Social Withdrawal

Social Withdrawal

Janet was crushed when her husband Will didn’t want to go to church anymore. Janet took it personally, so did many people at their church. For decades he was known at his church as the “Beacon of Will.”  He loved to organize social events to “bring good folks together.” He was delightful; he had that special quality that put people instantly at ease. People gravitated towards him wherever he went.

Anita was devastated and thought for certain that he was turning his back on his church and all their closest friends.

I met Will when he was in his last three months of his life; his heart was failing. He was eighty-six.

There is a predictable social withdrawal that happens in the end of life. It may start with refusing invitations to go out to dinner or to the movies. It can progress to wanting to be left alone, then to the point of refusing all company and not wanting to engage in conversation with anyone, even beloved spouses.

The dying person sometimes surprises loved ones with an unexpected burst of alert, attentive behavior. This can last less than an hour or up to a full day. We call this, “the rally.”

I’ve seen people wake from a week of deep social isolation/sleep and clearly ask that they want a steak dinner (when they have been living on applesauce and mashed potatoes for weeks). The rally can offer a false sense of hope that the loved one is getting better, but what typically happens is a rapid decline after the rally.

Social withdrawal is a natural part of the dying process and not a reflection of your relationship. Continue offering your companionship and conversation if appropriate. without demanding anything back. Treasure an alert interlude if and when it occurs, because it’s almost always fleeting.

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