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Dying Alone: A Tragedy or a Choice?

Dying Alone: A Tragedy or a Choice?

Why is death and dying such a taboo subject? Is waiting to die alone a sad choice? Is waiting to die surrounded by loved ones the better choice? The optimal word here is choice. Believe it or not, it is a person's choice. It is a choice that is most often not communicated because it is an uncomfortable subject to discuss. The pandemic brought attention to how we handle and perceive death. During that time, dying alone was recognized as a tragedy as many had the choice taken from them.

When a patient dies alone, it impacts so many; especially if their final wishes were not communicated leaving loved ones to decide "what would mom want". While family members, friends, and the medical staff try to be with the actively dying patient, it is not always possible. The inability to be at the bedside of a loved one in their final moments can haunt people in their grief. Even during normal times, when we are not there for our loved ones as they die, we feel guilty. We are afraid our loved ones will believe that we have abandoned them or didn't love them. No matter how much we have done for them, those feelings persist. The pain, sadness, and frustration we experience from not being able to hold their hand or tell them we love them just intensify our guilt and sorrow.

The hospice philosophy accepts death as the final stage of life. It is the goal that no one dies alone. But believe it or not, it is a choice and the hospice philosophy recognizes and celebrates that choice. Hospice staff and volunteers can attest to the dying choosing when they will die. People working with the dying are aware that some wait to be alone to die. There are numerous situations in which a family member was determined to be by their loved one's side as they died. But oftentimes even if they only left the room briefly, on their return they found their loved one had died in their absence. Just the opposite, some seem to be waiting to die until someone they have not seen for some time comes to be with them, many loved ones are present or a beloved pet is brought in to be with them.

There are two national programs that Allied Services has partnered with to support the choices of hospice patients. These are No One Dies Alone, and Pet Peace of Mind. No One Dies Alone (NODA) is a program that offers companionship and support to patients and relieves staff who is concerned about a patient who is dying alone. Volunteer medical students from the Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine have been on-boarded to provide a dignified death to individuals who have no family or close friends to sit with them at the end of their life. The other program, Pet Peace of Mind recognizes the bond between pets and their owners, and offers patients peace of mind knowing that during their end-of-life journey their pet will be well taken care of especially when they pass.

So, dying alone, a choice or a tragedy? It is a gift of respect and dignity to all to verbalize one's end-of-life choice and to embrace a loved one's choice so that it does not become a perceived tragedy. In the final moments, peace is what we all should want for our loved ones and ourselves, no matter the choice.

About the Author: Laurie A. Fleming is Volunteer Coordinatory for Allied Services Hospice & Palliative Care.

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