Living Out Loud: : Dying Alone

Mr. Gillis and his son

When we found Mr. Gillis, he'd been dead for several days. In his bed, he had the sheets pulled up over his head like he knew he was going to die.

This happened the week before Christmas. The company I do some consulting work for owns apartment buildings downtown, and I guess finding people dead in their apartments goes with the territory. We called 9-1-1.

People from the coroner's office came and removed Mr. Gillis' body. Others dealt with the removal of the mattress and box springs and cleaning up the apartment and trying to remove the smell sent forth from a decomposing body. I talked to Mr. Gillis' relatives, including his son, who needed to get inside his apartment to look for insurance papers. The son hadn't been in contact with his father in years.

I had met the senior Mr. Gillis only once or twice.

He was a man in his late seventies.

He died alone. I wonder how he felt about it, wonder if it was a lonely death or if that's the way he wanted it.

Everyone's different. When my twin brother Jered found out he had AIDS, he told me he would rather die in a hospital around people he didn't know than to have family and friends around him. He was a very private man and didn't want people he loved to see him in his final hours or minutes, didn't want to be remembered that way.

On the night before he died, I called him. He lived in Seattle and was in Swedish Hospital. He was gravely ill but told me everything was fine and that he'd be alright. I knew better. I booked a flight to Seattle for early the next day.

I remember feeling angry about his wanting to die alone. This was cheating me somehow. I felt like I wanted and needed to be there.

That next morning, before getting on the plane, I got paged. It was a friend of my brother's telling me that Jered had died in his sleep.

He got his wish to die alone, but now 12 years later I still feel saddened that I wasn't with him. It still doesn't feel right, and I wonder if Mr. Gillis' son is now feeling the same way I do.

After my brother died, I got involved with AVOC (AIDS Volunteers of Cincinnati) and became very good friends with an AIDS patient named Greg. He reminded me of my twin brother in a lot of ways, but there was one thing they didn't have in common: He didn't want to die alone. He knew he was going to die from his illness, but he told me often how much it scared him.

I knew Greg for almost two years. I took him to a number of doctor appointments and watched his health slowly decline. The last month of his life was spent in a nursing home on the West Side. He was basically sent there to die.

On a sunny afternoon in late May, I entered his room and he smiled at me from his bed. His coloring was gray, and he was breathing hard. As I looked at him, somehow I knew it was time.

I pulled up a chair beside his bed and took his hand. I think I said, "It's alright," but maybe I just thought it. Greg closed his eyes, and I watched his small stomach move up and down from his heavy breathing until his breathing stopped.

He died within minutes after I had arrived, but after he passed I still just held his hand for a while. I was glad to be with him. Now I can't help but wonder if Mr. Gillis would have liked to have had his hand held, too.

I think of Greg often, still have a picture of him in my study. Sometimes I think my being with him when he died was some kind of gift from my twin brother Jered. I don't know. I'm not smart enough to figure those things out.

I still see Mr. Gillis' son every so often. He comes in to get the keys to his father's apartment, still trying to settle up his affairs. We make friendly small talk that doesn't amount to much, but there are questions I'd like to ask.

Why didn't you stay in touch with your father? How to you feel about him dying alone and not being missed for days? If you had it to do over again and if you knew he was dying, would you want to be with him? Would you want to hold his hand?

I'll never ask those questions, because it's none of my business. But I still think it's sad for someone you love to die alone.

CONTACT LARRY GROSS: lgross(at) Living Out Loud runs every week at and the second and fourth issues of each month in the paper.

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