TLDR: Grief is not a stranger to me. I have overcome cancer treatments and I understand the fear of losing someone close to me. Here is my story and why closure is not always a necessity.
Once upon a time,
Birth and Death were lovers.
They have always been in love and
had never been separated.
But one day,
Life separated them.
Like all great love stories,
They will find each other again someday,
because they always belong together.
Birth & Death are inseparable.
Grief is not a stranger to me. I have overcome cancer treatments and I understand the fear of losing someone close to me. It started with my grandparents, my good friends, and then my father.
I have not seen my father for over a year after my cancer treatments because he was suffering from Pneumonia, an infectious disease. Due to my low immune system, I had to move out and keep a distance away from him. How do you say goodbye to the person when you are not right by their side? Grief only becomes harder. It hurts a lot and it took me some time to go through the grieving.
Death is a selfish B*tch. It doesn’t matter if you are young or old. It can happen anywhere and at any time. There is no warning or a good ending. Death never left anyone behind. The lucky ones will get to depart first. The one that stays on will linger on a bit longer facing grief.
Death will eat you up, mess up your mind and when someone we truly love dies, it can feel like the end of the world.
I remembered the story of Kisa Gotami vividly from the Buddha’s chronicle. After losing her only child, she went crazy, holding her dead son desperately seeking someone that could bring her son back to life. Her grief was paralysing so an old man advised her to look for the Buddha, a man well known for his wisdom.
The Buddha asked her to find mustard seeds from a household where no one had died so he could bring the child back to life. After hearing this wonderful news, she eagerly went from house to house, but to her despair, every household had suffered from a loved ones’ death. Eventually, the realization struck that there is no house free from death. She buried her son and returned to the Buddha, who comforted her and preached to her the truth.
I always wonder why would the Buddha agree to save her son although it is not possible?
The first stage of grief is self-denial, refusing to believe that the person had gone. There is this strong attachment that keeps holding on to the person. Buddha is a wise teacher, had he not assigned Kisa Gotami an impossible task she would not have understood the inevitability of death by herself.
We don’t have to find “closure.” Seeking closure is akin to someone trying to ask a question with no answer. Closure personally for me seems harsh, like trying to shut the door and end it with a bang. How can you shut down the love you had for someone?
The ability to face the truth is better than closure, it allows us to come to terms with what’s happening. It can help us to process the overwhelming reality of death.
Grief is like a stream running through our life, and it’s important to understand that it doesn’t go away. Our grief lasts a lifetime, but our relationship to it changes. Moving on is the period in which the knot of your grief is untied. It’s the time of renewal.
— Martha Beck, “Elegy for Everything”
Dhamma is the best Psychiatrist
Dhamma helps to clarify. There is no right or wrong way to grief. Everyone has their way of coping with it.
Don’t let anyone judge how your grieving should be. Some people travel, some people take a break from their job and some people just need to get help from a professional by seeing a psychiatrist. The truth is it will get better as time goes by.
However, it takes effort to understand the Dhamma, read what Dhamma has spoken about death. The purpose of Dhamma is to help our mind to expand and grow, to clarify. It should uphold us and create an inner sense of peace, joy and clarity.
No one can tell you how long this grief will last or how to make it right.
What is important is that we should stop concentrating on what we have lost and instead acknowledge what our loved ones have achieved in this life. Doesn’t it make sense that life is not subjected or defined by how long we live, but by how we make an impact on our surroundings, family and friends?
When a caterpillar metamorphoses, it doesn’t want the other caterpillars to feel sad for him. Instead, every caterpillar knows it will get through this process naturally. There is no pain, no sorrow, and no guilt. It is merely how nature works. No one can stop the metamorphosis. Death is just a temporary end to a temporary phenomenon.
Also, part of me selfishly focused on my grieving and on what I’ve lost, failed to understand that this person doesn’t belong to me and his presence is not existential. Our loved ones are not born for us to grieve. I realised that everyone, not just me, had experienced grief before and we have to understand that everyone was born to die.
We all will become someone’s ancestors someday.
After the preaching from the Buddha, Kisa Gotami was awakened and entered the first stage of enlightenment. Eventually, she became an Arhat (An enlightened being that goes beyond birth and death). We too can work towards enlightenment by realising these small truths of grief along the way.
Don’t let the grief destroy love, shatter hope, corrode faith, suppress precious memories that you have for the departed.
Closure is not necessary. Don’t beat yourself hard by asking questions that don’t come with an answer.
TLDR: Learning to see life in death requires courage. It is a great reminder to live life well and see joy even in the downs of life
We all know that our loved ones and ourselves will pass away someday. For the majority of us, however, this isn’t something we normally bring to mind – that is until circumstances make this a reality in our lives.
For me, this reality came in late-2017 when my close uncle (Tiuo Tiuo) passed away from Leukemia. Tiuo Tiuo was almost like a 2nd dad to me, and he was by my side through my various life milestones all the way until university. From Tiuo Tiuo, I learnt many life lessons – and the lessons continued even until his last days and beyond.
“There will come a year when we will have 1 less person (at Chinese New Year) compared to the previous year. It will be really sad and the memories of that person and his presence will certainly be missed. I also felt sad looking at Ah Ma’s picture on the wall. It is the first time I see a familiar face of someone on a wall like that…”
29-01-2017 (Chinese New Year)
Tiuo Tiuo was someone who enjoyed the simple pleasures in life! One of his greatest pleasures was to pluck in his earphones and immerse himself in the music on his handphone. However, he was never good with technology and often required help loading up or accessing his music. The job to troubleshoot his phone when it malfunctioned often fell to me – and honestly, it wasn’t something I enjoyed all the time (especially after a long day at school)!
“So Tiuo Tiuo’s leg has been troubling him these past 2 months, but more acutely these past 2 weeks. Old age and sickness indeed.”
Looking back, however, memories of these small acts of service give me the greatest joy. There is little regret in my heart, knowing that I overcame my laziness to help bring minor conveniences and joy to Tiuo Tiuo. Since then, I made it a personal principle never to turn down requests from my loved ones as far as possible – we never know when that might be the last time we can help.
From Tiuo Tiuo, I learnt that being of service is a blessing.
“I brought Tiuo Tiuo to A&E for his full body check up… Was informed that he was diagnosed with Leukemia, which is essentially cancer… It is hard looking at Tiuo Tiuo suffering – not just his physical pain, but his mental expectations that this would be a short one.”
Aside from listening to music, Tiuo Tiuo also loved to catch up on the latest news around the world! One of the common interests that we shared was to follow the latest English Premier League football highlights. As Tiuo Tiuo became weaker, however, these joys became harder to attain as his world turned more inwards.
“Tiuo Tiuo started his first chemo today… There is a chance Tiuo Tiuo will face many complications for his health and get more sick; or he might be on this long and gradual road to recovery and this state will hence linger for a few years. It is so uncertain.”
Being by Tiuo Tiuo’s side as he journeyed through his last days, I saw that pleasures in life are not evenly distributed throughout. Many of the more enjoyable and sensually delightful experiences are often front-loaded in our youth and early adulthood. The less pleasant parts of ageing, sickness, the dulling of our senses, and the gradual losing of things we hold dear – these come slowly, but inevitably.
From Tiuo Tiuo, I learnt that conditions go their natural way.
How We Live
“Tiuo Tiuo has been admitted to the ICU and intubated and unable to speak, and the prognosis isn’t good… But what’s for sure is that he is suffering much now, and I don’t know how to ease his suffering.”
As Tiuo Tiuo became weaker, he could not enjoy the things he used to enjoy. Instead, he sought a simpler solace from the companionship provided by our entire extended family who banded together to support him. Tiuo Tiuo lived his life in service of others. Through the decades, his humble 4-room flat played host to many of my Malaysian cousins working in Singapore who required accommodation.
As one of the respected elders in the family, he always rejoiced in our successes, and was quietly supportive in our times of struggles – even financially at times. As Tiuo Tiuo gradually grew weaker, he rested at peace with memories of a life well-lived and in the companionship of family.
From Tiuo Tiuo, I learnt that how we live, is how we pass.
“Thursday, the doctor said the falling BP and oxygen levels were signs that Tiuo Tiuo was passing away soon … I stood outside the glass door for an extended period sending metta (loving-kindness). That was the last time I saw Tiuo Tiuo alive… I went in and ma ma and mum were reassuring him that it is ok to pass; the rest were kneeling down, sis was crying badly. I did not cry. Sent metta to Tiuo and wished for him to be well and happy.”
It has been almost 3 years since Tiuo Tiuo passed away. With time, the deep feelings of loss and sadness have given way to a more subtle appreciation of the values he represented. As I pay respects to Tiuo Tiuo at his altar daily, the lessons he taught also continue to inspire me to live each day fruitfully in service of others.
While Tiuo Tiuo may no longer be around, in many ways, he lives through the lives of many around him whom he had touched. Our loved ones and ourselves will indeed pass away someday, and we do not need to wait for this to be a reality before we learn the lessons that death and dying presents.
By realising our mortality, may we learn to be less intoxicated with youth, health and life. By learning the preciousness of our human life, may we allow mindfulness and wisdom to guide us on the path towards truer and more lasting forms of happiness.
Learn to see the bright sparks in the bleakest of time, as every moment is an opportunity to find sparks
Knowing that separation is inevitable, fruitfully serve those around you
Resources to help in death (and life) contemplation: