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01.12.2014 | Research article | Ausgabe 1/2014 Open Access

BMC Palliative Care 1/2014

What a wish to die can mean: reasons, meanings and functions of wishes to die, reported from 30 qualitative case studies of terminally ill cancer patients in palliative care

BMC Palliative Care > Ausgabe 1/2014
Kathrin Ohnsorge, Heike Gudat, Christoph Rehmann-Sutter
Wichtige Hinweise

Electronic supplementary material

The online version of this article (doi:10.​1186/​1472-684X-13-38) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.

Competing interests

Heike Gudat is head physician at the Hospiz im Park, Arlesheim. She was interviewed as the attending physician of some of the patients in the sample. In these cases, she did not take part in the data interpretation.

Authors’ contributions

KO carried out the interviews and drafted the article. HG and CRS conceived the study design, participated in its refinement and coordination, and substantially contributed to the manuscript. All three authors took part in the data analysis. All authors approved the final manuscript.



Despite research efforts over recent decades to deepen our understanding of why some terminally ill patients express a wish to die (WTD), there is broad consensus that we need more detailed knowledge about the factors that might influence such a wish. The objective of this study is to explore the different possible motivations and explanations of patients who express or experience a WTD.


Thirty terminally ill cancer patients, their caregivers and relatives; from a hospice, a palliative care ward in the oncology department of a general hospital, and an ambulatory palliative care service; 116 semi-structured qualitative interviews analysed using a complementary grounded theory and interpretive phenomenological analysis approach.


Three dimensions were found to be crucial for understanding and analysing WTD statements: intentions, motivations and social interactions. This article analyses the motivations of WTD statements. Motivations can further be differentiated into (1) reasons, (2) meanings and (3) functions. Reasons are the factors that patients understand as causing them to have or accounting for having a WTD. These reasons can be ordered along the bio-psycho-socio-spiritual model. Meanings describe the broader explanatory frameworks, which explain what this wish means to a patient. Meanings are larger narratives that reflect personal values and moral understandings and cannot be reduced to reasons. Functions describe the effects of the WTD on patients themselves or on others, conscious or unconscious, that might be part of the motivation for a WTD. Nine typical ‘meanings’ were identified in the study, including “to let death put an end to severe suffering”, “to move on to another reality”, and – more frequently– “to spare others from the burden of oneself”.


The distinction between reasons, meanings and functions allows for a more detailed understanding of the motivation for the WTD statements of cancer patients in palliative care situations. Better understanding is crucial to support patients and their relatives in end-of-life care and decision making. More research is required to investigate the types of motivations for WTD statements, also among non-cancer patients.
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