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On Death and Dying

By Dr. Tim Ong, M.B.B.S.

While I was having my lunch two days ago, a patient of mine approached me and made a request that I go to her house to see her husband who is dying of cancer.

Her husband has been suffering of a cancer of the neck which has spread to the liver and other parts of his body for many months. He was growing weaker by the day and his body was getting thinner and more cachexic each time I saw him. I have been visiting him at his home once in a while to help change his urinary cathether.

When we reached her house, I went in and upon looking at her husband, I realised that he had died. To make sure, I checked his carotid pulse, a major pulse at the neck, and found that it was absent. There was no more spontaneous breathing and his pupils were fully dilated and not reactive to lights. I therefore pronounced him dead.

At the realisation of his death, his wife and four children burst out crying, wailing uncontrollably and trying desperately to wake him up from his “sleep”. They were grieving for their loss.

I stayed on for a while and witnessed their griefs. It was healthy that they could cry, that they allow themselves to grieve for their loved one. However, there was nothing else I could do for them and so I left them alone to continue grieving. I left a message for the wife that I would see her again at a later time. I will need to assess her griefs and to make sure that she is able to cope with her loss but right now I need to allow her to grieve.

This incident makes me realised that we are all not prepared for death. In fact, we fear death. Our modern society and culture have always sold us the idea and belief that death is an adversary - a foe to fight against or resist. And so we fight and we resist. We treat death and dying as if it is a disease to be feared. We push the thought of death away from our mind into the deep recesses of our subconscious. In so doing, we not only fear death but also make it very difficult for us to die gracefully and peacefully.

In the past, so called primitive cultures have taken a different approach towards death. Death is a natural process of life. All things that are born must eventually die. That is the nature of life. In birth, we welcome the spirit into a physical body to experience a physical life. In death, we rejoice that it is now able to leave the worn out body and move on.

While the majority of us fear death, I have also the good fortune to encounter a couple of brave people who choose to die gracefully and in their own ways.

One was an ex-nurse who lived past her 90th birthday. She was a spinster and on her dying days, she lived with her niece. Not only did she prepare herself for her death, she actually prepared her niece and other family members too. She prepared them mentally and emotionally so that they will not grieve too much for her when she died. She even made a list of people she wanted at her funeral - a small but privileged group of people whom have touched her life. She died quietly in her sleep.

In the other case, this lady was also an elderly woman in her 80s. Being a Buddhist, she chose to die by focusing on her faith. A group of meditators were invited to her bedside to meditate throughout her last few hours of life, providing a peaceful and conducive environment where her mind and emotion are at peace and she can therefore move on to her next life with positive and wholesome thoughts.

I was not there when she died but some who were there said there was a feeling of joy in her death.

What a big contrast!

In fearing death, we make dying a painful experience for the dying and everyone concern. In welcoming death, the experience is totally different and even joyful.

I made up my mind that I would prepare myself to welcome death when the time comes.

See Also:

Six Months to Live and Laugh
On the day a woman learns she has only a short time to live, she meets someone who shows her the humorous side.

A Dream Come True
A True Story About Horses. How a little girl had her dream come true.

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