When Loved Ones Die Alone

Please, I don’t want to face death alone.

I’d prefer to take a last breath in my home.

I long to die peacefully; in my sleep.

Not a burden; nor someone hard to keep.

Let me say the goodbyes,

Then close my eyes.

And . . . die.

Amen.

What would be your prayer?

What would be your hope?

What would be your plan? Or lack of plans, because some fickle or faithful part of nearly all of us are wishful thinkers, people that dread the hard conversations or avoid the unsettling subjects or put off until tomorrow—even the next decade—any conversation about the solemn, scary subject of . . .

Dying.

My death.

My parents wanted to grow old and die at home. The mortgage was paid. The landscaping well-tended and mature. The rooms held memories. There was cozy furniture and well-lighted spaces.

They did not die at home.

Both died alone.

And that is where my lingering regrets drift in a sea of fractured memories and skewed hindsight.

+      +      +

I recall visiting my father one last time. I didn’t know then it was the last time, but—dutiful son that I was—I traveled the several driving hours to my town of birth to be with Mom. I’m sure we talked. I’m sure we walked. I’m sure we shared a meal or two, and then in between we headed over to Dad’s . . .

Place?

A memory care facility. Sigh.

Dad was demented. A hollow man in a hollow room in a nondescript two-story building with rooms for the elderly and the lost, for the not-quite-infirm, and for those that—like Dad—couldn’t recall their name or birthday or what happened a moment before.

We combed his hair, which even in his prime, didn’t take much effort. Bald was his obvious future by his early thirties. Mom would’ve brought snacks. An orange. A cookie. He wasn’t eating them anymore. We may have changed his shirt. She likely checked the supply of adult diapers.

We left.

After hugging Mom, I drove away.

And that night, or the next day, or the day after, the call came.

Dad had died. In the night. An aide found him.

Alone.

I would’ve wanted to be there. To hold his hand even though he had no idea who I was. But, like always in those last, lousy years, I drove away.

+      +      +

If I had known my mother would die eighteen months after her beloved husband, I would never have advocated to sell their home. I did. How could I, for the meager span of six mild California seasons, force her to leave the house Dad built for her? Every corner, every nook, every closet, every hallway, every inch of the backyard, were all as familiar as her children’s voices. It was the landscape of love, a suburban castle where dreams, tears, and laughter were born.

We sold it.

Hindsight is capricious and cruel.

Selling was the right and smart and honest decision.

Stupid, too.

I’ve written about Mom’s death elsewhere. In detail. But here’s the thing . . .

She, too, like Dad, died alone.

Do I feel awful about that?

Yes.

No.

Yes.

Regrets are like the frayed corner of a wall-to-wall carpet. Furniture can be positioned to hide the flaws. Maybe the edges can be glued or tacked down. But the rips remain, calling attention to what lies beneath.

With Mom, I also drove away.

The lengthy days beside her hospital bed were exhausting. Odd how doing “nothing” can feel liking running a marathon. I wearied of being away from my home. I lost track of how often I’d pressed the button to deliver Dilaudid—an opiate—into her bloodstream. She was near death, but she had been near death for weeks.

One of my sisters and I engaged in a grim game of tag, sometimes together in Mom’s room, sometimes alone, allowing the other to have a break. I left, knowing I’d hurry back soon.

Soon?

That night, after another drive home on a boring, butt-numbing California freeway, I got a call.

The call.

Mom died.

Alone.

+      +      +

We do not know how or when our loved ones will die. We do not know how or when we will die.

Some die alone.

Some die surrounded by loved ones.

Some die in pain.

Some die asleep.

Some die only—it would seem—after everyone has left the room.

Some die when the family is all together.

Some die just as the taxi arrives, carrying a beloved home from faraway, with both the dying and the living longing for a last “Goodbye.” But the last breath comes before the taxi door opens. (There are countless versions of this melancholy tale. None are fair.)

Who knows

When

We’ll

Die?

Do I regret not being there for my parents and their last moments on this green, glorious earth?

Yes.

No.

Yes.

But I will share a secret that’s not a secret. My regrets are tempered by two healing truths.

First. A long time ago, my grandfather was murdered. Mom’s Dad. My Grandpa. (No surprise, I’ve written about it elsewhere.) Because my parents were on vacation, and because this happened before the internet and cell phones, my older sister and I spent hours calling-calling-calling to find our Mom and to tell her of this life-altering tragedy.

From that moment forward, whenever phoning my parents, I ended with, “I love you.” Every call. Every time. Because you never know what may happen next.

Second. Mom enjoyed walking, using a neighborhood route long enough for the best conversations. Whenever I visited, we walked. The two of us. My sisters and me with Mom. With my dog and Mom. With my wife and Mom. On we walked and talked. We said little. We said much. But if Mom said, “I’m taking a walk. Anyone want to go?”

Me!

I wish I’d stayed that last night with Dad. And that last night with Mom.

It pains me that I didn’t.

However—and this is a most precious however—I know I always told them I loved them. And I know, without a doubt in my bones and soul, that I shared countless walks with Mom and there was nothing we didn’t discuss.

Will you be with those you love the most when they die? If you want to, I hope—hope, hope, hope—you are there. But you never know when death comes.

And so, when you talk to your loved ones the next time, about the trivial or terrific or traumatic, why not tell them that you . . .

Love them.

Forever.

(Hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with how I share my experiences. Any names used are fictitious. Events are combined and/or summarized.)

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Comments

  1. Hmmm… I’ve had both situations recently—family literally surrounding my friend Bob, all of us singing “church” songs, sharing thoughts, and he passed while his friend was talking about his love of Diet Pepsi and not long after his pastor had mentioned Bob’s favorite bible verse (Hebrews 6:19 —We have this hope as an anchor for the soul…). My brother died in a Hospice house not long after my sister and I stepped out for a late lunch. We knew he was close to death—I will hold that he preferred to die while we were gone— it was just about an hour or so after I said “I’ll see you again Gene” and patted his left foot and tugged on his big toe. Death is so interesting. I think Bob and Gene died as they wanted. I really do.

  2. On one of our next visits, I’ll tell you about the day my dad died. He always said he would die at age 95, shot by a jealous husband WITH CAUSE! He died at 67, suffering from two diseases, but killed by a heart attack. I was there that morning… but left to go up to Shasta to look for property…

  3. Thank you so much for sharing this. I love that you can pluck out a moment in your life and find the good in it. My mom died alone and try as I might, I can not find the good. You give me hope. I will continue to look.

    • You are welcome.

      I wonder how much is about finding the “good,” versus remembering all of the “good” and “bad” experiences with those we love are part of a big picture? We may want everything to be perfect, especially in the final moments and breaths. It’s probably impossible to not be self-critical as we examine and re-examine one particular time. But I think, for many of us, we forget the accumulated times of joy, the sharing of quiet moments, the right things said at the right moment, and more. It’s too easy, and unfair to a whole relationship, to only focus only “the end.”

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