Larry had no real medical record. On admission he proudly told everyone that he hadn't seen a doctor in 50 years or more. He lived alone. No family members were listed in his chart. There was rumored to be a distant relative in another state, but calls to that number didn't connect to a person or to voicemail. Larry did have a friend of sorts, someone who lived in his building and took care of his cat. But there was no one to call when Larry entered hospice, and no one to notify that he'd died.
Our instinct is that it's sad for anyone to die alone. Deep in our collective consciousness, I think, is the Hollywood death-bed scene -- the dying person surrounded by loved ones, perhaps dispensing final words of wisdom before taking one last breath and slipping away. I've had dozens of conversations that begin something like, "Doctor, how long? His daughter/grandson/best friend wants to be here at the end, and that person needs to know when to come." I've had family members literally refuse to step out of a patient's room for fear of missing the moment of death. Not long ago, a rabbi told me that he was organizing a prayer group to be present at a patient's dying moment, so he needed as much precision as I could supply. I used to work for a hospice that took pride in its "vigil program," a group of volunteers who'd sit by the bedside so that no one had to be alone during the final hours and minutes.
I've had many private conversations over the years with dying people in which they've shared their fears. Often they're afraid of suffering. They fear for their families' well-being, and sometimes they worry that they've left some piece of interpersonal work undone. But they never tell me they fear dying alone. On the contrary, some have said they were afraid of dying in front of their families. They wanted to spare them the pain of witnessing that final breath.
All hospice veterans have seen this: a family sits in vigil with a loved one who seems endlessly suspended between life and death. The family leaves en masse, perhaps to get a bite to eat. And moments after the loved ones exit, the dying person completes the work and the soul detaches from the body. When families express amazement, we tend to offer an interpretation. "She was waiting for you all to leave," we say, "probably because she wanted to protect you from seeing the very end." And this explanation, in my experience, is comforting to families.
So we say that no one should die alone, yet we seem to accept with equanimity when someone we love -- and I hesitate to use this word -- chooses to die alone. It's an odd paradox. Perhaps the dying don't fear dying alone. Perhaps on some level they embrace it. And so perhaps what we ought to say is not that no one should die alone, but that no one should have to because of circumstance or fate.