The New York Times Article That Made Us All Afraid of Dying Alone

Re-examining our lives is good, but let’s look at what we have, not what we lack.
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Re-examining our lives is good, but let’s look at what we have, not what we lack.

An article titled “The Lonely Death of George Bell” appeared on the front page of the Sunday New York Times this past weekend. The piece was a beautifully written look into the death of a man who died all alone, and it sent New Yorkers—myself included—into an existential tailspin.

My Facebook feed was filled with references to the article, calling it haunting, unsettling, and the most depressing thing anyone had ever read. The Times published a follow-up piece the next day dedicated to readers’ reactions and comments. The coveted Opinion section was filled on Tuesday with letters to the editor about George Bell. Women especially seemed to have a visceral reaction to the article:

“I think all the time of what it would be like to die [alone] and how long it would take for someone to notice that I was not there.”

“I read this as I sat alone in my apartment. By the end I was reduced to tears. Im not quite yet 20 years of age, but I find myself pondering life and where mine will go and where it will end.”

“Afterward, I, too, thought long and hard about maintaining connections, keeping people in my life, being a friend, and friending others.”

My first reaction to the story was a memory of my early days in Chicago. I was living alone for the first time as an “adult” and had yet to make any close friends. Social media wasn’t such a constant presence in life yet, and while I talked to my family and non-local friends fairly regularly, it wasn’t unheard of to go a few days without talking to anyone I knew.

In many ways, this was exhilarating. I was independent! I didn’t need anyone! I was going to find fulfillment in a path that did not have marriage and children as its first post-college stop! But then I got the flu in the middle of a blizzard and had to rouse my fevered self out of bed, bundle up, and trudge over to the pharmacy in the snow to buy some Theraflu. Being alone, even self-sufficiently alone, suddenly seemed scary and not desirable in the slightest.

Of course, my life ten years later is very full of people I talk to and see on a regular basis—my boyfriend, friends near and far, coworkers, my students, family, and even the woman who sells me my coffee on the way to work every day. (I take comfort in the fact that when I worked at a bakery, I actually did notice and worry when regular customers did not appear for a few days.) And yet, it still stings when someone jokingly mentions that I should “get on with” getting married and having kids. “You don’t want to die alone, do you?” Chuckle, chuckle on their part. Inward groan on my part.

Of course I don’t want to die alone. Yes, I would eventually like to get married and have children, but if that is not in the cards, it does not relegate me to a terrifying and isolated future. I may be introverted and enjoy my alone time, but the thought of dying alone is very scary and not at all something to poke fun at, even with the best of intentions.

But fear should not be anyone’s motivation for getting married or having children or making friends. Those connections and commitments should be started with joy and love and hope and optimism, not the worry that we too might end up like George Bell. And so I say to all the women who read this article and felt a twinge of panic: Do not let this story make you re-examine your life and find it lacking. Let it inspire you to look at your life and see all the good in it. Reassure yourself that someone will notice and care that you are not there when your time comes. And if that seed of doubt sprouts back up on a day when being a citizen of the world is a struggle, and it seems easier to go it alone, use it as motivation to persevere in the grand social experiment of life, not check out of it.

Independence is one thing. Loneliness is another.

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