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The Ultimate Threat to Single People: You'll Die Alone

Who really dies alone?

I'm not a regular viewer of the TV show Private Practice, but I watched it last night. One of the storylines was about a man who was in the final stages of pancreatic cancer, in pain, and wanting to die. Two of the regular doctors on the show, Sam and Pete - described in the episode preview as old friends and colleagues of the dying man - clash over the ethics of facilitating the man's death.

On another matter, though, the two share an understanding that is so deep that it never occurs to either to question it: that the man, because he has no spouse, is "dying alone." They consider this tragic, and horribly unsettling, because they, too, are single. They are stricken with the fear that their own death could be akin to that of their long-time friend and colleague.

As the man lays dying, at home in his own bed, the two friends are sitting there near him. By the time his last breath is about to be drawn, Pete has climbed into bed with him, cradling him in his arms. That's where he dies.

This is Private Practice's definition of "dying alone." It is many other people's as well. The usual perversion of the "alone" word is in play: If you have two old friends with you, one actually in bed with you and holding you in his arms, you have died alone. By this taken-for-granted definition, friends are not people. Unless there is a spouse present, you have died alone.

There is something stunningly clueless about the belief that if you marry, you will not die alone. First, a point that should be obvious: Unless both partners die simultaneously, someone is left "alone" (according to the dopey definition of "alone").

My parents were married for 42 years, and had four kids. My father died first. He was hospitalized because of some pain that had not yet been properly diagnosed. The cause turned out to be an abdominal aneurysm. It left him lying dead on the bathroom floor of his hospital room late at night, after my mother had gone home for the evening. All of us grown kids were by then living in other parts of the country. He really did die alone.

My mother, in the popular parlance, was then "alone." During the last five days of her life, as she was dying from cancer, all four of us kids were there with her, often sleeping in chairs or on the floor in the same room, leaving only occasionally to grab a quick shower or a bag of bagels to pass around. Her brother and a lifetime of relatives and friends wanted to be there, too, and they had visited many times before; during the last days, though, my sibs and I did not want to share.

It is true that some single people really do die alone, in the true sense of the word and not the sense that discounts everyone who is not a spouse. But as the example of my own father shows, so, too, do some people who are in the fifth decade of their only marriage, and have four grown children.

As Kay Trimberger has noted, marital status may not be as powerful a predictor of whether you will die alone as whether you have maintained a circle of friends. In fact, the intensive coupling that some married partners practice (whereby all of the once-important people in their lives are moved to the back burner as the marital relationship becomes all-consuming) may be what leaves people particularly vulnerable to loneliness and dying alone when the marriage ends.

I have another challenge to the "Horrors: You'll Die Alone!" threat: Some people actually prefer to be alone, even in death. For a beautifully written example, read the afterword in the book Party of One, by fellow Psych Today blogger Anneli Rufus.

Suppose, though, that you are not one of those people. Suppose you really do want people around you when you die. I'll even up the ante: Suppose you want a spouse there with you when you die. Still, I have to wonder: Should you let that wish for your final hours determine the fate of the rest of your life? Should you find someone to marry, even if you are not sure you really want to marry? Even if you do want to marry but have never found a person you truly want to spend your life with, should you marry someone who is a "good enough" partner just to have a spouse there with you at the end?

Answer any of these questions any way you like. Just don't accept the "die alone" threat unthinkingly. Let your life decisions be governed by your own beliefs and values and feelings, your sense of who you really are and who you want to be, and not by the mindless myths designed to scare or shame you out of your single state.

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