LIVE BY DESIGN | What death teaches us about living

It is a shock the very first time you come across a dead body on the side of the street. As a journalist starting my career in 1998 in KwaZulu-Natal, I was exposed to the harsh realities of political killings and taxi wars.  It was also a brutal experience for me, at that same time in our country’s history, to witness the HIV epidemic mercilessly taking away the lives of countless young people, including friends.

Death and mourning became such a frequent, almost normal everyday occurrence in my work that I found myself confronting my own mortality. Every holiday season, I shared with family and friends my heart-wrenching stories of families being tragically taken away often leaving no one behind or only children with no adults to care for them.

I came to accept that death could happen at any moment.

When I was 25, I started making plans for what would happen after my passing and sharing those plans with my family. Unfortunately, they were not supportive and even questioned my mental health, insisting that I was inviting bad luck. As a result, I decided to make these plans on my own, which included creating an obituary that expressed my wishes for how I would be remembered if I had five or 10 more years to live. This process allowed me to live more intentionally and make choices that aligned with my values from the 1990s until now.

Death has been a constant in my life for so many years.

However, even someone as experienced as me was deeply impacted by the devastating loss brought on by Covid-19. The grief of losing loved ones without the comfort of traditional rituals rocked me to my core. The loss of mobility and income. There was an overwhelming feeling of helplessness and despair as the pandemic wreaked havoc across the world.

I read stories from daughters and sons who could not attend their parents’ funeral. I watched journalists not only report on the facts and figures, but also noting the emotional toll Covid-19 was taking on the nation, individuals and families.

Yet, amidst the darkness, there were stories of resilience and hope. People coming together to support one another in ways that reminded me of the power of human connection. As we move forward, I believe that this crisis has shown us the importance of empathy and kindness towards our fellow humans, and that is something that we should never lose sight of.

What is the good that came out of the bad?

While the loss of loved ones is undoubtedly difficult to come to terms with, I venture to suggest that it has had an unexpected positive effect on the way that many people view their own mortality and dying.

In my family, we are now engaging more openly about issues around our mortality. There is more clarity on matters like guardianships, burial rites, cremation etc.

Recently a friend of mine, who in previous years was offended if ever I brought the subject of mortality into our conversations, asked for assistance around guardianship for her daughter. She is not ill, but is making sure that her loved one will be taken care of should anything happen. This discussion made her think more clearly, that she needed to plan her life so that her daughter spends some holidays with the person, who might one day be her guardian.

Another notable example of this shift in perspective is that of Zoleka Mandela, granddaughter of the late Nelson Mandela. Zoleka was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2012 and has been sharing her journey with the disease ever since. She recently revealed that she has been given only a few months to live, and has been openly discussing her own mortality as a result. In doing so, she has helped to break down some of the taboos surrounding death and dying, and has shown that it is possible to face the end of one’s life with courage and grace.

Another example is that of Mark Pilgrim, a radio personality who was diagnosed with cancer in 2020. Like Zoleka, he was open about his condition and used his platform to talk about his experiences with the disease. By sharing his story, Mark made it easier for others to talk about their own mortality and showed that there is hope even in the face of a terminal illness.

These are just few examples of individuals who have been brave enough to share their stories and help to change the way that South Africans think about death and dying. There are many other people who are also sharing their transitions, from terminally ill patients who are speaking out about the importance of palliative care, to bereaved families who are finding new ways to honour and remember their loved ones.

It is clear that the Covid-19 pandemic has brought issues of mortality and dying to the forefront of our collective consciousness. While this can be a difficult subject to discuss, it is an important one, and it is heartening to see so many South Africans engaging in more open and honest conversations about their own mortality.

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