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On Death Recollection

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Welcome to Laundry List, yet another Wildchild column, which is essentially a list masquerading as an article. Call it a listicle, if you will. What is a laundry list exactly? It is defined as “a long or exhaustive list of people or things.” We’ve deliberately kept the column title vague so we can talk about anything that tickles our fancy. No refunds if the list is not long or exhaustive.

This time, I wrote a personal essay before diving into my recommendations.

“I’ve been thinking about death a lot this week,” I told my friend over dim sum, at dinner. 

A look of alarm flashed across her face before she asked, “What do you mean by that?” It didn’t even occur to me that my statement left room for misinterpretation. I quickly explained that I was just thinking about mortality in general since it emerged as the common denominator among the media — newsletters, articles, and a drama series —  I consumed all week. 

Perhaps the words “thinking” and “death” were inadequate. A more precise term for what I was trying to describe is death recollection, which essentially means remembering our mortality. According to a Bhutanese folk saying, “To be a truly happy person, one must contemplate death five times daily.” This act is perceived as a form of meditation — constantly reminding ourselves that life is short and unpredictable may encourage us to seize the day or to stop sweating the small stuff. It can be a simple thought exercise that quickly shifts things into perspective. But on the flip side, thinking about our inevitable death may also be an exercise in futility, one that induces unnecessary anxiety.

I know I’m not alone in contemplating my mortality. Surely it is never that far from our minds, given that we’re in the midst of a pandemic. But the main reason why I constantly thought about death — and living towards the end of life — was because I was staying under the same roof as my cancer-stricken grandfather. He was getting weaker with each passing day and his pain was so visible, virtually impossible to ignore. He had a bulging tumor on the left side of his chest and it smelled like rotting flesh. There’s nothing like watching life fade away from your loved one to keep death on your mind; consuming content that revolved around mortality was fodder for unpacking my complex feelings towards the topic. 

Unexpected Deaths

My family engaged palliative care services for my grandfather, which were provided by a hospice. During a caregiving course, we watched a slideshow and were shown the four proposed trajectories of dying. 

The proposed trajectories of dying - Atul Gawande's analysis in Being Mortal
A framework on illness and dying by the Institute of Medicine, which was augmented by researcher and palliative physician Joanne Lynn in the early 2000s.

The course instructor asked which one we thought was the best. Without hesitation, I replied that the ‘sudden death’ trajectory was the best. That way, the individual does not have to suffer any loss of function before dying. 

“But their loved ones would be unprepared for it,” countered the instructor. 

I sheepishly admitted that I only considered the perspective of the individual who dies, not those left behind. And that was because I was blinded by my grandfather’s suffering. I saw pain, along with loss of function, as something to be avoided at all costs. 

When I read Atul Gawande’s book, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, I came across these graphs once again. Interestingly, he uses the ‘terminal illness’ and ‘organ failure’ graphs to explain how our trajectories change as societies progress. With advanced treatments, the pattern of decline looks “less like a cliff and more like a hilly road down the mountain”. Then he explains the ‘frailty’ graph, calling it “the curve of life”, which represents “a long, slow fade”. He skips the trajectory of ‘sudden death’, possibly because modern medicine and its progress are futile in shaping this atypical path. 

While I once believed it was the best trajectory out of the four options, the thought of unexpected death scares me the most. I think about the things I’ve yet to accomplish (all my reflections I have yet to cohere into personal writing), the regrets I may have but wouldn’t even have the time to form (since there is no period of decline for me to mull things over) and my last thoughts (will I think of my GPA before I die precisely because I’ve asserted that I wouldn’t?) if my life were to end unexpectedly. Sometimes, I even wonder about the sudden deaths of those nearest and dearest to me, which makes me feel even worse. 

After my grandfather passed away, I noticed that the blow it dealt was indubitably softened by the fact that he had been battling an incurable condition for a long time. Perhaps more importantly, I was comforted to know that he was able to fulfill his “dying role”. This meant that he was able to address whatever mattered the most to him — spend more time with his children and grandchildren as well as make peace with knowing that his wife would be cared for in his absence. Unexpected deaths deprive the dead of the chance to fulfill this role, making it difficult for those left behind to obtain closure. From the perspective of the bereaved, ‘sudden death’ becomes the cruelest trajectory. The fact that it was fruitless to select the best trajectory became clear to me; there were pros and cons to each one and it’s unlikely that we are able to manifest our preferred path anyway.

Maybe fearing death, unexpected or otherwise, keeps us on our toes and makes us feel more alive. Living with someone whose days were numbered brought the important things in life into sharper focus; standing so close to suffering has changed me, in ways that I am still trying to comprehend. Before my grandfather moved into my home during the last year of his life, I was not someone who would brood about my mortality. Perhaps the impulse to do so may fade with time, as I move along the process of grieving. But for now, consciously engaging in death recollection serves as a gentle reminder to not take my health — as well as my loved ones’ — for granted and to live fully while I still can.

Although months have passed since I consumed these content in a daze, they remain pertinent to the topic of death:

#1. Don’t read my diary when I’m dead by Haley Nahman

My favorite writer Haley wrote a newsletter about how she didn’t want her loved ones snooping around her diaries after her death. In 2018, I told my close friends that I would want them to make my blog — a collection of my most intimate and private thoughts — public after my death. When I look back at that statement in 2021, my first reaction was that I was self-delusional and had grossly miscalculated the value of my thoughts. 

Upon deeper reflection, I recalled that I was once afraid of writing publicly. And so, 2018 me thought that having my diary published posthumously was the only way to establish myself as a writer. Now that I actively put my work out for public consumption, I no longer want anyone to read my diary. When I write publicly, I put in a substantial amount of time and effort to ensure that I am satisfied with my work. Even so, I feel myself outgrowing my writing as time passes, which makes me deeply mortified at the thought of anyone reading and judging me based on my old unedited diary entries. So please don’t read my diary (private blog) when I’m dead.

#2. The Opposite of Loneliness (2014)  by Marina Keegan

In response to Haley’s newsletter, one of her readers recommended “Cold Pastoral”. In this short fiction, the protagonist is thrown into emotional turmoil when she reads the diary of the boy she was casually seeing, after his sudden death. Coincidentally, Keegan herself passed away unexpectedly in 2012 due to a car accident.

In 2018, I reblogged a quote from a poem that she wrote, “…I want enough time to be in love with everything.” The line was beautiful without any context; tragic when I belatedly realized that the time she had was shorter than expected. In the prologue of the book, her mentor Anne Fadiman wrote, “High on their posthumous pedestals, the dead become hard to see.” I think of that line often. Of how my hazy memories of the dead bring their best selves to the fore.

After reading every fiction story in The Opposite of Loneliness, I found myself Googling how people interpreted them. My favorite was “Cold Pastoral” because the characters and plot felt believable; the other stories didn’t achieve the same effect. Since the entire body of work was ultimately edited by someone else before publishing, I couldn’t shake off the feeling that it seemed unfair to judge Keegan’s writing based on the book. Writers often worry that they are only as good as their latest essay. I kept revisiting how Fadiman called Keegan a “demon reviser” who pushed herself to constantly improve her writing, and how she could not make the final edits for this book.

#3. At The Bottom of Everything by Amy Lin

I stumbled upon another reading recommendation by Haley (once again). This time, it is a newsletter about love and grief. In August 2020, Lin lost her husband unexpectedly when he collapsed during a marathon. I read every newsletter in chronological order and watched the memorial. Lin writes about the process of grieving as a widow as well as past stories about her and her beloved with heartbreaking honesty. Something in me aches and I am often left with goosebumps when I read her beautiful writing.

At The Bottom Of Everything can’t promise you linearity, or a constant story, or even likability. I might get it all wrong, I know, but I want to write some of it down anyway. I would rather try and stumble than risk losing it to oblivion. By it I mainly mean the (re)collection of the years spent with my sweet man, who, when he smiled, revealed not only that the tips of his two front teeth were slightly whiter than the rest, but also an uncommon capacity for delight. And, by it I also mean my first year of widowhood, the unbearable weight of his absence, my sadness.

Amy Lin

#4. Alice in Borderland on Netflix

I watched (and re-watched) Alice in Borderland, a Netflix series about a dystopian world where people have to play and clear game levels in order to survive. The story exposes the lengths that people would go to for survival, even when they feel like they don’t deserve to live. Death is definitely the central source of tension and conflict in the show, and there are moving scenes about sacrifice and relationships. 

Since Alice in Borderland is a work of fiction, it didn’t make me contemplate my mortality per se. Instead, it made me wonder what would happen if I suddenly find myself in a situation where I am forced to compete with the people I like, or even love, to survive. Maybe survival is not as obvious as trying to avoid triggering a laser aimed directly at me from shooting down from the sky. Maybe it’s something as small as being forced to compete with my favorite colleague in a scenario in which only one of us is allowed to keep our jobs. Will things turn ugly? Do people only get along when we do not threaten each other’s place in the world?

#5. Vox’s interview with WeCroak’s co-founder Handsa Bergwall

Death can come for us at any moment and WeCroak, a mindfulness app, will helpfully remind you of that fact. It sends a push notification, “Don’t forget, you’re going to die. Open for a quote…”, at random times of the day. When the users click on it, they are sent to the app, where they can view a quote on mortality, loss, and remembrance. This interview shines a light on the founding principles of WeCroak — how there are no advertisements or links to social media on the app because it was designed to be a safe place that encourages meditation.

I think we need to remember we’re going to die and think, “Is this spot I am today where I really should be? Am I living my best values?” And if we’re not, what changes can we make? It’s urgent. If they were going to write your obituary tomorrow, would you be happy with what they said? That’s an important question.

Handsa Bergwall

If you made it to the end, thank you for reading! When I first started Laundry List, I had hoped that I can adopt a newsletter format where I share everything that I read in a week but I ended up writing this column only based on items that share a common thread. Here’s hoping that it wouldn’t be too long till the next.

Feature image by Sherryl Cheong

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