I wrote this piece a few months ago in response to a news story about an eldery woman who had died in her home in Surry Hills and her corpse lay undiscovered for eight years. If you missed it you can read the original story here.
This week I heard the news that an elderly woman could have been dead in her home for up to eight years before her skeleton was discovered. This really upset me. When I found out she lived in Surry Hills I was shocked even more. The house of Natalie Wood was right around the corner from where I live. A street I frequently walked down. A house I rushed past on my way to work, not noticing its dilapidation as my head was too filled with tasks for the day ahead to notice anything around me. Now I’ve taken notice. And this new has filled me with a mixture of emotions.
Upon hearing the news my immediate reaction was that of shock. Disbelief this could happen in a community-oriented, inner-city suburb. And then came the questions; so many questions. How could this happen? How can someone die, but have such little impact in the world that no-one notices they’re gone for 8 years? Why didn’t anyone notice her departure? Apart from the obvious unpaid utilities and untouched bank account, did she never have any contact with anyone, EVER?
This last thought filled me with sadness. I reflected on how many interactions I have every day. I connect with family, friends, housemates, workmates, acquaintances, and strangers. Both face to face and through technology. I couldn’t live without it. It has always been my reason for existing and I’m fairly certain it always will be. What if I were to grow old and lose touch with my connections?
Over time and for a variety of reasons we do lose touch. People die, we drift apart, and sometimes for no reason we simply stop contacting. I am afraid of this happening to me. I’m afraid because it might mean I’d die alone. In 40 years it could be my skeleton they discover in a decrepit house on a busy street. They won’t know if I choked to death on my medication or simply died of heartbreak. I know i’m not alone in this fear.
Why are we so afraid to die alone? If no-one’s affected by our death, does it make our life meaningless? If we leave the world grasping for a warm hand, but finding only an empty room, does this matter? Are we just scared of what will happen when we die and enter the unknown? Was Natalie Wood afraid to die alone?
Mostly she lived alone. Described as ‘reclusive’ perhaps she was happy keeping to herself and taking care of herself. Or was she filled with such debilitating loneliness that in the end she just gave up? I depend on my personal connections as my lifeblood. I couldn’t function without them. Maybe she couldn’t either.
We’ll never know the truth. But maybe we can learn something from the near-undiscovered death of Natalie Wood. Maybe one thing we can take is to ensure the strength within our personal communities. I don’t mean knocking on every stranger’s door. You can’t force someone that doesn’t want to engage. Not every door has a welcome mat out either. My current neighbours consist of a Vietnamese restaurant one side and a drug dealer the other. I know one of them quite well. But you can involve yourself with the community to ensure your own network is strong. If everyone focuses on keeping their network strong the community as a whole will be stronger. So try and keep up with friendships, make that phone call. Even if it has been a while.
We can never really ensure that we won’t die alone. But maybe if we learn something from this incident it will give meaning back to Natalie Wood’s death. And maybe that way she won’t be so alone anymore.
Are you afraid of dying alone? What actions could you do to prevent this?