My best friend confessed early in our friendship her fear of death and I remember being curious about why she was scared. Now looking back, maybe the question should have been why I did not feel the same? I mean of course death is not a welcome or happy thought but I don’t dwell on death and I certainly don’t actively fear it. I am very much of the school that there are 2 certainties in life: we are all born and we will all die. And since death is inevitable, I don’t think about it much.
Death is the final release. Whatever one believes in, I think most of us believe that once you are dead, you don’t feel pain anymore. I know some people believe in reincarnation, some like me believe in the Hereafter and some think that whilst your body dies, your spirit never does and it still retains the memory of pain/anger/hurt/happiness. Although I believe in the Hereafter being Muslim, I do think that when I die, my soul leaves my physical shell and returns to its source (God). Then at some point, our lives are all assessed and we are rewarded (or not) for all our good deeds.
I wonder sometimes about what it feels like when your soul detaches from your body. I wonder if it is like a physical break, painful but transient or if it is more like an emotional separation where the after effects are long felt. I then wonder what the soul feels if it feels anything at all once it is separate from the vessel that conducts and interprets pain. Beyond that, I think death is more fearful if you are not the one dying. I mean, I would imagine that if I was in a terrible car accident, I would either die instantly with no time to think or become scared of what was happening. Or I would be in pain or feel myself getting weaker and weaker and it would be so unbearable that death would be a welcome reprieve. Same as if I had a chronic illness which was not curable but I was steadily deteriorating then dying would probably be a mercy for me.
When I think about dying properly, I realise that although I am not afraid of the dying itself, I am scared of some of the ways that I could potentially die. I am afraid after all. Being a medic, I have seen many people die so I have spent time thinking about the way I would not like to die. I guess one of the scary things about dying is that most of us do not have any idea when we are going to die. It is different for those who are diagnosed with ‘predictable’ illness but even there, giving patients a prognosis (i.e. a number of days/weeks/months/years they are expected to survive) is not an exact science.
In the past 6 months, I have come across patients who were not expected to survive being born and the first few days of life yet despite all odds, they are still with us many months later. I have also come across patients who were predicted more time only to deteriorate much quicker than anyone has experienced, giving no time for their loved ones to be prepared. The only people whose time of death can be predicted with any accuracy are those who are already brainstem dead but on life-support and when the machines are switched off, we can be fairly sure they will die within a certain time period. Even so, we have all heard of the ‘miracle’ stories where patients defy the odds and remain alive far beyond the expected time of death.
My ideal death would be the one most people wish for. I would like to die in my own bed, in my sleep. I would like for it to be when I am old but young enough that I am still completely independent. I would like for it to be after a family reunion where my nearest and dearest are all sitting around a table and reminiscing about the good old days. I would like for it to be after my mother has gone to her grave because I can’t think of anything worse for a mother than to bury her own child. I would like for my children (if I have them) to be old enough that losing their mother does not scar them too badly.
If I am unfortunate enough to have a catastrophic trauma and needed life support, I have told my closest family that I would prefer not to be kept alive for many days. I would like to be given a chance to recover (if there is one) but when it gets to the time where my chances of waking or recovering are much less that 50% then I would prefer for the machines to be switched off. I would like to be an organ donor although in my donor card, I have not ticked the skin donor thing because I am a bit squeamish when it comes to being buried with bits of my skin harvested. I don’t yet have a will but I have told my husband of my wishes verbally if I don’t get around to writing a will before the day comes.
I would like to be buried according to Islamic rites. I think the simplicity of an Islamic burial suits me perfectly. Washed and wrapped in a cotton shroud and buried within a day. If I am in my bed, the closest Muslim graveyard would be perfect but if I happen to be abroad in a strange land then I would like to be taken back to Kaduna, the town of my birth because that symmetry also appeals to me. Also my great grandmother and grandmother are both buried there so it would feel right to lie next to them.
When my grandmother died, there were a lot of tears and prayers and silence but there was remembrance every evening after the crowds dispersed and I found that uplifting. I think the sitting around the dining table and talking about Mammie’s life helped lift the gloom that surrounded us all. The fact that we could all remember and share our memories of Mammie reminded us all that although she was gone, a part of her was alive in us all. And that she had had a good life and her quick death was merciful. Those evenings also reminded us that life is transient. It is unpredictable and death can pick any of us at any time. In remembering our dead, we embraced life and were thankful for all we had been gifted with. I really hope those I leave behind can do that instead of it being all sad and tearful. May we all die a pain-free dignified death and may those we live behind be able to accept it is our time to go and may they have the strength to celebrate a life well-lived (hopefully).