On Death: Friends and People I Know Who Have Died

In 2004, a few months after moving to the UK, I received an email from my primary school teacher in Singapore, Mrs Leng. She shared news with me about a classmate of mine. Sofia had caught pneumonia and died in hospital that week. She was the same age as me at that time, 11 years old. While Sofia was in the same class as me, I did not know her very well, but I do remember her face quite clearly. We would exchange a few words in class every so often. When I received that email, it did strike me that she was the same age as me. Yet I was alive, and she was now dead. I was only 11 though, and I didn’t end up giving it much thought soon after.

A few years later, when I was 19, I found out on Facebook that a friend, Rebecca, died from Sudden Arrhythmic Death Syndrome. She seemed perfectly healthy. Yet one day she was gone just like that. She was a friend I would see at house parties occasionally. We’d make stupid jokes when we saw each other. She’d call me Lenny and I’d call her Gabby, although I don’t remember why now. It was a real shock to hear the news, and again it struck me that she was the same age as me. Yet I was alive, and she was now dead.

Almost two years ago, I was playing a frisbee tournament in London. We were between games and I was on my phone checking my messages. I opened up a text from a number I didn’t recognise. It was from Claire, who was a housemate of my friend Sam. In the text she said that my friend Keith was found dead in the middle of a club after a night out. I felt blank. Numbed. The thought occurred, “Is this some sort of sick prank?” I phoned Raggy and he said that he received the text too. It was not a prank. He said he was on his way to Sam’s house now. I hung up the phone and stared blankly for a while.

Keith was a close friend. When you hear about people you don’t really know dying, you feel sympathy for the family and friends they left behind. But it doesn’t hurt inside. When a close friend of yours dies, it hurts inside.

I told Jamie (one of my teammates) the news and that I had to leave right now and couldn’t finish the tournament. He understood and I left. No tears had fallen. I didn’t feel safe enough to cry in front of others. On the bus ride I could feel myself welling up but I continued to hold it back.

Near the end of Keith’s funeral, his mother begins to sob… and then she started to wail. Her cries of outliving her own son were the most dreadful sound I have ever heard in my life. The entire gathering of people at the funeral began to cry. I feel tears recalling that moment now.

In the course of writing this piece (which is taking me months!), I’ve heard of a few more deaths from within my extended circle. Tom, 22, from my old sixth form, who I never got to speak to but I knew of him. He was killed after a hockey accident. His death actually went on to save several lives as he was on the organ donor list. Then Aiden, 22, the best friend of my friend Jay, who died after a fall hiking in Vietnam. And Fowzia, 54, my best friend’s mum, who passed away after many years of battling with cancer.

Why am I writing all of this?

In part, as my own practice to remind myself of my mortality, and the mortality of the people I love. The other reason is that speaking about death is such a taboo in our culture. There is so much fear, mystery, blind belief, false hopes and misinformation surrounding death. Death is part of our reality, we can’t just ignore it and hope it’ll go away. I hope to explore this aspect of reality thoroughly with these two posts.

Why them and not me? That question comes from the Pope Francis’ recent TED talk, where he reflects on those “who are sick, to the migrants who face terrible hardships in search of a brighter future, to prison inmates who carry a hell of pain inside their hearts, and to those, many of them young, who cannot find a job, I often find myself wondering: “Why them and not me?”

Indeed why is my dear friend Keith dead, and I’m not? It’s slowly dawning on me the preciousness and fragility of this life. Two phrases come to mind:

  1. Death is certain
  2. When you die is uncertain

Given the certainty of death, but also that the time of my death is uncertain, how should I live? What is a meaningful life? What is a waste of life? As I look to answer some of these questions, I find myself struggling. What even is life? Who am I? What is death? What dies? What happens after death?

It seems apparent that these are tremendously important questions to answer. Not to satiate some intellectual hunger, but rather on a journey towards greater wisdom. On one hand I can choose to ignore these questions. But it would be at my own peril. If I I don’t know the answers to such basic questions like, “What is life?” Can I really say that I am living consciously? Or am I actually in a cycle of delusion right now, living life in a wholly reactive manner?

These two questions, “What is life?” and “What is death?” I feel are the same questions asked from different sides. What lives? What dies? Who lives? Who dies? These questions will be the basis of part 2 of this blog post.

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