HUMANS 101

We’re Getting Death and Dying All Wrong

Too many people die alone, leaving families to grieve remotely

Robert Roy Britt
Human Parts
Published in
5 min readFeb 2, 2022

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Photo: Unsplash/Mufid Majnun

One year ago this week, my 85-year-old father knew he’d die soon. Swiftly advancing cancer had left his body failing rapidly. There was nothing left to do but take pain medication and wait. But he was among the lucky, in one respect, and so was his family. Dad’s brain remained perfectly intact, and he was able to do the waiting at home. He called all his kids, grandkids, and great-grandchildren in for a few final conversations packed with the advice of a lifetime.

Death for many, however, is a far more heartbreaking, solitary, even pointless event, an end among relative strangers, often drawn out by the false hope that medical science can defeat the inevitable with one last procedure or pill. The result, far too often, is a lonely, agonizing demise in an intensive care unit with little to no chance for loved ones to say goodbye in person.

Prior to the pandemic, 38% of Americans died in hospitals and 22% in long-term care facilities, according to a new report in The Lancet, a British medical journal. The figures are similar or higher in several other Western countries, including Canada and the U.K.

The pandemic has greatly increased these lonely passings, highlighting what the report’s commission of 27 experts calls “the ​​ultimate medicalized death,” an over-reliance on medical advances that goes against our social and personal instincts and values and, from a practical standpoint, generates huge medical bills at the end of life that can leave families financially decimated.

The commission does not deny nor downplay the incredible benefits of modern medicine, nor the vital lifesaving care provided by doctors and nurses for Covid-19 and other diseases. Rather, it points out a growing imbalance in how we view death in general and then ultimately how we — as families, communities, and society overall — face the inevitable when the time comes.

“Dying is part of life, but has become invisible, and anxiety about death and dying appears to have increased,” says Richard Smith, a retired doctor and co-chair of the commission. “Our current systems have increased both undertreatment and…

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Robert Roy Britt
Human Parts

Editor of Aha! and Wise & Well on Medium + the Writer's Guide at writersguide.substack.com. Author of Make Sleep Your Superpower: amazon.com/dp/B0BJBYFQCB