Amid Fear of Dying Alone, Patients and Loved Ones Seek Comfort

Healthcare workers have provided care in patients' last moments.

Doctors caring for patient in emergency care unit of a hospital taking blood sample

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Key Takeaways

  • For many people, COVID-19 has complicated end-of-life situations.
  • It's normal to fear dying alone, and to feel the need for closure.
  • With the help of healthcare workers and technology, loved ones have been able to say goodbye from a distance.

End-of-life is something most of us think about at some point. We imagine what it will be like and who will be by our side. We consider our experiences and wonder if we’ve done enough and loved enough.

For some people, death is not feared. Yet for others, being afraid of dying alone points to a bigger fear of losing control of the dying process. This fear of losing control is compounded by the fact that many hospitals and nursing homes have implemented no-visitor policies during the coronavirus pandemic, leaving many people facing death each day without family members or loved ones by their side.

Thankfully, doctors, nurses, and other hospital staff are working tirelessly during the to ensure their patients don’t die alone. Through the use of technology, some families are able to communicate with a loved one during their final hours. While others take comfort in knowing that their loved one is accompanied by an extraordinary healthcare worker who will sit with them until the end. For many, this helps to change the landscape of dying alone. 

And while countless families are grateful for the support, compassion, and selflessness of the frontline workers, many are still left with unanswered questions about how their loved ones spent their final moments. This fear that a father, mother, uncle, brother, or sister died alone can complicate the grief process and lead to a lack of closure for family members.

We talked to mental health experts to get a better understanding of why we fear the idea of dying alone and how families can find comfort and peace as they begin the grieving process.

Why Do We Fear Dying Alone?

To understand why we have a fear of dying alone, Litsa Williams, a clinical social worker, and co-founder and program director of What’s Your Grief?, says we first need to acknowledge that this fear often comes from death itself.

“We fear the unknown, the potential pain, unfamiliarity, and discomfort that may accompany death,” she explained in an email.

Though we may plan well and have good palliative support, Williams says there is comfort in the idea of a familiar face, someone to watch over us to ensure suffering is minimized, someone to remind us we are loved, and simply to be present with us.

Another reason we fear dying alone stems from our desire for connectivity. “There is a natural human instinct to crave connectivity with others, and this instinct is even more pronounced for those that we love,” explains Keita Franklin, Ph.D., and chief clinical officer of Psych Hub

This desire, Franklin says, is present, and perhaps even intensified, when facing your mortality. “For so many, the final hours of life provide an irreplaceable opportunity for the dying family member and their loved ones to express love, respect, regret, and perhaps offer forgiveness for perceived slights,” she says.

Why Dying Alone Is Sometimes A Blessing

Psychotherapist, Naomi Torres-Mackie, Ed.M, says that during her time providing therapy to end-of-life medical patients, she came to understand that dying alone is actually preferred by some. “This is in large part due to the fact that we may not want others see us weak or sick,” she wrote in an email. Dying alone, she says, can give someone a sense of dignity in their last moments.

For some, Torres-Mackie says that dying without others present means they won’t cause emotional pain for those around them. “Dying alone means that you don't have to worry about anyone else but yourself—one very last time,” she adds.

That said, Williams points out that in many COVID-19 situations, which are very different from previous end-of-life processes, families feel their loved one was not given the choice of dying alone. This was decided for them. And in these situations, the best families, patients, and hospital staff can do, she says, is talk to one another openly and often, discuss fears and concerns, get creative with the use of phones, tablets, video technology, photographs, audio files, music, and any other things that may provide a feeling of comfort and connection.

How Families Can Find Comfort and Peace

“The current pandemic facing our nation has complicated an already emotional and difficult process surrounding end-of-life considerations,” Franklin said in an email. And for the family members and loved ones dealing with this grief, knowing that nurses and hospital staff, in general, are well-trained and equipped to respond with empathy and grace during the final moments of life, can provide some sense of comfort and peace.

Williams explains there is greater comfort in this than thinking of a loved one dying alone. While it will likely be minor, she points out that in this complicated time, small comforts are sometimes all a family has. “Talking to the hospital staff person and making sure they know your loved one as a person and not just a patient, may help a bit,” says Williams. Also, if a family can feel that their loved one is not in pain, is not suffering, and potentially not aware of what is going on, Williams says that may serve as a comfort. 

Through her clinical work with COVID-19 frontline workers, Torres-Mackie says she has learned that despite how difficult their jobs are, they get a great sense of meaning from accompanying people during their last moments. “It provides them with a sense of real purpose during a time when they otherwise feel pretty powerless,” she explains.

Healthcare workers who extend this empathy are rightly commended, but at the same time, Franklin says it does not alleviate the pain that individuals feel for not being physically present during a loved one’s final hours. “Family members may experience guilt for not being present and wonder if they could have done more,” says Franklin.

They may also wonder if there was something else they could or should have said to a dying loved one. With that in mind, Franklin says that these feelings of guilt and regret are a natural response to the current public health restrictions, and they must be considered during the grieving process. 

That’s why finding support, either with those close to you or professionally, is so critical. The National Institute on Aging says finding support with family and compassionate friends is a great place to start, especially since they are grieving too. But if you find that managing this on your own is too much, you may want to consider grief counseling. Talking with a therapist can help you begin to accept death, work through the grieving process, and in time, move forward.

A Word From Verywell

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought up many fears about dying alone. Fears about our own mortality and fears about our loved ones spending their final days without family by their side. If you have concerns about end-of-life rituals or are struggling with the loss of a loved one, remember, help is available. Reach out to your doctor, a mental health professional, or bereavement expert.

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