Live Together, Die Alone

As a follow up to my previous post on the Regrets of the Dying, a reader who worked in pallitive care wrote in to share an interesting anecdote: patients where she worked always seemed to die during the very brief moments when a family member or care worker stepped out of the room. This post on a Chicago Tribune blog contains similar anecdotes from a different hospice center:

In the 1990’s, Twaddle [chief medical officer at a pallittative and hospice center] and her colleagues noticed a strange phenomenon. "Families would be in vigil for days by a bedside, finally go to get some dinner, take a shower, and when they left, the person would die,” she said. "Then, racked with a sense of guilt, self-flagellation ensued as family members said 'I shouldn’t have left.' "

So they conducted an informal study and found that more than 80 percent of the time, Moms died alone. Dads, on the other hand, seemed to wait until everyone was there and died in the midst of the gathering, Twaddle said.

“Even when the family was in vigil, it was when they left that Mom died,” Twaddle said. “What does that perhaps indicate about 'wanting someone there?'”

Twaddle knows the study was scientifically flawed, but here's her larger point: “If there is a piece that is volitional in the death process, could it sometimes be in waiting for space, quiet, and aloneness for some?

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Here's Robin Hanson's skeptical take on list of regrets I linked to (emphases my own):

Deathbed folks are usually far from their analytical peak – they are often in great pain, and rather muddle-headed. So why would we think their comments especially insightful? I suspect we attach unrealistic significance to deathbed words because we are terrified to think about death, and eager to show our devotion to the dead and dying.

But if deathbed regrets are less than reliable descriptions of reality, where might they come from? One theory is that they are like the famous interview question “What is your main fault?”, which evoke answers like “I work too hard” or “I’m too much of a perfectionist.” These are obviously attempts to brag about a good feature, but call it a “fault.” All but regret #4 above fit this directly – they basically say “I sacrificed so much for you people.” Regret #4 similarly declares how much the dying cares about others.

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If all this talk of death is getting you down, here's a song from Glee that gave me goosebumps, and another one featuring Gwyneth Paltrow that got stuck in my head the moment I heard it. (You've been warned.)

5 Responses to Live Together, Die Alone

  1. Chris Yeh says:

    The one thing that argues most strongly for listening to deathbed sentiments is this:

    When you’re dying, you no longer have to worry about consequences or the future. You are free to say the truth…whatever that truth might be.

    In the immortal last words of Roald Dahl, “It’s just that I will miss you all so much. Ow, fuck.”

  2. Alex says:

    Interesting counterpoint by Hanson, though it seems almost overly cynical to me… although young, maybe that just means I fall into his category of those terrified about death.

    Concerning the Gwyneth Paltrow song, that’s actually a song by Cee Lo, for those of you who don’t know, with slightly cleaned up words haha. Either way, it’s a fantastic song.

  3. DaveJ says:

    “Death is nothing to us.” (Epicurus)

    People place far too much significance on the moment of death. It doesn’t matter if you’re there when they die. What matters is, were you there when they needed you when they were alive?

  4. Another possible explanation of why women die alone is that they feel a need to stay alive while family is around, but when they are alone, they are free to let go. Isn’t this consistent with female traits of serving their family? Men on the other hand wait to die until everyone is gathered, fulfilling their expectation of being served by their family.

  5. Tay says:

    I’ve had this same experience where people waited until they were alone to die but that included my dad and my husband. And their passing sure wasn’t like in the movies. No grand good bye, I love you’s or death bed regrets. Just a few words about mundane stuff. Honestly my husband’s parting words were about plumbing and my dad’s were about his lawn.

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