They Are Dying, and You Can’t Be There

They Are Dying

They are dying and you can’t be there.

People have died alone before. This isn’t new. Unexpected deaths, delays, avoidance, or hope of healing are just some reasons that can keep us from being at a death bed when a death occurs.

But never or rarely are people prevented from being there. This is a whole new type of trauma that the bereaved people of the COVID-era will have to navigate. And this isn’t happening just to COVID patients but to anyone sick or dying in a hospital setting. People dying of “normal” things are dying in abnormal ways. Abnormal meaning, instead of having loved ones around, waiting vigil, getting those last moments and saying those final words – everyone is alone. While being at someone’s death bed is very surreal – anything but “normal” – it is what is right. And the kicker is, we only get one chance.

For years now I have been deeply comforted by the idea that “no one dies alone”. I’ve written about it on here before – it’s one of the most comforting things we can share with people who couldn’t be or can’t be at the deathbed.

This idea was taught to me by Barbara Karnes – a hospice nurse with over 30 years of experience who I’ve had the pleasure of hearing speak a couple of times. I am always moved and helped by her death-wisdom and comfortability with the subject.

She makes the case after her 30+ years of watching people die that no one dies alone. Let me say that again to you – no one dies alone. 

From her anecdotal point-of-view, dying people seem to speak to, see, or reach out to unseen people around them that they know and are comforted by. They mention seeing their mother, a deceased sibling, sometimes a childhood dog. The point is, the dying person is always accompanied as they make their transition from life to death.

I’d like to add that when she speaks the room is FILLED with other experienced hospice nurses nodding knowingly, enthusiastically, and each one of them has every story you can imagine to back this idea up. It’s just true.

So, take this in. No one is dying alone, not really. It is one of the most comforting truths I’ve encountered.

A few weeks ago I was scrolling through Facebook and came across something she wrote that absolutely grabbed me.

Lamenting the new mode of death due to COVID, she wrote the following to the families that aren’t able to be with their loved one in their last hours:

“One of my teachers said ‘Thoughts are things’ and ‘Thoughts originate before actions can follow’. So let’s use thoughts to send support, guidance and love to our loved one if they are alone in the ICU, nursing home, field hospital, or wherever they may be.

Quiet yourself, sit in a comfortable position, close your eyes and think of your loved one. See in your mind your loved one in bed, sleeping. Again, in your mind, sit beside them, hold them, their hand or cuddle, whatever you are drawn to doing. Now start talking. Say what is in your heart. Talk about the good times, talk about the challenging times (every relationship has challenging times). Offer them love, gratitude for their life, for your relationship (if it is true).

In your mind create a gentle passing. What is a gentle passing? The person is non responsive, breathing gets slower and slower, eyes are partially closed, there’s no agitation, no talking, then there’s a facial expression of a grimace (maybe a smile but generally a grimace), one or two more breaths, and they are gone.”

*For the full Facebook post, click here.

Isn’t this beautiful/sad/crazy/peaceful/awful/hopeful/and so giving? I felt so heartbroken and yet, so profoundly moved by the power of the intimate “goodbye” that we can still have with our loved ones – even at a distance.

We are all having to get creative in this time and adjust to a new way of existing and grieving. I think what Barbara Karnes offers in this post is a way to peace, a powerful experience, and a treasured, final moment of togetherness.

You may not be able to be there, but your loved one is not alone.

Molly Keating
Molly Keating
Hello! I'm Molly and I run & manage the Blog here at O'Connor. I grew up in a mortuary with a mortician for a father who's deep respect for the profession inspired me to give working at a mortuary a try. Work at O'Connor has brought together two of my deep passions, writing & grief awareness. In 2016 I earned Certification in the field of Thanatology, the study of Death, Dying and Bereavement. I am honored to be able to speak on these taboo topics with knowledge, compassion, and a unique perspective. I want to sincerely thank you for following & reading the blog, I hope that this is a healing place for you.


  1. Nicco Black-Starr says:

    Losing a parent, is quite possibly one of the hardest & most challenging chapters a family can ever go through. Having the right kind of support, and sincerely gentle loving care, during that greatest time of sensitive need – is one of the angelic benefits (we ask and pray for in a time of great loss,) during one’s own path to find purpose, closure and indeed acceptance; while finding peace and true healing. Terese Henriks at O’Connor, Laguna Hills – has extended our family just that; angelic support. From welcoming, listening, supporting, offering neutrally spiritual insight, and pragmatically viable options – Terese is indeed a true angel, and an asset to this sensitive industry. O’Connor mortuary provides nothing short of perfectly-professional excellence, & authentic, tender loving care. The entire staff, the process, the affordable pricing, and the life-transition enriching options, for memoirs of loved-ones past; is bar-none the best that any soul could ever wish for. Thank you Terese, supportive staff and thank you to the O’Connor family, for keeping alive your spirit and traditions of excellence, in supporting our family, during our time of need. With the most, sincerest gratitude – the Black Family, 2020.

    • Molly Keating says:

      You’ve described Terese so perfectly! She is truly and thoroughly a kind, tender and lovely soul. I am so pleased that in this extremely sad time, you were able to find solace and comfort in her care. Thank you THANK YOU for your lovely words. I will personally promise to share them with her.

      Take care,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *