Discussion Post for THE LOST ART OF DYING, Chapter 3, Pages 47-58

Was Mr. Bell lonely? . . . It is entirely possible, however, that Kleinfield’s title [“The Lonely Death of George Bell”] does not properly refer to Bell’s experience of death at all.

Page 49

Dr. Dugdale invites us to consider the difference between being alone and being lonely. “Loneliness” is a negative word in modern English. “Solitude” conveys a more neutral or even positive response to the same state of being alone. Sometimes we use the seemingly self-contradictory phrase “alone with.” We might say that someone is “alone with his thoughts” or “alone with God.” For Christians, and probably for other religious believers too, there is a conviction that, despite appearances to the contrary, one is never really alone.

It is not just in New York. . . the reporter, Norimitsu Onishi , describes the growing prevalence of lonely deaths in Japan’s large apartment complexes.

Pages 49-50

Is dying alone a particularly urban phenomenon? It seems ironic that the people in closest proximity to each other in life are most likely to be left alone in death. How can we city dwellers foster community in ways that would make us less lonely?

Mrs. Ito is so afraid of being discovered dead and alone that she has asked a neighbor who lives in the building opposite hers to check her window daily.

Page 51

I don’t think I understand Mrs. Ito’s fear. Does she worry that she will somehow experience the neglect and ignominious decay of her dead body? Is her desire for neighborly attention after death really about her relationship to neighbors during life?

Whether in New York City or Tokyo, dying lonely feels wrong. No one, we insist, should die alone.

Page 52

Solitary death is something we encounter in our health care ministry. I wrote a Reflections article about the sadness of that in connection with the importance of family. This has also been a particular sorrow of the coronavirus pandemic. EWTN made a video about our ministry during the NYC outbreak last Spring in which Fr. David Adiletta made some insightful comments about this. He says (starting 3 minutes and 14 seconds into the video), “Over the years I have had patients where nobody was there. They were dying alone. And that’s always the saddest thing. In this case, with the pandemic, it wasn’t that nobody wanted to be there. It’s that they couldn’t be there.”

Madame de Montespan reportedly feared dying alone far more that she feared death itself.

Page 53

‘We are fools to depend upon the society of our fellow men,’ the seventeenth-century French mathematician Blaise Pascal once claimed, “The will not aid us; we shall die alone.”

Page 50

Dr. Dugdale relates the viewpoints of two seventeenth-century French people that seem like opposite extremes. The social butterfly Madame de Montespan seems more concerned about the performance of the people around her than the prospect of her definitive encounter with God. The pessimistic rigorist Pascale seems to despair of any good human beings can do for one another when death draws near.

They knew how to provide a community of support to Madame, while also practicing for their own dying.

Page 54

My patient Sara Weinberg, a natural storyteller, told me one day of hew she and her husband anticipated and in some sense “rehearsed” for his death.

Page 55

In different ways in different times, servants of Louis XIV’s French royal court and the elderly American couple practice or rehearse for death. Though I think Dr. Dugdale suggests that Harvey and Sara’s real rehearsal was their perseverance through long years of marriage and not so much their humorous false alarm. I think the ars moriendi drama directed by Madame de Montespan is in some ways commendable (though this seventeenth-century enactment seems like a decadent version of the fourteenth century original). But Harvey and Sara seem like better examples. By maintaining a flawed relationship between imperfect people, they built the kind of lifelong bond that would serve them well at the hour of death. But what happens when one of them dies? Will the other become lonely and fearful like Mrs. Ito did? A community of two isn’t enough. What are needed, I think, are communities with the kinds of enduring bonds of marriage and family, and also the size and intergenerational continuity of the old ars moriendi.

10 thoughts on “Discussion Post for THE LOST ART OF DYING, Chapter 3, Pages 47-58”

  1. Mrs. Ito was lonely for 25 years; she was angry at her loved ones for dying and leaving her. She blamed them for her loneliness. She had one stepdaughter but they seldom communicated. After the death of her husband and child, she became isolated. She did not seem to make efforts to nurture her relationship with her neighbors but did set up a plan so she would not die alone and unnoticed
    Madam de Montespan, created much drama but set up support systems to make certain she would not die alone. She insisted on staying actively engaged with the people around her, even as “her own ability to participate waned”.
    My Aunt Anne, 96 years old, lives in a 55 years and older gated community in Boynton Beach Florida. She survives five siblings, two children and a partner of 25 years
    It is easy to feel disconnected in our world but she makes ongoing efforts to continue to stay connected to her community. As a member of the Madonna Guild, she was altruistically engaged in helping others for many years. She joyfully served as a Eucharistic Minister in her parish each Sunday at 10 am
    Ann works hard to participate in a support system which connects her to others. She speaks regularly with her 3 grandchildren, niece and nephews Two of her friends, younger than she is by 15 years, visit her regularly. Since the onset of COVID-19 -they come together once or twice a week.to sit on her screened porch, with masks, socially distancing. While they converse, they listen to music and frequently pray the rosary together.
    Staying connected in our society takes awareness and effort. Community does not come instantly, friendships don’t happen in a vacuum, relationships are nurtured over time

  2. Vera – For sure, the positive aspect of solitude sometimes gets confused with the negative connotation of loneliness. As a native New Yorker, I sometimes feel that there is an unwritten code of not intruding on people’s space..which in that respect, precludes building community. I grew up in a “community” in Queens….and spent summers in another “community” in Queens….both quite diffrent than living now in the “City”..and mostly lack of community.The comings and goings of City residents make it quite difficult to even keep track of who lives next door! The Japanese commentary on dying alone…and their high suicide rate…mirrors the panemic “alone” death….albeit not intentional,but neessary to prevent exposure.No One really wants/chooses to die alone…yet, in the end, many/most do..pandemic or otherwise. Whether the decedent “waits” for family to “leave” for that day or night or whatever…many go “alone”…I’m at odds with Pascal that there is little one can do as death nears…in my opinion, being there, hand holding (literally), music , reading…praying…all in my opinion, help ease the “passing” from this life to the next.

  3. I agree with Angela that death is a solitary journey in which we pass to the next life on our own, but that strong and authentically connected relationships on earth are of great importance to completing that journey.

    Mrs. Ito approached the woman across from her and asked that she check her shade daily. “In exchange for this service, Mrs. Ito sends the neighbor a gift every summer”. What could have been the building of a relationship, with the neighbor checking on Mrs. Ito out of friendship, seems to have been a “service”. a business transaction instead. Did Mrs. Ito see more value in her corpse than in her life?

    I read The NY Times article on the lonely death of George Bell. Mr. Bell was a sociable man with many buddies, but one love. When that love was lost (in part his choice and in part a choice made for him), his life seems to have changed. Phone calls from people went unanswered and he shooed away a friend who came to his door checking on him one day. While several people benefited from Mr. Bell’s estate, a few of them did not remember him and others didn’t even know him. I was deeply moved by Mr. Bell’s story.

    Love makes the difference between a life and an existence. A person may die alone, but no one dies lonely. One lives lonely.

    The challenge is to authentically “love one another as I have loved you. Each person. Each day. Then, when the time comes, one can joyfully take that step into the next life – when having loved and when knowing oneself to be loved.

  4. I believe what Dr. Dugdale says “Community does not materialize instantly at a deathbed; it must be cultivated over a lifetime.” And as Fr Jonh says and what the Pope calls “ ‘culture of the temporary’ has the effect of replacing enduring family relationships with more fleeting bonds”. Is Dr Dugdale actually talking about the isolation and alienation that many of us feel in our current world and society. As we become more ‘advanced’ and technologically adept, we lose much of our connection with our family and community. As the danchi dwellers, we often lack community even though we may live in a densely populated area. No matter how much we rehearse for out death, it may take us unawares. If someone has a chronic illness they will most likely be dying in a facility where they are being cared for so will not be dying alone. However, if someone develops an acute problem- a heart attack, a stroke an accident – no matter how much preparation they’ve made – they may be dying alone. The four thousand lonely deaths reported in Japan, were the lonely or unexpected? The Lonely Death of George Bell was an unexpected death. Now we have medical alert buttons so people like Mrs. Ito can be assured if she falls sick and needs help someone will be alerted. However unless we build community and combat isolation our lives as well as our deaths will be lonely.

  5. I agree with Jacqueline that dying alone is not just an urban phenomenon. No matter where we live physically, there is always the possibility that we will be without anyone by our side when we meet our ultimate earthly end. Madame de Montespan had it right (though perhaps in a more colorful way than suggested in the original Ars Moriendi): as we approach dying, we must make amends and ask for forgiveness from as many of our early brethren as possible, and then ultimately, pass to our next life. Having watched death more than I care to remember, it seems to me that even if all of the suggestions of the ars are followed and we are surrounded by loved ones, ultimately we pass to the next life on our own. The tale of Mrs. Ito is particularly sad because in life, after the death of her husband and daughter, she was clearly alone. Wanting someone to rescue her remains from the indignity of decay is sad, but for me, sadder still is the loss of connection while she was alive. Forming new and deep relationships is difficult late in life–perhaps that was the case with Mrs. Ito. Nevertheless, in my view departure from the earth is a solitary journey; thus, the solace of companionship as we approach our departure is more essential. We cannot journey forward with joyful anticipation unless we have experienced the joy of human relationships while we live. We cannot know fully what is to be, but we may be buoyed by hope if we have strong and authentically connected relationships on earth.

  6. Perhaps somewhere between the lonely death and the idea of Madame de Montespan is a more tenable reality that communities must strengthen such that we are able to avoid the gradual thinning and erasure of one’s social connections that often happens with age. For whatever reason, reading through this particular discussion post, my mind went to this article from March regarding how we’ve built our society, both physically in terms of our neighborhoods and socially in terms of our connections, in a way that often leads us to have very few connections towards the end of life. I don’t think the city is the problem (it’s worth noting that culturally, not all cities are like New York – there are places where people know their neighbors! I’ve just never been.) I think the city just highlights our loneliness more clearly.

    https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2020/03/the-nuclear-family-was-a-mistake/605536/

    1. Actually, I believe the suburbs are more isolating than urban areas. People go from their house to their cars and are seldom seen about. I was born in NYC and have lived here most of my life. I have always felt as I got older how lucky I was. I can always find someone to talk to on the bus, in the park or in a coffee shop. I know every one of my neighbors on my floor and many in the building. I lived in the suburbs for five years once and never knew any of my neighbors

  7. I was a hospice volunteer for years, and during my chaplaincy training I worked at a cancer hospital. Nevertheless, I have witnessed only 2 deaths. In both cases, family members were present at the death–and yet their presence in both cases seemed utterly irrelevant to the dying person. One patient was seemingly comatose–and yet I knew when she died, though I can’t say exactly how I knew; the other patient was in a conversation with her sister and me when she suddenly stopped talking. Her eyes widened and she sat forward in bed, and then she was gone. In both cases, the moment of death happened elsewhere, so to speak. Not in the room. Between the patient herself (both were women) and God.

    At a conference about death and dying many years ago, I learned that many, many people wait for family members to leave the room (this includes children waiting for parents to leave for the bathroom or for coffee) before they die–implying that dying is a “private” act. (I don’t think there’s any way to study this scientifically.) I think it’s during the preliminary time–before someone is actively dying–that dying alone might be very hard.

  8. I don’t think dying alone is exclusively an urban phenomenon. I think it is more a function of growing old and outliving your social and familial networks. My father–a suburbanite–did not worry about dying alone or even dying lonely. But he was very concerned about dying without anyone realizing it. It is curious, because he was not overly concerned about getting his affairs in order or leaving instructions about what to do after his death. Likewise, he was not particularly worried that he would not receive the care he needed while he was alive. He accepted illness and suffering, and he looked forward to the afterlife. But like Mrs. Ito, he did fear that his death would go unnoticed. When he and his fiance broke up several years before his death, he seemed less concerned about the loss of a great love and more concerned about the loss of someone to check on him every day. It was at that point he made me promise to call him daily. If he didn’t answer the phone, I was to prepare for his demise. Of course, this led to a few awkward encounters when he forgot to charge his phone or tell me about a doctor’s appointment. But in the end, his system worked. After reflecting on it, I think his request may have been more for me than for him. I was actually comforted that I was able to help him to his final resting place without delay. I am glad that he was not abandoned or down in his last days. And I am at peace knowing that every day, I was able to make sure all of his needs were met. I learned more about him during those “wellness calls” than I did during my entire childhood. And that is a gift I will treasure for the rest of my life.

  9. As a result of covid, the possibility of dying alone has been real in the sense that my father, 87, living with dementia , in a nursing home in Long Island tested positive (and then negative, luckily) and I had to make certain that both home staff and family knew that I wished to be by my father’s side (Unless I, myself was sick/contagious) were he to die. I was very careful about minimizing any risks that I took so that I could also safely be by my mother’s side, were she to die during this pandemic. And I took care to stay in contact with my neighbors: both older , single women. While each had distant family, I was an immediate connection and I took to leaving cards by their doorsteps to connect and, in a way, let them know that they were not alone through this prolonged and isolating tome. And, there indeed was a dress rehearsal of sorts : early one a.m., a call came in from my dad’s nursing home, asking me to call them. It was so early that my immediate thought was that he was dying: as I called the home (and got no answer)I texted my brother to let him know that our father might be dying . On the 3rd attempt, the home picked up, off handedly explaining that they required approval to give my dad a flu vacine. As I got off of the phone, it occurred to me that this was what would one day happen :an unexpected call, a rush to get to my dad’s bedside, the chance to say “I love you” and “Good bye” and “Thank you for everything ” and maybe even a blessing if clergy is not available . As a result of that dress rehearsal, I have a back pack in my closet with my rosary / one of his rosaries and holy water . My desire to be present for my parents is born out of a childhood memory of my dad sleeping on the floor by my bed whenever I was sick. It was a great comfort to have him there. And if I do not make it in time, Fr. James Martin , SJ has indeed said from the start of covid that no one dies alone and that Jesus is there and knowing that has been a comfort too.

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