Dying Alone

River Running

Photo by Earnest B

Photo by Earnest B

Black water flows,
Circling in doomed
tide pools;
Awaiting the inevitable,
An unknown stream of unconsciousness.
River running fast but leading nowhere,

I wait.

Black water flows carrying the tail ends
Of life.
Air above swirls through forced motion

I wait.

Decisions being made
Without action to follow.
Life and death swirl in dark water

And still I wait.

Life beats fast before
Closing its chambers.
Red rivers flow
Until merging with black water.
Time stands still momentarily;

I wait
I watch
I listen

Then it’s gone in one moment;
The tide pools quell
Waiting mysteriously with hidden messages.
Black water flows on
I’m finished waiting
It’s time to go home.

I wrote this poem over ten years ago while working the night shift in NYC.  My patient was dying from complications of Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV). I knew nothing about this woman except that she was a prostitute at some point in her life, contracted HIV, was on a ventilator, near death, and all alone.

When I walk into a patient’s room, I don’t always have the luxury of caring for a person who can walk or talk.  I may need to wear a mask to ward off Tuberculosis (TB), or gloves to protect myself from infected blood containing deadly organisms.

When I walk into a patient’s room I check my hang-ups at the door.  I’m there for one reason, and for one reason only…to take care of the person in the bed in front of me to the best of my ability.

I don’t care how you got there, what you did in your life, if you’re a prisoner or a prostitute, I do care; however, how I’m going to make a difference in the twelve hours I’m assigned to your care.

I think the saddest thing I’ve encountered over my twenty-five years of nursing is when I’m caring for a dying patient who’s dying alone.  Not all of us are fortunate enough to have an entourage holding vigil around the deathbed.  Some of us go quietly, slipping out before anyone notices we’re even gone.

It’s heartbreaking to watch a fellow human being die alone.  I try to be present when I can sitting quietly at the bedside to bid them farewell on to their next journey.

They say we come into this world alone, so leaving should be no different, but I beg to differ.  I know this is my personal belief and may not be shared by others, but holding the hand of a lonely soul as they take their final breath is the least I can do as their nurse, but more importantly is the least I can do as their fellow human being.

holding hands

10 thoughts on “Dying Alone

  1. What a touching post. How wonderful that you are there for them in the end, even though I imagine it takes a little piece of you each time.

    “…holding the hand of a lonely soul as they take their final breath is the least I can do as their nurse, but more importantly is the least I can do as their fellow human being.”—That was really lovely.

    • You know, I’ve seen some families say there goodbye’s at the bedside and then leave telling me to call them when it’s over!! I don’t get it, you would think someone would volunteer to stay. People seem so comfortable at the birth of a loved one, but when it comes to dying there are so many hang-ups.

  2. It’s weird that you posted this, because a post along these lines has been percolating in my brain lately. I think about these things a lot, how there are so many more people dying alone these days either because they have no family left, or because they left their family/their family abandoned them. If I were a nurse I don’t think I’d be able to help but think, “This could be me.” You’re a good soul, Jean. Nurses are so underappreciated and this is just one of the many reasons why.

    • What got you thinking about this topic? You know I really wanted this to come from the perspective of the patient, because I do see myself in them; it’s hard not to. I didn’t, however, want to come across like I’m patting myself on the back, but just to let people know there are a lot of nurses there to comfort the abandoned, and if you end up one of them there’s a good chance one of us will be watching your back.

      • I know you didn’t write this to pat yourself on the back, and I’m glad you wrote it. I was thinking about it because I was reading something about cancer patients who spend a long time in the hospital, only to die alone. (Of course that’s true of so many patients, not just those with cancer.) And how it seems to be much more common than I realized–when I went to visit Mr. Weebles in the hospital after his cancer surgery a few years ago, there were so many people with no visitors at all. It just makes me think, that could be me. That could be someone I know. One of the saddest things, to me, is the idea of dying alone, and only slighly less sad is hearing about people who are so lonely that they don’t even know what to do. It makes my heart ache.

      • You know when you’re in the hospital there are so many different perspectives. I wrote about mine, I would love to read about yours. The hospital is my workplace, so when I walk through those doors I’m in my comfort zone, when everybody else walks through those doors, they’re in their danger zone. It would be interesting to read how that feels through your eyes.

  3. I always regret not having been with my mother when she died, so I made sure (as much as I was able) that I was with my dad when he went. Curiously I’ve never thought that someone might have been with mum – a nurse, a doctor, though as she was in hospital, maybe there was someone there. It was in the middle of the night, in darkness hours. It wasn’t me though, and that’s what’s important to me. (Not to lessen your post at all.)

    • Val sorry it took so long to get back to you I haven’t been on the site much (life has taken over) I’m sorry to hear of the loss of both of your parents, and I’m sorry you weren’t able to be there with your mum. That must have been painful for you. I’m just a small cog in the system and if I can support someone in their last moments because I’m there then I’m happy to stand in. So you’re not lessening my post at all. It’s just that some people don’t even have anyone at home wishing they could be there. I hope you’re well. I miss you around these parts.

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