Thought Catalog
April 22, 2017

What Does It Mean To Die Alone?

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What is the issue?
Donnie Darko

There is something that embarrasses me about the idea of someone discovering my body. Even though I know I won’t be present, I obsess over experiencing this shame — of my flimsy humanity being laid bare one epic and final time. I don’t know how I can obsess about something that is fundamentally the end of all my obsessing. That’s the good thing about death, right? You’re forcibly (and finally) done with all that.

There are the biological facts of death — whether you’ve soiled yourself or your body has begun to decompose. There is also the idea of people going through your life to settle your affairs, the intimate details you kept close (the balance of your bank accounts, the contents of your bedside drawer) being touched by hands that are not yours. There is no control you can exert, no narrative you can tell about the things people find. There is a comprehensive quality to the vulnerability you face in death that I am having trouble accepting, moreso than the idea of not being alive anymore.

I wish that when I died everyone else in the world also died so that I wouldn’t miss out on anything and so that no one would talk about me in the clinical way you talk about someone who is not present.

Whenever I see clips of surgery on some tv show I am struck by the impersonal way the surgeons go about their duty. There is a mound of flesh in front of them, not a person. A wave of nausea rolls over me and I can’t get away from that sick feel, not because of the blood but because of the chasm between the person on the table whose life has temporarily been reoriented around this surgery — and the staff in the operating room who are bored, their hands and instruments rough and determined where our impulse is to be so, so gentle. What is for one person one of the most ultimately human and vulnerable moments of their life is for the other person commonplace, something to do before taking a break to eat lunch.

Dying alone is the worst, I think, because people talk about it. Everyone is afraid of it so they pry for details — how long was it before someone stumbled across the body? What catalyst prompted this discovery? Morbid curiosity feels like a cure, like knowing these intimate details will help us avoid the same fate.

And yet, I think dying alone is too common of a thing to spend time being afraid of. You can spend your entire life trying not to die alone and still die alone. Dying is unexpected, sometimes you don’t arrive at death prepared with friends and family in tow. Or perhaps, despite your best efforts they have outlived you. Or perhaps, you are traveling somewhere and they can’t come in time. There are exceptions to the best laid plans. My grandmother died in a hospital bed surrounded by her most beloved. But, by the time I arrived her brain was busy making its last efforts to keep her alive, it wasn’t up for a roll call. Did she have the facility to know she was dying this ideal death? I can’t say.

My obsession with dying alone feels like an obsession about avoiding the inevitable. Even if I did all the things you do in order to not die alone like having kids and being close to my family and maintaining a lot of irl friendships, even if the universe smiles on me and everything goes according to plan — will I not feel alone in that final moment of death? We all know the experience of feeling more alone when you are with other people because you are not feeling understood. I have made that confession many times, and what can a living person understand about a dying one?

This is a lonely and inevitable march and it’s hard to think that nothing is required of me in advance. We rise to that unexpected occasion because we must, because it is part of our DNA to do so. Our acceptance is swift and forced. And then?

And then the moment I am most confronted with my mere mortality is also the moment I am excused from it.

And then, welcome silence.

And then, maybe rest. TC mark

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