We like to think of human beings as social animals, and by and large we are. Most of us exist in complex networks of siblings, parents, children, friends, colleagues, neighbors, and acquaintances. And usually we take this for granted.
Every so often, in my work at the hospital, I come across a patient who has lost all of their connections—estranged from family, living as a loner. Often, mental illness and/or drug addiction has played a role in this, but sometimes it is just a personality type. I wonder how it happened, and when I ask, the answer is usually something along the lines of, “Everyone sort of drifted away.”
For me, it elicits an existential fear of loneliness. My network of family and collegial connections is such an intrinsic part of my life, so heavily embedded that they are almost a sine qua non of my existence.
Meeting these patients without connections brings to the forefront the terrifying scenario of what life might be like without anyone else. And then the biggest nightmare plays out: what would it be like to die and have no one to mourn or even care.
Recently, I had a patient like this die suddenly. As I reviewed his life, I realized that he had no connections at all. It dawned on me that I might be the only one who’d had regular contact with him, the only one for whom his death would resonate.
It was a sadness that was hard to share, because no one else knew him. What would happen when my own memory of him faded? Would that be it?
You can read the entire essay in the New York Times Science Times.
Danielle Ofri is a writer and practicing internist at New York City’s Bellevue Hospital. She is the editor-in-chief of the Bellevue Literary Review. Her newest book is Medicine in Translation: Journeys with my Patients.
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