I worked in hospice for ten years and it stuns me to listen to ‘professionals’ talk about end of life during the current pandemic. The part that is truly unsettling for me are the ongoing statements of ‘people dying alone’. I can look at this from several points and I will say this: no one dies alone, no one.
Most don’t choose their death, some do choose their manner of death. Because a death does not occur how we thought or how we would have chosen, doesn’t mean it was a terrible death. I have sat with patients and families for hours to days and often times when the family or caregiver leaves the bedside, the patient dies. Why is it unreasonable to think that a person doesn’t want someone watching them take their last breath? Why isn’t it ok for someone to choose a private space during this time?
I realize the current situation has jolted so many into the reality of mortality, yet I fail to hear words of comfort for the families who are struggling with their losses. When I was growing up, we were taught that someone comes to greet you when you are near death and hospice has proven that to be true time and time again. I have listened to patients say “Oh, there’s my mother, my father, my husband…” whomever does not matter. I have heard patients talk about a gentle hand reaching for them to take. What matters is the peacefulness that person exhibits when they are leaving. If you haven’t had the opportunity to witness these moments, trust me they are powerful and serene.
It is an affront to the front line workers who are going above and beyond to focus on ‘dying alone’. No, no one dies alone. We are alone watching them leave us, even under the nicest, most controlled circumstances. I have been chastised many times for describing death as a selfish process, but it is. Not for the patient, but for the family members or those left behind. We don’t want them to leave us at all, but when we are faced with the loss of control that is magnified even more than usual by a once in a lifetime pandemic, we feel even more cheated, perhaps more grief stricken than we may have felt under ‘normal’ circumstances. When I listen to these commentaries, I want to ask these writers, these professionals to impart some hope and some comfort…share some spiritual strength that families can grasp and use to go forward.
Loosing someone is hard in the best of circumstances, these circumstances make it even more so. It is an affront to the front line workers who are going above and beyond to say so many are dying alone. So as we go forward helping so many people process their experiences, their losses, their awareness of a changed life, let’s bring some comfort, and a quiet space…and not add on another layer.
Maggie Snyder, proud LCSW/BCD