Chapter 8: Those who say that they wish for death

Back to Reflections on Chapter 7

Bereaved people often feel very low, and sometimes indicate that they wish they could give up or go away.  It is important that the distress that such a statement shows be acknowledged, because by acknowledging it you lessen any sense of hopeless loneliness they may be feeling.

And because it opens the way to further sharing, and so to increased relief.

But you may be concerned, even fearful to hear such statements and you may feel too worried to respond very coherently.  It would be sensible to have thought out a line of response beforehand. The following is an outline that is sometimes suggested. Perhaps you would like to read, and even to practise it.

Should your neighbour in any way express a wish for death,

you really do need gently but insistently

to take up the statement , not to oppose or ridicule it, but

to find out what he means.


By doing this you acknowledges his distress

and may lessen his sense of loneliness

and so the danger of suicide


The progression might begin when a client says something like:

I feel so tired.

I wish I didn’t have to wake up.

I wish I could be with him.


We might respond by

acknowledging the distress and investigating the need.

That sounds very weary and low. 

Could you mean that you would like to be dead?

If “Yes” then check whether there is a suicidal intent;

Perhaps you are thinking of taking your own life?


If  again “Yes”, then try to

(a) encourage openness, and (b) judge the immediacy of that intent.

Then return to enquiring about the relationship.


What plans have you made?

What are you hoping to achieve when you take your life?

Tell me more about the relationship.


Few people admit to a wish to be dead; even fewer admit that they are suicidal.

But still the questions are worth asking for they bring about sharing and sometimes the realization that their thoughts really had veered in these directions.


The purpose of this approach

Any bereaved person may feel isolated and hopeless. By taking that person seriously, and particularly by taking their remarks about their wish to die, even to take their own life,  as a serious statement of emotional distress, we lessen this feeling of isolation.

By encouraging them to examine their situation, we may release them from hopelessness. It is the only weapon we {or the Samaritans or other people} have against suicide. There is no way, physically or by command or by demanding a promise, to prevent someone from taking their own life.

Where there is a danger to life, breaking confidentiality needs to be considered,

but this is best done after discussing the matter with the bereaved person; and where possible having a conference with the person who is acting as your supervisor.

Any person offering to help you will need to know all of the above if he/she is to help decide, e.g. clear and immediate preparations and purpose that suggest danger.Other considerations when thinking of breaking confidentiality include evidence of depression, previous suicidal attempts, or recent failure of support.

Whether you are thinking of breaking confidentiality or not, you will benefit from talking in confidence immediately after such conversations to keep your head and heart clear.

Continue to Reflections on Chapter 8