Those who are dying of COVID-19 don’t need a crowd of mourners at their bedsides

I posted on Facebook recently about how my own near-death experience changed my views on the process of dying. Some of you asked that I expand and elaborate on this topic. So here we go …

In October 2013, my husband and I set out on what was supposed to be a day hike – one like the many we had enjoyed in the past. We ended up sojourning into hell.

If you want to read the entire story, click here. But please bear in mind that my views on what happened to us have dramatically changed since I wrote this series for The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

.In short, I ended up spending five days and four nights in the Chihuahuan Desert, right on the Texas-Mexico border.

Rick and I began our hike on October 2, 2013. That night, instead of grilling brats and drinking beer, we found ourselves unexpectedly stranded on a cliff that overlooked a spectacularly beautiful canyon.

By the end of Day 2, we had, thankfully, found a spring under a stand of cottonwoods.

On Day 3, I told my husband to leave me because I could no longer walk.

Please know that up until this point, I had been terrified of being left alone in the desert. My fears are what kept me going, plodding along behind my husband even as my physical condition deteriorated.

Even so, after realizing that I couldn’t go on any further, I finally crouched underneath a small mesquite shrub and told Rick to leave me.

Rick made it out that night and summoned help. But it would be another two days before search-and-rescue teams found me. At the hospital, I learned that by the time I was located, I was only a few hours from death. All of my organs had started shutting down.

Here’s the thing – I went from being scared of being alone in the wild to convincing my husband to leave me there.

Why? Because I was pretty sure that I was going to die and I did not want or need him there to witness my death.

I told him to tell our children, then 8 and 10, that I had done my damndest to get back to them. I hoped that by telling him to go, to leave me, that I would be ensuring that our kids had at least one parent raising them. I did, however, also hope that he would be able to get out and send help for me.

Rick made his way to the Big Bend Ranch State Park headquarters around 7:30 p.m. October 4, 2013.

I would be found around noon, two days and two nights later – on October 6, 2013.

What I’m about to do right now is describe my feelings about dying alone.

When I sat down under that shrub, I felt relief. I wanted Rick to go. I knew he stood a good chance of getting out. I knew that something was very wrong with my body and its condition. I could no longer walk. I couldn’t even remain standing.

I understood that I would probably die. Alone. And I spent a long Friday evening (October 4, 2013) reckoning with that after I convinced Rick to go.

I wanted to be alone to die. Even as I held out hope for Rick, I also wanted to do what needed to be done on my own. I didn’t want or need anyone to witness my suffering. I will remain forever convinced that dying is actually a very private endeavor.

Animals seek solitude when they are sick or near death. Native Americans are known to head out into the wild when they sense that their time is near.

After what happened to me in that desert, I am even more convinced that dying was never meant to be a group activity.

I lay under that shrub for two days and two nights. During that time, I was comforted by a variety of vivid hallucinations and storylines. Throughout the ordeal, I also understood at some deeper level that I was free to … leave. At any time. I wasn’t listening to family members begging me to “fight” or to “hold on.” And honestly, I wouldn’t have wanted to deal with such pleadings. I needed to be free to live or to die on my terms.

I hoped that my body would be found, yes. I wanted my family to have answers and to have remains to memorialize. But I wasn’t afraid. I didn’t feel alone. And I didn’t fret over the fact that my family members weren’t hovering over me, singing hymns, holding hands and murmuring apologies or sharing memories.

The thought of a crowd around my deathbed … well, I didn’t want that then and I don’t want it in the future.

I am sharing this in an attempt to offer comfort during this pandemic. I keep hearing people worry about their loved ones dying alone.

Your loved ones are fine. YOU are the ones who are having difficulty with the separations.

The whole deathbed gathering really only benefits those who are there to mourn the person who is about to depart this Earth. It’s a chance for family members to express regrets, offer apologies or to emphasize the love they feel for the loved one who is dying.

But your loved one? He or she is already in another place and time.

I am writing this to reassure you that your presence isn’t required when your beloved family member dies alone in a medical facility or at home.

Instead, focus your energies on those still in need of human contact. Call your grandparents or parents to chat. Send photos to that old family friend who has no living relatives. Be a companion to the living. Because the dying already have moved beyond us all.







A COVID-19 prison outbreak should be a concern for ALL Arkansans

Dear Governor and Secretary Smith:

I covered the Arkansas Department of Correction during many of my 15 years as a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. 

I later served as the public information officer and legislative liaison for ADC.

Both of those roles allowed me regular access to every state prison in Arkansas.

Which is why I am alarmed by your attempts to minimize the potential impact of inmate and staff COVID-19 infections on the state of Arkansas as a whole. 

Even if you’re comfortable with writing off the inmates – most of whom, it should be noted, were sentenced to prison terms, not death – what about the thousands of employees who work for ADC?

Yeah, you can keep describing the prison system as a “congregant setting,” but the fact is that it also is a fluid one.

Inmates get transferred all the time – from one prison unit to another, to new barracks within the same unit, to places where they have requested specific work assignments. I know this because during my time at ADC, my office handled constituent services. Many of the calls we received were from family members asking to which facility their loved ones had been most recently transferred.

And then there’s the staff. Wardens and correctional officers get promoted and transferred all the time. For example, some officers opt to go to the maximum-security units in order to collect the  hazardous-duty pay. Others may put in for a transfer to a unit closer to home.

All it will take to send the statewide numbers soaring is one asymptomatic staff member who decides to make a quick stop at the grocery store on the way home.

Now let’s factor in the thousands of support staff – administrative assistants, record-keepers, researchers, the finance folks, the department heads and their many employees … and on and on and on.

Most of these staff members work in the prison units, not Central Office, which is located in Pine Bluff.

(Speaking of Central Office, guess who does all of the janitorial work, the yardwork and heavy manual lifting there? Inmates. They arrive each morning and depart in the evening.)

Anyway – so now let’s think about the thousands of ADC employees who go home to their communities after each workday. They shop at local stores, order from restaurants, go to the grocery and do all of the things that every other Arkansan does. That means they are in frequent contact with other members of their communities. Again, all it takes is one asymptomatic employee to bring a potentially deadly virus to his or her hometown.

I’m pretty sure you realize that this virus is going to spread to other prison units. And we know that this virus feeds on community spread.

Here’s the thing: Each prison is a community. And each prison will see staff and newly paroled inmates heading back to their free-world communities and hometowns.

That’s why you should care about what is happening at the Cummins Unit.

Oh, but wait – the potential for dire outcomes gets even worse.

ADC contracts with outside medical providers. Those nurses and doctors also are coming and going. They are testing and treating sick inmates each and every day – before heading home to their own communities.

And what about the EMTs who

are frequently called to prison units? Will it “count” if paramedics get COVID-19? Or are they exempt from the statewide tally because they may temporarily become a part of ADC’s “congregant setting” during emergencies?

And what about the medical staff at hospitals across the state? They also risk infection by treating inmates and ADC staff who require hospitalization during their battles with COVID-19. Do they count?

Guess who else gets called out to state prisons? Sheriff’s deputies and Arkansas State Police. These are the men and women who are transporting inmates from jails to prison units and vice versa. They also provide transport to and from court appearances.

Lastly, as I’m sure you are aware, ADC has its own school district, the Arkansas Correctional School. State prisons house classrooms and computer labs. Guess who is in and out of those classrooms and labs? Teachers. Administrators. Volunteers.

Do they count?

This virus knows no boundaries. It spreads from community to community – regardless of whether a community’s residents live in homes or prison units.

To say that ADC’s virus tallies should be considered “separately” from the statewide counts is a travesty.

You are telling thousands upon thousands of Arkansas families that their loved ones “don’t count” because they are incarcerated.

You are telling ADC staff that they “don’t count” because they may have caught the virus in a prison unit.

You are telling contracted medical providers, teachers, EMTs, sheriff’s deputies, ASP and hospitals scattered across the state that they shouldn’t worry because a virus outbreak in the prison system can be contained (ha!) and mitigated.

That is a slap in the face to all Arkansans. What’s happening in Cummins isn’t just a blip to be ignored. Rather, it is yet further proof that you are more concerned about messaging and spin than the health and safety of ALL Arkansans.

Shame on you.