Aunt Diane and Uncle Roy found Alyssa's body collapsed on the floor in her apartment late one Wednesday afternoon in September after no one had answered her phone for many hours. That afternoon, everything about their lives changed forever. It was every parent's nightmare stretched out before them in graphic horror. In her memoir The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion sums up those painful minutes of devastation that transform families when her own husband died suddenly of a heart attack in the living room: "Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends."
Alyssa had also died alone, reflecting one of our most persistent fears. We are terrified to die by ourselves, left alone and undiscovered for a long time. The Japanese have a word for it: kodokushi. Translated loosely, it means filonely death.fi In Psychology Today, Professor Bella DePaulo contends that this fear is often treated as a threat among singles but questions its validity as a reason to couple up. The likelihood of dying alone is not minimized by marriage necessarily, argues E. Kay Trimberger, author of The New Single Woman, but by whether or not you have an active and loving circle of friends. Yet we understand this often unarticulated anxiety; to die alone seems to symbolize in the most ultimate sense the anomie of an empty society. There will be no one to hear the last word that we ever say, no one to hold a hand and no one to see the last breath imperceptibly leave us.
I once went out for coffee with an older man in one of my classes who had lost his wife a few years back and was clearly not over the pain. "I'm lonely. I don't want to spend my last years alone. I don't want to die alone." He told me that the pain of his wife's absence was so profound that he slept at night with a pile of books in his bed in the place his wife had occupied for the dozens of years they were married. He loved her. He loved books. He thought that perhaps there was some transference of these loves that would bring him a modicum of solace. If books were at his side when he died, he would not have to die alone.
Diane and Roy did not suspect foul play or that Alyssa had taken her own life. They hadand still haveno idea what really happened. Alyssa struggled mightily in her life with her own demons. As a teenager, she went through a period of months when she was afraid to leave the house, and she struggled with other phobias, even as she fought her parents for independence. She never finished her education in the classic sense, but after a string of jobs, she studied to be a nurse's assistant and stabilized her employment. She was married for a brief and rough few months. It was a beautiful wedding. In her white dress and with her wide smile, it seemed that she had finally figured herself out. But the fairy-tale picture of wedding happiness soon gave way to a harsher reality. Not long after her separation, she joined her parents in Florida and moved into her own apartment a few miles away. Alyssa was needy but very big-hearted. She loved her dog, Elle, and her niece and nephew, and she wanted a happy family like the ones she saw on TV screens and in magazines. She desperately wanted to be a mother.
Within an hour of finding her, Diane and Roy were surrounded by police officers. My aunt called me screaming. When I got her, between sobs, to tell me what happened, she said only two words and then released another anguished cry: "She's dead." She and Roy had lost their only daughter.
Alyssa's body was placed in a thick plastic bag on a rolling stretcher. Diane needed a prayer. "What should I say before they take her away?" she said in a whisper. I listed some prayers in Hebrew that are typically recited. "I don't know any of that Hebrew. You say something," and she put the phone on the body bag. I recited a few psalms and the central prayer of Judaism, the Shema. I told her that she and my uncle should ask mechila, "forgiveness," from Alyssa. In Jewish tradition, emotional closure is critical and tightly ritualized, and it involves atonement. We ask forgiveness of the dead, and for some people this is the hardest and starkest reality of saying farewell. That last "I'm sorry for everything" is both a letting go and a reminder that whatever difficulties and arguments may have characterized the relationship between the living and the dead, all must be forgiven. There are no more chances for reconciliation or for the conversation you meant to have but never did.
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