It was sociology professor Dr Morris S Schwartz, the subject of Mitch Albom’s Tuesday’s With Morrie, who gave the world one of the simplest one liners about death.
“Once you learn how to die, you learn how to live,” said Schwartz, in the1997 bestseller written by his former student. Schwartz was 78 when he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). He died over a year later. In the book, Schwartz shared with Albom his profound insight about life and death, saying that it is only with understanding and accepting mortality can we live life to its fullest.
While death is definite, the idea of discussing death is still considered taboo by many, says clinical psychologist Dr Pamilia Lourdunathan.
“But instead of being fearful or sad about death, Schwartz’s line invites us to embrace the inevitability of our own mortality as a catalyst for a more meaningful, purposeful and vibrant existence,” she says.
And this his how death positivity comes about, Pamilia says about the movement that is rooted in the idea that discussing death openly can lead to self-awareness, self-improvement and growth for both the dying and their loved ones.
She says those who embrace death positivity believe that speaking openly about it is not morbid or taboo or even bad luck, but in fact an essential part of a healthy society.
“It also means being able to have honest conversations about death and dying and receiving the support and space to grieve and share experiences,” she says, adding that avoiding the topic by labelling it as taboo does more harm than good.
“It negates the emotions that come with it – including sadness, fear or insecurity – preventing those involved from facing, accepting and growing from it,” she says.
According to Pamilia, the death positivity movement has been gaining momentum, in part to challenge conventional societal norms and to encourage open conversations about the inevitable reality.
“The movement contends to challenge cultural taboos surrounding death and foster a more open and accepting attitude towards it, by pushing for more open and meaningful conversations about death,” she adds.
In families with young children, parents are also more open and have no qualms explaining to their children about death – in age-appropriate ways – without using euphemisms.
Father of six-year-old daughter Syahrizal Ismail, 44, says his family is very open when it comes to talking about death. “Yes, it is scary but every living person will die and there are no two ways about it. So, why do we avoid talking about it?” says the entrepreneur from Selangor who comes from a big family.
“We have told our daughter that one day, Daddy and Mummy will no longer be around for her. However, we present it in a way that she is comfortable with. At her age, I don’t want to be pushy or to stress her out, but I believe in delivering the message within her understanding,”
“From time to time, we bring her along for our family members’ and friends’ funerals for her to accept that death is natural,” he adds.
He says all the adults in his family know what to do in the event of death, from calling the 999 emergency line to dealing with relevant authorities like the police and medical personnel, the mosque and cemetery officials for burial.
“It’s not going to be easy when you’re sad and shocked, but the basic know-how will help keep you calm as you go through the process,” he says.
While past experiences in dealing with deaths of family members help to prepare his family, Syahrizal says the best way to be prepared is to join a Muslim burial management course. “My sisters attended this course and I learned a lot from them,” he adds.
Pamilia says creating a death-positive household is an ongoing process that involves breaking down societal taboos and fostering a more open, compassionate and informed approach to death and dying.
By openly discussing death and end-of-life matters, she says individuals and households can reduce the fear and anxiety often associated with the unknown.
“Ultimately, this will lead to a more meaningful and peaceful experience when faced with end-of-life issues,” says the lecturer at the International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM).
Ready for the inevitable
Father of three Ken Neoh, 47, saw the importance of being death-positive and to be ready for it after experiencing deaths of his loved ones. “Covid-19 was an eye-opener as I lost some friends to the disease. It made me realise that life is fragile and it is important to be ready for it,” he says.
The managing director from Johor started talking about death and its implications to his family with his wife.
“We were both aware of the implications and impact to our children in case anything happens to any of us,” he says.
During that time, a financial advisor approached Neoh and his wife and introduced them to estate planning.
“I realised then that it is important for every individual, especially parents to small children, to look into estate planning,” Neoh says.
Neoh openly shares with his children that death is inevitable. “I tell them that this is part and parcel of life and as humans, we only need to do our best to give meaning to our life everyday,” he says.
Syahrizal shares the same sentiment about being prepared for death: “If you are positive about it, you will get everything prepared earlier. Before our late parents passed away, for instance, we had all the necessary documents and issues sorted out and finalised every little detail,” he says.
Syahrizal has signed up for hibah (a gift made by a Muslim to another person) which he hopes to help smoothen the inheritance process for his family after his passing.
Wealth planner Nur Elaine Aisyah Abdullah says estate planning involves planning one’s assets and wealth distribution in preparation for their future incapacity.
“It is one of the key components of being death positive, for us to go peacefully and distribute our possessions,” she adds.
“Death is not taboo,” says Neoh, “and everyone has to face it. Death is definite, it is part of our life journey.”
Syahrizal adds: “Death is very painful and heavy, especially when it involves people you love the most. But talking about it with your loved ones is good as it may help fulfil their last wishes. So just stay calm, be positive and be informed,” he says.
Sometimes, Pamilia says, embracing death positivity takes on a profoundly personal dimension when we face the loss of a loved one.
“In the end, the principles of death positivity which encourage open conversations about death and end-of-life planning, becomes tangible and deeply personal to us,” she adds.
By embracing death positivity, she says, we can transform our approach to death and ensure that the memories of our loved ones live on.
1. Foster a sense of self-awareness and mindfulness. Begin by examining your own attitudes and beliefs about death. Cultivate a mindset of curiosity and acceptance and have discussions with family members about any fears.
2. Encourage open conversations. Talk about death with family members or housemates, discussing end-of-life topics, such as wills, important documents, bank details and emergency contact information.
3. Ensure legal aspects of documentations and events. Familiarise yourself with the legal aspects of death, including wills, estate planning and legal requirements.
4. Get children involved. It is important to involve children in a positive light, in an age-appropriate manner to help them understand that death is a natural part of life.
5. Think of your wow factor Encourage family members to reflect on the legacies they want to leave behind and how they want to be remembered.
Source: Dr Pamilia Lourdunathan