Have you ever heard of Pia Farrenkopf?
I hadn’t either, until our pastor told us about her on Sunday. Pia was a middle-aged woman living in Pontiac, Michigan who died one day and nobody noticed. She had neighbors and nine siblings, but because she traveled a lot and it wasn’t unusual for her to be radio silent for years at a time, nobody looked up from their life one day and thought, “I’m worried about Pia. I think I’ll go check on her.”
It wasn’t until her auto-payments stopped paying and her home was foreclosed upon that some repairmen showed up and found her body. How much time had passed? Five years. 1 Five years. Let that sink in for a minute.
My current read is a book called The Lost Art of Dying, and author L.S. Dugdale devotes an entire section to a phenomenon called ‘lonely deaths.’ They are just what they sound like: People dying, and no one noticing. Just like Pia. You, like me, might be thinking, That can’t be a whole thing. Lonely deaths must be pretty rare. But on this side of the hemisphere and also the other, startling news stories and agencies designed to deal with this very issue show otherwise.2
How does this happen?
Slowly, I imagine. One of Pia’s only friends described her as a private person, someone who didn’t like a “whole slew of people around.” At some point in Pia’s life, she likely decided that she was better off on her own. That it was less hassle and less anguish than having to deal with the burden of others.
Ever thought the same thing?
As I reflect on the last three or so years - having a newborn (then having another), growing accustomed to the isolating nature of the pandemic, and working full-time while navigating family illnesses, I can notice a pattern that has begun to emerge in my own soul that is probably not all that different than what Pia felt: Retreat, protect myself, prioritize comfort. I’m not saying that I think I’m headed toward a ‘lonely death.’ But perhaps the pattern of thinking that I’ve adopted - protecting my comfort and solitude as a means of survival - has run its course. Perhaps it needs to be interrupted before I end up living a lonely life.
I can notice a pattern that has begun to emerge in my own soul that is probably not all that different than what Pia felt: Retreat, protect myself, prioritize comfort.
Before we had kids, Ethan and I made growing our community one of our first priorities. We would share dinner weekly with others in our home - I’d make multi-course meals and crack open champagne on random weeknights. We hosted a small group from our church each week. We found reasons to celebrate year-round; Cinco de Mayo, football games, St.Patrick’s Day - they were all just an excuse to get our people together. And that time with our people made our days, our weeks - our lives - feel robust and nurtured.
After kids, we slowly stopped having people over. It was too hard to make a lasagna with a baby crying. I didn’t want to leave the dinner table to breastfeed. I felt tired and wanted to watch Netflix on the couch. And when it felt like life just started wanting more and more from me, I withdrew. I daydreamed of being alone so I could just be, without anyone wanting to take anything from me.
But it’s been more than three years now. And some essential piece of me has long gone unnourished. And it’s showing up in all other areas of my life. I cannot be my best self when I am alone, I’m finding. I cannot be my most creative, or most open, or most loving, or even my most intimate with God, without the consistent communing with others that he has designed for us.
When Jesus was asked what the two greatest commandments were, he said they were to love God with everything we’ve got and to love others like we love ourselves.3 And later, he talks about the people who will inherit the Kingdom of God. Spoiler alert: they're not the ones keeping to themselves, protecting their own little slice of comfort. They're the ones who are out there loving the people around them, feeding them and housing them and clothing them and visiting them.4
It comes down to this, really: if we reject community because we are so prideful to think we don’t need it, or because we feel other people are just not worth the trouble, we are going to miss out on God’s design and, in turn, a part of our souls are going to languish. We might not feel it right away: it might take months or years before we notice that we are malnourished and withering. And though we might not experience a so-called ‘lonely death’ like Pia Farrenkopf, we will very likely succumb to a lonely life, and I have to belief that that’s far worse.
I cannot be my best self when I am alone, I’m finding. I cannot be my most creative, or most open, or most loving, or even my most intimate with God, without the consistent communing with others that he has designed for us.
We need people. We need to love them. We need them to love us. Yup, relationships are messy. Parties are messy. Our homes are probably messy. But we have got to - just got to - embrace the mess on this one. Our lives depend on it.
So. Expect an invitation to dinner soon. Community, here I come. I want you back.
References: 1Elisha Anderson, Mummified woman was dead for 5 years and no one knew, Detroit Free Press, https://www.freep.com/story/news/local/2015/02/28/mystery-mummified-body-year-later/24188637/ 2Dugdale, L.S. MD, The Lost Art of Dying: Reviving Forgotten Wisdom (New York: HarperOne, 2020), p. 47-54. 3Matthew 22:37-39 4Matthew 25:31-46