Death? What is death?
At a young age of 6 years old, it was the first time I experienced death of a loved one in my family. My paternal grandfather passed away. I was never close to my paternal grandfather. During the wake, I had the time of my life: I was happily playing at the nearby playground and enjoyed watering all the wreaths. Everyday, after watering the wreaths, I would count which uncle/ aunty has the most number of wreaths.
When it was the day of his cremation, as a young kid, I did not understand why my aunties and uncles were crying and screaming for him to come back. At that point of time, I ask my sister why is everybody crying, and she said “Gong Gong died already, he go inside and they burn him, so he cannot come back that’s why they are crying”.
Over the next few years, several other relatives passed on due to heart attack or cancer. And the routine was the same; similar to my grandfather’s death, I was not affected by their deaths.
Heart attack or cancer?
8 years later, when my uncle died; I finally understood the meaning of death. When I heard the news, I couldn’t stop my tears, as I was supposed to visit my uncle that very same day. His death had a huge impact on me, as he always doted on me since young.
During the course of the wake, I had a conversation with my sister, then 16. We asked each other, if we would rather die of heart attack or cancer?
We both agreed that we would rather die of cancer than heart attack. Heart attack was too sudden and it doesn’t give you time to prepare your family members neither will you be able to say goodbye. But then again, we said cancer was too painful, but at least cancer “buys you some time” to say your goodbye. We came to a conclusion that the best option would be to suffer from cancer for a short while but not too long.
“Be careful with what you wish for”
During her last few months, I shared with Kimberley, that I finally understood the meaning of “be careful with what you wish for”; who would have known that 10 years since we had that conversation, Kimberley was battling cancer, and true enough she suffered from cancer for a short while, and an additional 2.5 years of life to give her time to prepare and say her goodbyes.
Statistics has shown that in 2018, 28.8% of 21,282 deaths in Singapore were due to cancer, while 18.1% died to Ischaemic Heart diseases. Despite the increasing percentage of people (both young and old) dying due to cancer and heart attack, death and grief is still viewed as a taboo topic, instead of a typical conversational topic over dinner.
Since young, death and grief are often defined as taboo topics that we do not discuss. I remember how After the cremation of my grandparents, we returned to the venue of the wake, and the funeral directors would have ensured that there is food being served on the table. It would be a typical Chinese meal with at least 5 dishes. It seemed as though, after we finished the meal; we should not be discussing about death; and are expected to go on with our life as per normal.
When my sister passed away, on the first night of the funeral. I broke down and cried at my sister’s coffin. Almost immediately, my aunty came over and shouted at me “ You do not cry like that! You cannot cry like that! Your 姐姐 ( sister in Chinese) is already dead, if you cry she cannot die in peace”.
Upon hearing that, my head was filled with lots of thoughts.
“ Am I not allowed to cry even if I feel sad?”
“ Why we cannot cry?”
“ Shouldn’t you be comforting me instead of scolding me?”
That incident made me realized that death and grief are being term as taboo topic; hence we (our generation and our parents generation) grew up not knowing how to cope with death and what to say to a grieving person. To some of us, death of our loved ones comes at the most unexpected time; leaving us unprepared and unsure what to do. It is during such tiring times, that we don’t get the support we need, because quite a number of people tend to avoid talking about death and grief.
Why we don’t talk about death
Living in a fast paced society, as working adults with limited days of annual leave/compassionate leave, we are often required to return to work almost immediately after the cremation.
When I returned to work; some of my colleagues came to me and gave me a big hug; while there were other colleagues that knew that I wasn’t my usual self but yet didn’t say anything to me. They simply placed some of my favourite biscuits and sweets on my cupboard. My colleagues were a bunch of understanding and lovely ladies, but yet some kept their distance and didn’t talk about my sister’s death, because they were loss for words.
It’s just awkward
“It’s just awkward”
“I’m not comfortable”
“ What if she cries”?
As much as we think that it’s just awkward and it doesn’t seem right to be talking about death; but yet again when people visits the wake to pay their last respect. Most of the time, their first question would be “ How did she die?” “ What did she die of?” It’s awkward talking about death, but yet we are all curious human beings that wish to find out more about the cause of the death.
It is almost 1.5 years since my sister passed away, and throughout this period, several of my acquaintances, friends, and teachers had lost a loved one. I learnt and realized that is not awkward talking about death; but instead talking about death helps the grieving process, as we know that we aren’t alone.
When my sister passed away, a good friend of mine who also knew my sister told me that she will be coming down on the first night to pay her last respect, but can she bring her mother along? This friend of mine, mentioned that she wants to bring her mother along; because she is never good at dealing with death. Moreover, it’s the death of her good friend’s sister; someone that she knew on a personal level and been to concerts together.
Since then, we coped with my sister’s death by talking about death together. Whenever I felt sad, and just needed someone to talk to, I knew that I could go to her. Almost immediately after my sister’s death, this friend and I went for a week long vacation together to Italy. During the trip, we learnt that death isn’t a taboo topic; we shouldn’t feel awkward about it. When we talked about grief and death, we are labeling our feelings and it provides an avenue for us to pour our feelings out instead of keeping it to ourselves.
We don’t know what to say
That is 100% accurate! As death and grief is being labeled as a taboo topic, we never learn in schools nor did our parents taught us about what to say to a grieving person. In schools, children as young as 2 years old are taught to say “Please” whenever they wish to have an extra serving of food, and to say “Thank You” when they received it.
But schools do not teach us at 2 years old, what to say when someone dies.
Throughout the past 1.5 years i encountered several people that were curious and concern to find out how I am doing, but yet they do not know how to phrase it. 90% of the time, they would start of with “ How are you?’ or “ I hope you have been staying strong for your parents.”
So here’s a dummy guide to some conversational starter as you try to talk to a friend or family member about death and grief.
“It’s been a while, just checking; how are you coping?”
“ I read this passage online about grief and death, and I thought of you; just checking in on you “
“ There are good days and bad days, How are the bad days so far for you?”
“ Take your time to go through the process”
“It’s okay to not be okay”
“You know, that day I saw ____ and I thought of the passing of _____”
When talking about death or grief, always be the passive person in the conversation, put on your listening ears and just be there for your friends or family. It doesn’t matter if you do not know what to say, more importantly it is about starting the conversation and being there to talk about it and grief together as friends.
The ABC behind why we should talk about death
As an early childhood educator, some of the questions that parents constantly ask are
“ When will my child start recognizing ABC?”
“When can I start introducing ABC to my child?”
Now as adults, I’m sure all of us are able to recognize our ABC; maybe we should start learning about the ABC behind why we should talk about death.
Advanced Care Planning
Last year, while sending out Whatsapp Messages to inform a certain group of people about my sister’s passing. I came across this article that was sent to Kimberley by a friend of hers.
A few days after the wake, as I read the above article; I thought about how my sister had started asking around about Advanced Care Planning (ACP) a couple of months before her death. Knowing my sister’s personality, she would have asked if she is able to proceed with the necessary admin documentation and planning on her own.
Contrary to popular belief, ACP does not mean that people have given up on living completely. Somehow, my sister could “sense” that she was going to pass away, she started talking to me about what to do when she dies about a month before she passed away. For that one month or so, every single night; it became a routine that she would ask the same question, “Tell me what would you do when I die”.
Unfortunately, she was not unable to make a will in time, nor did she have a lasting power of attorney. Without a lasting power of attorney, it was quite a hassle to settle her finances, as we weren’t authorized to close her account on her behalf. Do talk to your family members about what do you wish to do with your finances and assets in the event of your passing. A lasting power of attorney can be obtained easily online. As you talk to your family members, don’t hesitate to make a lasting power of attorney
Honestly, if you don’t talk about death, you wouldn’t know if they have any bucket list, or unfulfilled wishes. During the last few weeks before my sister passed away, she had several dinner requests, including a request for photo-taking/family portrait.
When Kim’s acquaintance approached me via Facebook, and asked if they can organize a surprise family photo shoot for Kim as a belated birthday present. I knew that my sister would scream at me, if I ever agreed to the surprise family photo shoot. Yes, I don’t deny that the acquaintance had good intentions; but she just assumes that it would be something my sister would like.
Assumptions tend to occur, when we do not talk about death. When our days are numbered, we shouldn’t be spending those days assuming about what our loved ones would want to have. Why waste time assuming, when we can just talk about it? Talk about death, and their bucket list before it is too late for you to regret.
Talking about death; does not mean that the fight is over. Instead talking about death ensures that both parties are prepared in the event of death. Having such conversations helps the dying to ensure that in the event of his/her death, the family is prepared and would be well taken care of.
Talking about death; helps a grieving person to cope with death and to provide a support system for our friends and relatives during such tiring times.
Having conversations about death will help both parties to have a closure; a chance to make it up and apologize for any misunderstanding that happened throughout the years.
Similar to most of you, I wasn’t keen talking about death and grief since the passing of my grandfather when I was 6. However, the months before and the months after my sister’s death allowed me to realize that if we do not approach this topic. We will live with lots of regret and we will not be prepared when the time comes. Though my sister did prepare us for her death, we were still rather unprepared when it came to the funeral and assets arrangement. We do not need to wear a mask and pretend to be okay, even when our family member is dying. Talk it out with your family members, talking it out helps to ease the burden and pain.
Remember, it’s as simple as ABC.