“Analysis of death is not for the sake of becoming fearful but to appreciate this precious lifetime.”
“My gong gong died,” my friend said as we waited for the bus after school. I glanced over at him, looking for clues about how to react. As a 10-year-old, death wasn’t something I thought about. I supposed losing a grandparent felt like losing one of those toys you used to play with. They were always there for you when you wanted but easily discarded when something else preoccupied your mind. Eventually, you found other toys. In practising my embryonic empathy towards my now one-less-grandparent friend, I failed to properly consider the implications of death and whether it harms those left behind. Perhaps it was that I had never experienced loss before, had not internalised the permanence of death, or even thought my relationship with my grandparents was a universal experience amongst all kids and their grandparents. They are like a better version of your parents: kinder, happier, and more generous, but because of that, you never got close to them, perhaps even emotionally further than you are with your parents. Always buying you the toys you want, the food you want and doing so with a smile, selflessly spending their days taking care of you morphed your interactions with them into ones solely about you. And that was my relationship with my grandparents. I’m not sure I reciprocated much of the affection given to me, but I was sure I did not need to. Being young indeed comes with its perks. This is not to say that they are at fault for my lack of interpersonal connection with them; it is rather typical of a grandchild-grandparent dynamic, especially when the grandkid has only been alive for several years. Compared to the several decade- old grandparents, the kid does not have the life experience or mental-emotional capacity to relate to them. Naturally, I gave my friend an “Oh man, it’s okay” and proceeded with a pat on the shoulder. I didn’t feel particularly teary-eyed for them, but I knew I had to take their mind off it, most of the time with something fun.
As I stepped into my friends’ shoes at twice their age, I found my feet too big. I’ve outgrown the interpersonal capabilities of my kid self (thank god) and had the privilege to understand my grandparents—their motivations, attitudes, and character. But then that meant losing them didn’t feel like missing a plaything. It was, naturally, a much deeper cut. During the summer of 2021, ye ye died; in the winter, gong gong followed. It felt pretty surreal when I received the news from my parents. I paused what I was doing, but emotionally, nothing registered. I simulated what grieving was supposed to feel like, and still nothing. People who cared for me since I was born are now gone, and I can’t ever see them again. Processing their deaths was a gradual process, but towards the end, it cemented a cold fact: we will die. It sounds bleak, but to me, it was unexpectedly eye-opening. I did not care as much about my grades or how I came across to others and began focusing on what I wanted. Granted, my academic career flourished, but I no longer felt the forehead-blood-vessel-bursting pressure to achieve the grades I thought I needed for others’ approval. In the scheme of things, that wasn’t important. Many things I felt I needed, I actually didn’t, which freed up lots of time for me to pursue personal interests and commit myself to myself. I lived in the moment, subconsciously training my mind to worry less and enjoy more. My perspective was not entirely of hedonism; it was more like seize-the-dayism and simply living for yourself, staying true and appreciating those you care deeply for. Even after passing away, my grandparents still give me the things I want. How generous.
Bordering my native country in the Eastern Himalayas is the Kingdom of Bhutan—a small Buddhist state which recognises that true well-being and quality of life extend beyond material wealth. The progressive perspective is seen in their socioeconomic policy-making: “Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross Domestic Product” (Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Index, 2008). As a result, Bhutan has consistently ranked among the happiest countries in the world, despite being one of the poorest. Promisingly, a look into their culture also uncovers a crucial piece to the happiness puzzle. Within the Bhutanese Kingdom, people are taught to be mindful of death, a notion often shunned before retreating into the comforts of escapism. In confronting my grandfathers’ demises, I inadvertently adopted similar sentiments to those in Bhutan, where thinking about death a few times every day is advised (Easter, 2021). Some have even gone as far as to claim “it is better than any antidepressant” (Weiner, 2022, n.p.). Though I have no scientific basis for evidencing this assertion, my experience is certainly no outlier. By placing the ultimate reality of life at the forefront, we are forced to evaluate the substance of our activities and thoughts. All external pressures pale before the idea that you are going to die. Thus, all that is left are the internal motivators for you to enjoy living.
On a blog, Bronnie Ware shared her experience towards the lucidity that death grants to those facing it. Her years in palliative care gave us insight into the ‘Regrets of the Dying’, illuminating the top five recurrent realisations (Ware, 2022). This awareness, though deeply personal, resonated universally, serving as a poignant reminder to live a life we are proud of.
I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
I wish that I had let myself be happier.
Regardless of which stage you are in your life, the five regrets that Ware identified exemplify what is left after everything unimportant is stripped. Yet, perhaps more important is that you have the luxury that Ware’s patients do not—health and, with it, more time. More time to ensure that when someone asks whether you have “any regrets [...] or anything [you] would do differently” at the end of your life, you can simply reply with no (Ware, 2022, n.p.).
As I got older, I realised why I wasn’t obligated to show my affection to my grandparents. It wasn’t exactly that they did not expect it from me, seeing that I was only little, but that spending time with each other was already inherently rewarding for them. The time I shared with my grandparents, speaking to them, hearing stories of their life before I was born, their choices, and seeing first-hand the result of these choices in my family made me realise that their lives were incredibly rich. They weren’t just happiness suppliers to ungrateful rascals; they were people who dreamt, accomplished and enjoyed. The years they had behind them offered time to instil meaning into their lives. In the autumn of 2021, we buried ye ye. Still, I wasn’t teary-eyed this time, not because I did not feel the gravity of death and the loss that comes with it, but because I knew he wasn’t thinking about anything Ware mentioned on her blog. He died proud, and the same is said for gong gong when his time came later in the year.
I’m forever grateful to both my grandfathers and my time with them. Knowing they had no regrets made it much easier for me to accept loss when they died. It meant that they genuinely appreciated the time they had, including the moments I spent with them.
Jaren K. Y.
Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Index (2008) OPHI. Available at: https://ophi.org.uk/policy/ gross-national-happiness-index/ (Accessed: 23 May 2023).
Easter, M. (2021) The secret to happiness? thinking about death., Outside . Available at: https:// www.outsideonline.com/outdoor-adventure/exploration-survival/secret-happiness-think- about-dying-comfort-crisis-easter/ (Accessed: 23 May 2023).
Ware, B. (2022) Regrets of the Dying, Bronnie Ware. Available at: https://bronnieware.com/blog/ regrets-of-the-dying/ (Accessed: 23 May 2023).
Weiner, E. (2022) Bhutan’s dark secret to happiness, BBC Travel. Available at: https:// www.bbc.com/travel/article/20150408-bhutans-dark-secret-to-happiness (Accessed: 23 May 2023).
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