Some stories are lodged so deeply in our cultural consciousness that we never challenge them. They are told in the same way, over and over again.
One of those stories is about dying alone. When you start reading such a story, or watching it on TV or in the movies, you know what you are in for. It is going to be a sad, sad story about a sad person living a sad life. You know the lesson you are supposed to learn: don’t live like that person. Live a different way, so you won’t die alone.
Ann Neumann, author of The Good Death, begs to disagree. In a brilliant article just published in The Baffler, Neumann argues that dying alone is not a character flaw. It is not a personal failure. Dying alone – and living alone – are instead “deeply rooted in our social institutions.” What more, it is presumptuous to believe that everyone who dies alone wants to be saved from that way of exiting the world; some, in fact, prefer it.
Neumann was intrigued (as was I) with the wildly popular 2015 story in the New York Times, “The lonely death of George Bell.” In the cultural narrative about dying alone, the body of the person who dies alone will remain undiscovered until someone notices the smell. That happened to George Bell. Bell also had a problem with hoarding and the Times underscored that with graphic photos.
In my critique of the Times article, I pointed out that Bell was not the isolated and lonely man that the “lonely death” title insisted he was. He had friends throughout his life, including a close friend he saw regularly right up until the time he died. Among the belongings found in his apartment was a card from the most recent Valentine’s Day from a woman he loved. It said, “George, think of you often with love.”
Neumann was interested in something else about George Bell: He had more than $200,000 in his bank account. Too many other seniors are poor when they die. Although Bell’s financial resources did not save him from the kind of death that scares people, money is often a powerful determinant of what our final days look like. That’s not what the Times story was about, but it should have been.
By focusing on personal stories of how people live their lives and how they should better themselves, our cultural narratives distract us from far more significant considerations. As Neumann explains, those considerations include “systemic issues like poverty, racial and gender disparity, lack of caregiver resources, and a health care system that saves its best for those who can pay top dollar.” Even hospice care, initially envisioned as a way that all dying patients could die in comfort away from instrument-filled hospital rooms, “has stubbornly remained a white people service.”
Woven throughout Ann Neumann’s article was the story of the growing popularity of “death doulas,” who are trained to help those who are dying. Quoting Lizzy Miles, Neumann notes that hospices “have entire programs devoted to assuring patients and families that they will not ever be alone. Some of them are actually called, ‘No one dies alone’ or NODA.’”
Neumann was trained in hospice care in 2008. She has spent years studying and writing about death and dying. Instead of peddling NODA, she has a different idea:
“Maybe, just maybe, dying patients really don’t mind slipping out the door by themselves, kissing sweet earth goodbye without getting kisses back, riding off into the sunset without a sidekick.”
[Maybe also of interest: This guest post, “A contrarian’s view of dying alone,” as well as “Who gets spooked by stories of single people dying alone?” You may also want to check out Anneli Rufus’s terrific book, Party of One: The Loner’s Manifesto – especially the very last sentence. To learn more about single life – the real kind, not the scare stories – take a look at my TEDX talk, “What no one ever told you about people who are single.” Also, this collection of articles on all sorts of topics relevant to single life is always available. Check out my website, too, if you’d like.]