No one deserves to die alone. It is wrong. Whether you are nine years old or 109, the dignity of dying – especially when it is imminent and not a surprise – should be faced in the presence of loved ones. Before my grandmother, it was something I took for granted. To me it is obvious. Part of the circle of life. You are born in the arms of someone, so you should die in the arms of someone. At least this is what I would want. But, this weekend as I stood vigil by the bed of my Abuelita (read The Gift of a Grandparent) in the last two days of her life, I learned that yet again I was all too naive in the ways of the world.
I’m supposed to be writing some words for my Abuelita’s memorial service, but all I can think about is this post. The words have been circulating in my head for the last two days. It is all I can think about as I try to fall asleep, as I shower, or simply have a moment of quiet. The shock and dismay I feel is perhaps my way of distracting myself from the heartache of loss, but nonetheless here I am asking the question: Would you send your dying grandmother or uncle somewhere to die alone? What would you do if you knew that someone in your family, or perhaps a friend, was in a bed days away from dying and alone?
After my stay at the hospice facility, I now realize that some people are simply left to die alone. And this scares the sh*&t out of me.
The place that my Abuelita spent the last week of her life is serene and pleasant enough – if that description is even possible when you are talking about end of life care. The staff is considerate and kind. The gardens are lovely. The facility is clean. It is a place where family support is encouraged. You will never be told it is past visiting hours or that you cannot spend the night with your loved one. Volunteers walk the halls offering help and support. Patients are not usually there for more than a week before passing on. Yet, more than half the patients were alone.
This discovery made an already depressing and somber experience even more disheartening. My Abuelita was blessed to be surrounded by her two daughters, her granddaughter, a close family friend, and her son-in-law. But, the woman next to her was sadly alone. She must have been in her 90s. She was frail and unconscious. Her breathing was slowing, much like my grandmother’s, but no one was holding her hand. No one was telling her that she is loved. No one was saying thank you for making a difference.
The staff checked on her often and we would peek our heads in every so often out of a sense of duty. We sat there asking each other why and how. We imagined a vivacious woman who had out-lived everyone. Maybe she never had a family of her own. Perhaps she had devoted her life to her work and never made the time to connect with anyone. We came up with so many scenarios, but the idea that she actually had a family and they chose not to be with her at the end, was simply too horrific in our minds. The thing is she was not the only one alone. There was a man in his 60s across the hall and even a young boy in one of the only private rooms. And yes, for much of the time we were there he was also alone. We do not know any of their stories, so I know I shouldn’t judge, but it still hurts me to think about it.
I know cultural and religious differences dictate the way everyone handles someone’s passing, but for me it is unfathomable to intentionally allow someone you ever cared for to die completely alone. We treat our sick and dying pets with more dignity. Are we all that busy in our lives? Is an elderly relative really considered so much of a burden that sending them off to a nursing home is not good enough, we are now sending those same relatives to special hospice facilities to die under the watchful eye of a stranger?
I understand that not everyone is emotionally equipped to witness someone passing. It is traumatic. It is beyond sad. Watching someone take that final breath is horrifyingly painful, but to me it is the biggest honor and demonstration of respect to bestow upon a loved one. For some, death is a surprise – an unexpected event. But, for those who know in advance, there is an opportunity to make peace, to say thank you, to say goodbye. If you cannot be there, then it should be your obligation to make sure someone who cares is there to the very end. To me it is the right thing to do for your parent, or grandparent or favorite aunt.
The wrong thing is to leave your loved one alone for an entire week to slowly die among strangers while a brown paper bag with their future funeral clothes sit in the chair next to their unconscious body… just waiting.