the doctor can come to the hotel (additional charges are involved). This will be the doctor who has previously received all the medical reports who will want to go through these and make their own assessment and also check that the person really is committed to ending their life.

The next day as there are no doctor’s visits or visits from Dignitas, it can be useful to have considered in advance how to spend the time depending on mobility and bearing in mind that you are in a completely new environment. Zurich does offer many interesting sights — some beautiful Chagall windows for example.

On the third day there is a second doctor’s appointment, which is another careful check as to whether the person still wishes to end their own life on the following day.

On the fourth and final day at the appointed time you go to the Dignitas house to be warmly welcomed and settled comfortably in order that the necessary forms can be signed. During this time the person is asked many times if they wish to die. When they feel ready, the person is asked again if they wish to take the drug and it is emphasised that if they drink it, their life will end.

Dignitas will make all the necessary arrangements regarding the body or ashes with the appropriate authorities in Zurich who do not pass any information whatsoever to the UK and representatives from Dignitas handle the whole process.

It may be possible to return to the UK the same day.

Peaceful and dignified

The staff are very sensitive and apart from wishing that people could be free to die in their own homes, you could not hope for a more peaceful and dignified death for your relative or friend.

When choosing where to stay in Switzerland, there are various things to bear in mind. Zurich is more costly than Basel for example. It is possible to stay in the city centre or near the airport or indeed in an area closer to the Dignitas house where there will be less activity.

It is important to remember that coping at home is different to coping in a hotel.

Nursing care or personal care can be arranged at an additional cost.

Consideration needs to be given to any aids required and a hotel chosen with a room with sufficient space and appropriate modifications — handles in bathroom, raised loo seat, etc.

Filling your time: whilst it is likely that the journey will be tiring and time will be spent sleeping, there are still quite a few hours to fill, so it could be worth thinking about whether DVDs, music, photos might act as a distraction.

If it would help to talk to someone from FATE who has been to Dignitas, there are people available who may be able to answer your questions or offer reassurance from their experience.

The person who makes a decision to die will not have done so easily or without thinking about the effects on others. To be able to accept their wish to die will prove to be one of the greatest gifts that you can offer them.

Written by Liz Nichols in 2010, updated in 2014