Taking Some of the Fear Out of Dying Alone

I see families devastated by not being able to be with their loved one as they are dying. I am writing this for any person who is faced with a loved one dying alone in a hospital, nursing home, or some other place away from you. My hope is that some understanding hence comfort can be found among these words. This guidance can also be used by healthcare workers when they face the difficult job of telling families they can’t be present. These ideas can’t fix this horrific situation but they can bring a bit of understanding and “something to do” to an otherwise bleak message.

There are so many areas I want to address to neutralize some of the fear associated with dying. Dying is very, very sad but the actual moments before actual separation really aren't that bad. Scary for us the watchers but not bad, as we perceive bad, for the doer.


1. The person dying is so removed from their body they do not perceive it the way we, the watchers, perceive ours.
2. The person is non responsive to the world around them. They do not respond to sound or touch.
3. Their world is like a dream. Everything is out of focus, disconnected, from afar.
4. Normal physical changes: eyes partially open; random hand movements, slowed breathing, gapping-like mouth movements; 2 or 3 or 4 long spaced out breaths before actual breathing stops.

This goes beyond what I know to WHAT I HAVE COME TO BELIEVE:

1. We do not die alone. In the moments to hours, even days before death there is often talk to and about those that have died before us.
2. Fear of dying is replaced with the body’s efforts to detach from living.
3. A person can hear even in the moments following death.

HERE ARE SOME OF THE THINGS YOU CAN DO WHEN YOU HAVE THE GIFT OF BEING WITH SOMEONE IN THE MOMENTS OF THEIR DYING: (Remember they are non responsive but they can hear as if from afar.)

1. Touch, hug, hold, sing, reminisce, pray if that is comforting to you and them, cry, tell stories and yes, even laugh.
2. During private time tell the person about how they have touched your life. Talk about the challenging times as well as the good times.
3. When all words have been said, just holding a hand or laying in bed next to your special person is a gift of comfort to both of you.
4. You can have the lights on, soft music playing (favorite songs), or not.
5. Because we have limited control over the time that we die, and can hear from a far, tell the person dying who is arriving, who and when people are leaving. If you are there at the moment of death you are there because that was a gift to you. If you aren’t, and you tried to be, then that too was a gift, a gift of protection.


1. Sit quietly and comfortably, close you eyes and in your minds eye see your loved one in bed, peacefully sleeping.
2. Picture yourself next to the bed, hold their hand or lay down with them if that seems more desirable.
3. Begin talking to them. Talk from your heart. Say everything you need to say, the positive and the challenging nature of your relationship. Remember there is no perfect relationship. Every relationship has its rough hurtles; talk about those areas as well as the positive.
4. When all words from your heart have been said sit quietly, in your mind, and just be with your loved one. Know unfinished business has been addressed and the two of you have said goodbye.
5. Stay as long as you need. There will come a point where you will know you can get up. Say one more time “I love you”, if it is true. Just a goodbye is okay too.

When someone we care about, or someone we don’t care about, is dying it is scary and challenging to our idea of how life is suppose to be. Other people die, not someone close to me or even someone I know. When dying reaches into your personal sphere (and it will eventually) I hope these thoughts bring some comfort. Blessings, Barbara

Something More...

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Bienvenida Quintana

Beautiful and helpful words of wisdom that will certainly bring comfort at the time we must ALL FACE. Thank you, may blessings.

Sharon Riek

Hi Barb,

Just wanted to thank you for always dealing with everyone’s questions but also, now, for this mess we have with the virus. I’ve purchased and given out so many of your pamphlets – they are awesome and have been glad to be able to share them with friends & family in a time of need!

Thank you and take good care!!!

Hugs, Sharon


Beautiful post, Barbara. I wish this could be picked up by major media. Deathbed vigiling from a distance, DOES make a connection, and is a powerful spiritual experience.

Shelly C.

So far as I can relate, hearing has to be the last sense to go. I’ve come insanely close to dying a couple of times. The only way that I can describe it, was it was like being under water at the deep end of the public swimming pool and being able to hear all the folks topside (usually kids) talking/shouting above.

This post touched a deep nerve in me, in the sense that it touched a very deep fear in me. I know that I will end up in a facility at some point. It’s just not going to be avoidable. And that terrifies me. I have a long standing lung disease causing me to be on high flow O2, asthma, and diabetes. Facilities are notoriously under staffed (at least the ones I could afford), and are very busy places. I’m terrified of having a problem with my breathing and not being able to get help and no one noticing that there’s something wrong. Suffocating to death is painful. Every time that I’ve come so close to dying was due to my airway shutting down. I’ve arrested several times. I’m not afraid of dying, but I could get very excited about how I die. I just got out of the hospital after a four day admission. They wanted to put me in a rehab facility after discharge to build up my stamina. I of course said no.

I would love to figure out a way to deal with this fear. I’ve never been afraid of anything in my life, but this scares me to death.

Mrs. Elaine G McGillicuddy

Dear Barbara Karnes,

Thank you so much for writing this! And especially because I was very present to my husband, Francis A McGillicuddy as he lay dying. What you recommended is what I/we did!

In fact, I wrote about this in my book Sing to Me and I Will Hear You – A Love Story – in the last chapter entitled “Last Suppers.” If you go to my website you will see a photo of that book as well as a book review of it. And finally – I can vouch for the truth of what you say here, from my own experience accompanying my late husband who died in 2010. Much obliged,


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