Recently I have had the opportunity to witness the deaths of two patients, one who died alone and the other surrounded by family, yet each died with dignity.
One death was a batchelor who had lived life on his terms, having never married or never having children. He had a nephew who looked in on him daily and ran his errands for him. One morning, as part of his daily routine, the nephew stopped by to visit his uncle and found he had slipped away sometime during the night. This patient had died as he had lived, alone. Knowing him as his hospice chaplain, his death occurred just the way that he would have wanted it.
This gentleman was pleasant and we enjoyed our visits together. He was always ready to laugh and share some of lifes stories. He was a Catholic and took his faith practices seriously and looked forward to the Comminion Stewards that visited weekly and the connection that was made through their visits. He was an intellectual gentleman and thought much about life and the meaning of life.
We never talked about why he was a batchelor and why he had chosen this life, or perhaps this life had chosen him. He hinted around at times about an anxiety that came about as a result of the short time he had served in WWII, but he would never allow the conversation to go any further.
I share all of this with you to paint a picture of a gentleman who had chosen to live life alone and would invite others to occasionally peer through a window with him to gather a glimpse of his life and his outlook on life. He was warm and friendly, he thought much about life and what life brought to not only him, but to each one of us. He was spiritual and embraced his faith and his religion with dignity and grace. He loved helping others and often gave what he had to those who had impacted his life. He had developed personal and warm relationships over the years but time and life had eroded that away for him. Yet, he died as he had lived, alone.
One contrast to this is the portrait of a lady who has lived her entire life where she was surrounded by those she loved; she loved her family and her family loved her. She often spoke of her college days where her father would come and pick her up so she could spend Christmas with her family. Her room was filled with 4th generation pictures and photo albums of the family she loved and cherished. As her time on earth was winding down, you would enter her room hearing the sound of music playing and witness her her family surrounding her with love and telling stories of a mom who will be missed. This lady was also a very spiritual person with a strong faith who raised two sons that are pastors and a daughter who married a pastor. She played the piano her entire life and would often been seen in the facility where she lived, playing the Baby Grand piano in the lobby of the facility, and talking about her love for music.
Throughout my short experience as a hospice chaplain I have had the privilege of witnessing both tragic deaths of pain and suffering and peaceful deaths of dignity, where individuals are surrounded by those they love or where they choose to die alone with no one around them.
Sherwin Nuland stated “The greatest dignity to be found in death is the dignity of the life that preceded it.” I believe with all my heart that this is true. The way we live our life is the way that we will die. And for most of us, living with dignity is an important aspect of life. Even the gentleman that died alone, died as he had lived life. He lived a life of dignity as he enjoyed the stillness and quiet of his life. Some of us might think that dying alone is sad, but in hospice we often see those who choose to die when the house is quiet or when a loved one has slipped out for a meal.
My mom was one of those persons, she was a very private person. I can hear her now telling me to “Hush Ganelle” if I was talking too much about family affairs. I believe with all my heart that she chose to die in the stillness of the predawn hours while her baby sister Violet was away for the night, and Bill and I were still sleeping. Dying alone for her was dying with dignity. While she did not live her life alone, she did enjoy her quiet times and enjoyed her privacy.
Dying with dignity is really the only true source of hope that we have, as stated in Rainer Marie Rilke’s famous lines of verse, “Oh Lord, give each of us his own death / The dying, that issues forth out of the life / In which he had love, meaning and despair.”
In hospice, we often see individuals lingering for a visit from a loved one or holding on with incredible dignity and strength until a special event such as an anniversary or the birth of a grandchild occurs. The life that we live and love is what brings meaning to the lives we have lived, and dignity at the time of our death.