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.”11-10-2017
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.”21-11-2017
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.”30-11-2017
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.”13-12-2017
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.”24-12-2017
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:
- Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom
- When Breath becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
- Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande
- My Last Days by SoulPancake
- Facing Death
- An Honest Death – A Palliative Care Doctor’s Final Days
- Claire | The Documentary
Buddhist Dhamma Talks
- Ajahn Nyanadhammo – Death
- Ajahn Chah – Our Real Home
- Ajahn Brahm – I Know, But I Don’t Know: Contemplation of Death