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A Memorable Death

By Dr. Ong Tien Kwan


Marvin is 55 years old and he has a brain tumour. He is getting physically weaker by the day and is now having difficulty in breathing. However, he is still mentally very alert.

Although Marvin knows that death is imminent, he does not seem to fear death, at least not outwardly. As he is not talking very much about his impending death, I take it as a sign that he or those around him have not fully accepted the reality of his situation. I personally feel if this hurdle is overcome, it would make a tremendous change for all.

Good or bad deaths

For the past 17 years, I have witnessed countless deaths. To simplify my observation, some deaths can be termed as “good” or easy while a small number are considered “bad” or difficult.

William was 44 years old when he was diagnosed to have kidney cancer. As his cancer ravaged his bones and liver, he became physically weaker. Refusing to believe that his death was near, he fought it all the way. Each day, he harboured hope for a cure and he was constantly searching for it. He was angry with his doctors because they could not offer him a cure and so he directed his hope towards alternative treatments. Despite trying various types of alternative treatments, he succumbed to his disease.

William had a difficult time as he was dying. From the numerous house visits, I could see that he was afraid to face death and to accept his own mortality. He was fearful of the unknown after death. What was there waiting for him? Would he exist after death?

He diverted his remaining energy resisting, resulting in more frustrations and despair.

In contrast, 72-year old Jane who was a former nurse had a peaceful death. She died from a terminal chronic obstructive airway disease as a result of heavy smoking during her younger days.

Towards the end of her days, Jane accepted that she was dying and instructed her loved ones not to attempt any heroic resuscitation on her. Instead, they should let her go naturally and peacefully.

Common characteristics

In short, a good death can be achieved when a person is fully accepting that death is inevitable and that it’s a part of the living process. Better still if he/she believes that we are in essence spiritual beings, not just a physical entity.

By fully accepting death and it being a part of a life cycle, we would not cling on to our dying body. This process allows us to let go of our attachments to this physical existence. It lets us focus our remaining energy to prepare ourselves for the next step – the transition into another existence. Whether you believe in a single life or many lives and rebirth, the next step is essentially a transition from a physical existence to a spiritual one.

That brings us to the knowledge or belief in our spirituality. Without this, it is truly very difficult to see death in a positive way. When we believe in our spirituality, or when we know deep within that we are essentially a spiritual being, then death can even be something to look forward to. After all, discarding an old and weak physical body that is full of pain for something newer and better should not be too difficult.

Thus, whether we are going to experience an easy death or a difficult one depends on how we view death and how we view ourselves.

There is no pain in death

One of the things most dying people are afraid of is the belief that death may be painful. The truth is that death is painless. This is true regardless of whether you are experiencing a good or a difficult death.

Pain is a physical sensation. It only exists as long as the physical body is intact. At the point of death, there is no pain as the physical body cannot feel anymore physical sensation. Thus even if one is suffering from severe bone pain as a result of the cancer spreading to the bones, the final moment is pain-free. It was evident in Marvin’s last breath.

Bring It Out In the Open

Death is a subject that is difficult for most people to talk about, yet when one is dying, the urgency to bring it out in the open is there. This is true for the dying as well as for his loved ones.

Talking about death and acknowledging it openly make it easier for all involved to accept death as a natural part of the living process. This acceptance helps the dying to let go of his attachments to his own physical body as well as his attachments to those around him. Likewise, it allows his loved ones to let him go in peace, instead of clinging on to him. Not allowing a dying person to go peacefully can cause him to hang on unnecessarily and make it more difficult for him to go peacefully.

A Memorable Death

In some ancient cultures, death is not seen as something dreadful. In fact, it is an event that is worth celebrating. After all, shouldn’t we be happy that we are “going home”?

This reminds me of a memorable death of an old lady. She was the mother of one of my regular patients. Being a very religious person, she had approached death in accordance to her faith. During her last hours, a group of her friends was present to chant for her. Soothing recordings of the chanting were also played continuously as the old lady waited for her final moments.

According to her loved ones, she looked radiant when she passed away and all those present were able to sense her departure. The old lady had turned her death into a joyous event!

Learning from this, perhaps we should all remind ourselves that death need not be a dreadful thing and that we can turn it into a joyous and spiritual occasion. We do have a choice, even in death.

© 2019 Dr. Ong Tien Kwan