If you have been following WeZBest, you probably noticed I haven’t posted any blog article since November 2017. I have been writing, re-writing, and putting off this very article for over half a year, but a recent event spurred me to finish it.
In one of my favorite books by Dr. Atul Gawande, Being Mortal, he pointed out a profound hypothesis by Stanford scholar Laura Carstensen—“socioemotional selectivity theory”—our perspectives on time can largely impact how we view life:
“How we seek to spend our time may depend on how much time we perceive ourselves to have. When you are young and healthy, you believe you will live forever. You do now worry about losing any of your capabilities. People tell you “the world is your oyster,” “the sky is the limit,” and so on. And you are willing to delay gratification—to invest years, for example, in gaining skills and resources for a brighter future. You seek to plug into bigger streams of knowledge and information. You widen your networks of friends and connections, instead of hanging out with your mother. When horizons are measured in decades, which might as well be infinity to human beings, you most desire all that stuff at the top of Maslow’s pyramid—achievement, creativity, and other attributes of “self-actualization.” But as your horizons contract—when you see the future ahead of you as finite and uncertain—your focus shifts to the here and now, to everyday pleasures and the people closest to you.”
When I first read Being Mortal and wrote a blog article about it, I have never had any experience of death outside actuarial mortality modeling. I didn’t truly understand the meaning of this word “limit,” especially when it comes to the time we have on this earth.
In the past half a year, for the first time in my life, I had to deal with the passing of family members and friends. I gained some new perspectives on life I never had before.
I received an unexpected call from Dad: “龙龙，你奶奶去世了。” He informed me that my grandmother passed away in sleep the previous night. I hung up the phone in utter disbelief. My dad’s message echoed in my head. I had a hard time believing that’s true. “How can it be?” I repeatedly asked myself as I remember she was still healthy last summer when I visited her in China.
The Monday after Grandma’s passing dawned a dreary overcast day. After obtaining a bereavement leave from work, I went to the airport with my dad to fly back to our hometown in China where my grandma’s funeral would be held. On the plane, I couldn’t stop but thinking about my time in the elementary school when she lived with my parents and me… I wished I spent more time with her in the 2016 summer when I visited. I felt sad when I realized I would never be able to hold her hands again.
Picture of me and Grandma: 1993/1994 and 2016
I received an unexpected email at work: a fellow colleague with whom I interned together in 2014 was found lifeless in his apartment. I could not believe my eyes; I had lunch with him in the cafeteria just a few weeks ago. I read the email over and over again and heard a voice screaming in my head, “HOW?” and “WHY?”
The week after the sad news was announced, the office was quieter than usual. This colleague and I have not worked in the same team; however, his musical talent as a guitarist made a lasting impression on me in 2014 when we interned together. We lived in the same corporate apartment that summer, so I got to hear his music as he was writing a new song. Once it was created, we adventured onto the apartment building’s “balcony” by climbing through the bathroom window to record a music video. He was the rock star, and I was the cameraman. He later named the music video Oakwood—the name of the apartment building we lived. I’m listening to Oakwood while writing this; it saddened me that I would not be able to see him play the guitar again.
Last month (June 2018):
One day my Facebook newsfeed was suddenly flooded with photos of a former classmate from Lakeland High School. Among the Facebook posts, I found a local news report, “man drowned in a kayak accident.”
This sudden loss shocked the entire Lakeland Class of 2012. In the local news report, many Lakeland classmates recounted how much joy he has brought to those around him through his positivity and contagious smiles. Another soul lost too young. Our Lakeland high school reunion would never be the same again.
These losses are tragic. I had to confront the fact that they have happened, and nothing can be done to reverse the reality of death. So what is the reality of death? I asked myself, and more questions emerged.
- Why do people die? And what does death mean to those who die?
- What does death mean to those they leave behind?
Still exploring the answers, I want to share some of my thoughts from reflecting on my experience from the past few months.
Why do people die? While science taught me that there are two types of reasons: natural and unnatural causes, I’ve been exploring this question on the spiritual level. Is death at a certain time due to a certain cause a predestined event? And what happens after someone dies? Different religions would explain this very differently (check out this infographic by National Post below that summarizes how different religions view death).
A straight line living in the first dimension would not see the height of a square; a square living on a two-dimensional plane would not see the depth of a cube. Similarly, human’s ability to understand the ultimate truth is also limited by the worldly dimension we live in.
As you may tell from reading this blog, I often write in the style of a self-help book where I pose a question, quote expert opinions, and give answers. I was tempted to quote Steve Jobs that “Death is very likely the single best invention of life. It is life’s change agent.” But then I realize this quotation only further muddles the mysterious nature of death.
I am still left asking myself the same questions that inspired me to write this article or perhaps to help me cope with the death of loved ones. In hopes to give you a definitive millennial’s view on death, I have been writing, re-writing, and putting off this very article for over half a year. Unlike any other blog posts I have written, these questions about death continued to baffle me. I can’t summarize what death means. I can’t tell you why people die. While I may not have answers, I take a step forward to free myself from this paralysis by honoring the recent deaths of loved ones, reflecting on how I coped this year, and appreciating the memories while seizing the present.
In Part 2 of this article, I’ll reflect on what death means to those whom our loved ones left behind—life.
Afterword, written in Allied Hospice Center (Scranton, PA) on Saturday, September 1, 2018:
August 15, two weeks before Labor Day, my parents informed me that Grandma (my stepmother’s mom) fell. Although the fall only scratched her skin on her forehead, it might have triggered a stroke a week later. At age 93, she wasn’t handling the stroke very well, spending two days in the Intensive Care Unit. After talking to the doctor, my parents made the hard decision of sending Grandma to hospice on Thursday, August 30. The family was supportive of the decision, as they know medicine is much larger than prolonging lives; they want grandma to enjoy her last days in peace and comfort.
Friday night, I came back to Scranton and visited Grandma with parents and sister the next morning. Eyes closed and mouth open, she appeared to be in deep sleep. However, she could definitely hear us—as we greeted her, she tried to make some sound to respond.
Her rising shoulders and gurgling noise in her throat made it apparent that each breath has been a difficult endeavor for her. To ease the congestion and pain, the nurse has been giving her morphine periodically. It saddens us that there is nothing much we can do while knowing she is passing away; however, it comforts us that she is pain-free and we can all be here for her.
In the next few hours with Grandma, we each recounted memorable moments we had with her—some brought us to tears while others brought us to laughter. I will always remember the noodle soup Grandma cooked on my first day in the U.S. Additionally, I always enjoyed the stories she told me, including the World War II, Cultural Revolution, and the most classic story of all—why she chose to major in metallurgy instead of textile when she went to Renmin University (one of the oldest and most prestigious universities in China). “The textile program only has girls, and they laugh and cry too easily and too much. I don’t like hanging out with them.” This never failed to crack us all up.
Grandma had a good life. She was brought up in a well-off family and lived abundantly throughout her life. Thanks to her late husband who loved her deeply, she never missed a meal even during the 60s when China was the poorest. Thanks to her caring daughter, she has seen many parts of the world and lived comfortably even during the last few years when she developed Alzheimer’s disease. Mommy was one of the kindest and most caring people I had ever known—she worked tirelessly to provide for her and has never complained when cleaning up after Grandma.
Grandma is an ordinary person with extraordinary stories. She never became a top Chinese metallurgist, nor did she ever develop world-changing inventions. But at the end of the day, none of the worldly achievements matters. As Dr. Gawande pointed out in Being Mortal, “For human beings, life is meaningful because it is a story. A story has a sense of a whole, and its arc is determined by the significant moments, the ones where something happens.” The most valuable asset she left behind is nothing physical we can touch or feel; the most valuable thing she created for all of us is the story full of memorable moments.
Sunday, 9/2/2018: Mommy and sister stayed with Grandma in the Hospice Center overnight. Dad and I came to visit the next morning. Grandma’s breathing appeared to be shallower than yesterday’s but it’s comforting to see it’s now less of a struggle.
In the afternoon, my mommy’s best friend came visit as well. Around 3:10pm, in the presence of family members and friend, Grandma breathed her last breath and left peacefully. After the nurse confirmed her death, the whole room fell into silence and time became frozen. Tears ran down our cheeks. I played Mommy’s favorite Christian song, Amazing Grace, to provide the room with some comfort knowing that we have a graceful God. “The Lord hath promised good to me, His word my hope secures; He will my shield and portion be as long as life endures.”
As I left the Hospice Center, I saw a brochure titled “The Dying Process: Understanding & Preparing” (excerpt below). It reminded me that what made us human are emotions and spirits. Our emotions are tied to those we love; our spirits are tied to our Creator.
Goodbye Granda! May you enjoy the everlasting peace in heaven. Thanks again for the noodle soup on my first day in the U.S. You will forever live in our memory.
“When a person enters the final stage of the dying process, two different dynamics are at work which are closely interrelated and interdependent. On the physical plane, the body begins the final process of shutting down, which will end when all the physical systems cease to function. Usually this is an orderly and undramatic progressive series of physical changes which are not medical emergencies requiring invasive interventions. These physical changes are a normal, natural way in which the body prepares itself to stop, and the most appropriate kinds of responses are comfort enhancing measures.
The other dynamic of the dying process at work is on the emotional-spiritual plane, and is a different kind of process. The spirit of the dying person begins the final process of release from the body, its immediate environment, and all attachments. This release also tends to follow its own priorities, which may include the resolution of whatever is unfinished of a practical nature and reception of permission to ‘let go’ from family members. These events are the normal, natural way in which the spirit prepares to move from this existence into the next dimension of life. The most appropriate kinds of responses to the emotional-spiritual changes are those which support and encourage this release.
The experience we call death occurs when the body completes its natural process of shutting down, and when the spirit completes its natural process of reconciling and finishing. These two processes need to happen in a way appropriate and unique to the values, beliefs, and lifestyle of the dying person.