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.