Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died this week at age 79 and while many wanted to dissect the politics of the conservative who fought (for some, the good fight) against liberalism, others were more, or at least equally, interested in how he died (conspiracy theories aside) — alone, doing what he loved, hunting, with his loved ones nowhere near.
This may be a nothing in the grand scheme of a Supreme Court Justice’s life or any person’s life, but his death, alone, actually means something to the millions of single — including divorced and widowed — people who wonder, who will be by my side when I die?
This is not something that consumes my thoughts, but every once and a while it hits me. A week ago it hit me full force. My partner fainted, fell, hit his head and about 30 minutes later crawled to his phone to call me.
When I arrived at his home and found him on the ground, lucid but immobile, I was more than a bit freaked out. I called 911 and then tried to answer all the questions the EMT asked me.
While I struggled with that, in part because we live apart and have been seeing each other for about a year and so I didn’t have all the answers to everything, it occurred to me that this has probably been my greatest fear as a single woman — that something bad will happen and no one will be around to help me.
I’m not alone in that fear — a lot of single people worry about aging and dying alone; who will care for us, who will be there when we draw our last breath?
Well, in Scalia’s case, nobody — even though when he died he left behind a wife of 56 years, nine children and 36 grandchildren. Yep, despite whatever fear he may or may not have had about going this way, instead of being surrounded by his loved ones in his own bed, he died far from home by himself.
The ‘lonely’ death
How different his death was portrayed in the media than George Bell’s. Few of us knew George Bell. It was a name we wouldn’t even have heard of until he died — alone — and then suddenly lots of people knew about George Bell.
It was a “lonely” death, the New York Times wrote, and since most people assume single = lonely, why not frame it that way?
Of course, that isn’t the truth. Yes, Mr. Bell was single but he had friends and we really have no way of knowing if he truly was lonely or not. We just know that he died — alone. As did Scalia. Was the Supreme Court Justice lonely or just alone? Most of us assume he wasn’t lonely because he was married, and yet many people say the worst loneliness is the loneliness felt within a marriage, with all the promise and expectations that someone will be there for us when we need him or her most. But, as Scalia proved, we still may die alone.
So as I sat in the ER as my partner underwent all sorts of tests and CT scans — a week before Scalia’s death — I began to think deeper about the “dying alone” narrative I have feared.
It’s an irrational fear, as so many fears are. While it may appear to be more likely that the married and/or living together couples among us may have a loved one nearby at the moment when life can change — whether because of something like stroke, heart-attack, head injury or death — there’s no guarantee that he or she will be there. And it’s just as likely that a non-romantic partner/friend/roomie/co-worker/parent/child will be close by at the moment we need him or her most, or not. Many people stay in unhappy or unhealthy relationships because they fear being alone when they’re old. But as singles advocate Bella DePaulo notes, should we let the final hours of our life dictate our entire life? That doesn’t make much sense.
Recently, Jack Nicholson, 77, expressed some fear that he may die alone. Except it sounds like what he really wants at this point in his life is a caretaker, which a lot of men around his age want and which a lot of women his age are less like likely to want to be, especially if they did that in long-term marriages or relationships.
I can understand why most of us, even those like Nicholson who enjoyed the freedom of single life, might want to have someone around to care for us as we age. I do. And I can understand that we would hope to have our loved ones around us when we die, which sadly doesn’t happen as often as we’d like. But those are two different things and while the former is a very real issue for those of us who live alone, the latter is often out of our control — whether we’re single or married, have kids or are childfree.
The Washington Post focused on the lives of singles last week, and one essay caught my eye because it speaks to what I believe makes for a successful life — creating community and connections:
“If we want a culture where unmarried people are not isolated, and where older forms of love like friendship, service and extended family are honored, many of us will have to rethink how a good adult life is shaped. We’ll have to make economic sacrifices to stay close to church, community or friends.”
We still may die alone, but at least we won’t live alone. Somehow, I think that matters more.
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Originally published at omgchronicles.vickilarson.com.