What It Means to Die Alone: How the Coronavirus Is Changing End-of-Life Care


As of today, nearly 65,000 people have died due to coronavirus in the U.S., with 234,000 deaths across the globe. You may be used to hearing these painful statistics by now, but what does it actually mean to die of COVID-19?

Hospitals and nursing homes across the country have banned visitors from seeing their loved ones to limit the spread of the virus, which means many patients are dying without the love and support of their family and friends. In many cases, nurses and doctors have had to stand vigil, so these patients do not have to die alone.

Watching patients die while their families are stuck at home can have a devastating effect on your mental health as a care provider. It could also change the way we think about death in this country as our loved ones seem to disappear without a trace.

The Reality of Dying of COVID-19

Healthcare facilities have had to adjust their visitation policies in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak. Many hospitals will not allow visitors under any circumstances, while others will only allow them when patients are giving birth and for end-of-life patients.

If these facilities are running low on personal protective equipment (PPE), such as face masks, gloves, and sanitary wipes, they may ask visitors to stay home to protect them from infection. Visitors may also need to bring in their own protective gear, so they don’t pull from the facility’s supply closet.

When a person comes down with the coronavirus and needs emergency medical care, there’s often no time for them to say goodbye to their loved ones. A nurse who wished to remain anonymous told Scrubs Magazine that patients are getting into ambulances, never to see their loved ones again. It’s as if they vanished into thin air, leaving their loved ones to pick up missing pieces.

Not being there for a spouse, partner, or parent when they pass away can leave these individuals haunted with memories of their loved ones. We tend to crave closure as human beings, so not having these experiences may make it harder for these individuals to come to terms with the reality of losing someone.

Studies show that loneliness can be just as deadly as smoking. Individuals that describe themselves as lonely are 50% more likely to die from premature causes than those with healthy social relationships. Some of your patients may lose the will to live if they do not have access to friends and family when they need them the most.

Standing Vigil for Coronavirus Patients

The pandemic is forcing nurses and doctors to stand vigil for their patients as they pass away when their loved ones cannot be in the room. No one should have to die alone, so healthcare providers are making room in their schedules to watch these patients die.

However, nurses and doctors can only do so much for their patients in their time of need. They often can’t touch their patients, hold their hand, or even hear what they are saying due to the whizzing sound of ventilators in the room. This is taking the personal connection out of end-of-life care, which can make dying all the more painful.

Patients Look for Alternatives

Many patients and their loved ones are worried about dying alone. Patients know that their loved ones probably won’t be with them if they go to the hospital, so they may choose to die at home instead.

According to ProPublica, New York, Massachusetts, and other hard-hit areas have seen a jump in at-home deaths over the last few weeks and months. Officials estimate that around 200 individuals died at home each day in NYC last week, compared to just 35 deaths per day from 2013 to 2017.

Some patients may also call facilities ahead to time to see if visitors are allowed. They may choose to take their loved one to another hospital if it means they can be in the room with them when they die.

Keeping Patients and Families Connected

As a healthcare provider, there are some things you can do to make the best of this difficult situation. Some hospitals have had priests deliver last rites to their patients over the phone. You can also use live video and audio to keep your patients connected to their loved ones during their last few days.

Even if they are unconscious or can’t hear due to their ventilator, sending their loved ones a video can make all the difference in the world. Their loved ones want to see them in the hospital, even if it’s just for a few seconds. Having a visual of the hospital setting is often better than nothing at all.

If you have the time, you can also try to help your patients feel the love during their last moments. Family members can drop off photos, blankets, and other personal items to help them feel more at home in the hospital.

Do your best to keep their friends and family informed as the situation evolves. If you have a chance to talk to the patient’s loved ones on the phone, you can spend a few minutes relaying the details of the conversation to the patient, even if they can’t hear you.

If your patients are confused or do not know why they need to be isolated, do your best to explain the situation and why these policies need to be enforced.

Some patients may feel more comfortable dying alone than others. Many people understand that they will likely be separated from their loved ones when the time comes. Try to help your patients feel less lonely when it’s time for them to say goodbye.

Steven Briggs
Steven Briggs is a healthcare writer for Scrubs Magazine, hailing from Brooklyn, NY. With both of his parents working in the healthcare industry, Steven writes about the various issues and concerns facing the industry today.

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