Good Friday morning ...
My 96-year-old father-in-law, James English Brown, died recently. He lived a long and productive life, a veteran of both World War II and the Korean War. He died alone.
He was a man who had two lives. One he lived with his first wife for fifty-one years, the second he lived with his second wife of twenty-four years. He was married for seventy-five of his 96 years. But he died alone!
He was predeceased by his four siblings and by his only son. His first wife died of cancer in 1995; his second wife of problems related to aging in June of this year. And he died on September 17th less than three months later. Alone!
Since March of 2020 he was largely isolated because of COVID-19 ... confined predominantly to his independent living apartment ... receiving meals delivered to his door ... unable to visit his wife who resided in the health care unit of the same facility ... unable to socialize with other residents ... prohibited visitation from family or friends. He was basically disconnected from his normal world, his little world centering around the books he read and the television he watched. He was alone.
With limited hearing, conversations via phone and/or facetime were more than difficult. They were impossible. Naturally, he suffered mental deterioration ... without knowing or recognizing it. Disconnected as he was, he began to lose contact with reality. His second wife died, without him having seen her for some time. Her death was finally realized when he stood before her open casket and wept. He had been alone for so long.
Mental deterioration continued until one evening he was so disoriented he wandered out of his apartment when he should have been going to bed. He was found on the floor in a closet next to his apartment the next morning. He was alone and incoherent.
Rushed to the hospital, he was tested, probed, prodded and finally admitted. The next day he tested positive for COVID but was asymptomatic. He received excellent care, immediate attention, superb medical consideration. But he was alone. He was transferred to a fantastic COVID-19 facility where his care was superb, and he received every medical attention. He remained alone.
He began to sleep through the day, refusing to eat and drink, but with no family encouragement allowed at his bedside. He could not be awakened. He was finally tested and discovered to have pneumonia. Two hours later he died. Alone. His nurse had stepped out to prepare an antibiotic and when she returned, as she put it, "He had gone to heaven." But he died alone.
It's a sad, sad story ... but not an unusual one these days.
I have been reading a lot lately about how COVID-19 has isolated and disconnected our normal relations ... particularly as it relates to the elderly. One article "Why Human Connection is Good for Your Health" by Tatiana Dennig was particularly enlightening. In it she states that "socializing is more than a way to spend our leisure time or have a little fun --- it's important for our health. Our social lives, it is found, are deeply entwined with our overall well-being and healthy longevity."
Those who study these things have discovered what they call "Blue Zones” ... areas that are known to have more people living past 100 years than other parts of the world. They discovered that while a healthy diet and frequent walking are part of the equation, also close, personal relationships are found to play a crucial role in good health and long lives in these Blue Zone areas. In fact, they have found, active and meaningful social lives may be more important than healthy diets or physical activity. One such Blue Zone is Sardinia, a small island off the coast of Italy that has six times as many centenarians than does the Italian mainland and ten times as many as North America.
One professor, who has studied this phenomenon as a director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development which has followed and studied the same individuals all the way back to the Great Depression in 1938, says "Loneliness kills. It's as powerful as smoking or alcoholism." The study has found that decreased social connections result in a fifty percent increased risk of early death and is as harmful to our health as risk factors such as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and obesity.
What I have discovered in my reading is what I had surmised already, that our human connections help provide us with a sense of belonging, a sense of purpose, and a sense of well-being ... not to mention the positive effects they have on our mental and physical health. It's a sad realization and one to which we must give our attention.
With all of this said, I now pray, with our society's current situation, that we are not making the curse of our disconnection worse than the disease itself.
By the way, my father-in-law was NEVER really alone. As a believer, God was ALWAYS with him ... never to leave nor forsake him. Now he rests in comfort and peace. We are the ones who ache at his loneliness and isolation, burdened by our caring hearts and concerned spirits. But God also knows about our aching hearts and comes alongside not leaving us alone either.
"Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor: If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up. Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone? Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken." [Ecclesiastes 4:9-12]
"Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness." [Philippians 2:3-7]
Finally, the words of Jesus: "My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends." [John 15:12-13]
I invite you to pray for your loved ones, for our nation and its leaders, for our culture and our Christian response to it all. Do it now ... and then have a blessed weekend ...