“Death is the wish of some, the relief of many, and the end of all.” – Lucius Annaeus Seneca

There are very few things in life that are promised. Just having a dream does not necessarily set you up for success, nor does having stellar grades guarantee you a lavish future basked in stardom and wealth. Nobody is obligated to owe you anything, especially not life itself. Certainly, it can be easy to forget this axiom in life as we trudge through the ebb and flow of our own life. However, buried in our quest to derive some value of meaning in our own lives, we may tend to forget about the present as we gravitate toward the future and its potential. We all believe that the status quo will remain as we selfishly progress with our journey. Yes, in our blinded pursuit, we tend to start taking things (people) for granted until one day, when we lift our heads, and they are no longer there, all that is left behind are the wisps of memories and emotions left behind that seem all too ephemeral at this point. 

Indeed, all but one certainty exists in life; we all will die someday. Death cares not whether we are billionaires, saints, or sinners—she lovingly accepts all into her bare arms. And the trail of an endless void that remains deep in the people left behind. Sometimes things just fall out of control, and we have no choice but to accept them as part of life. So as long as we continue to draw breath on this Earth, we are all trapped in this labyrinth of life, and it goes on with or without you. Although we may not be able to control the events directly, we certainly can control our attitude towards them. 

Then, the question becomes this: How then do we find the courage to rise out of this abyss and continue life as before? We all inherently wish to live a life full of joy and happiness, yet “Happily Ever Afters” only remain miracles that live exclusively in fairytales, something that life is unfortunately not.

China’s One-child Policy

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The internal desire to seek life after loss can be most profoundly found in China. For starters, China is the world’s most populated country with over 1.4 billion inhabitants. As a result, the Chinese government began enacting the infamous ‘one-child policy’ in the late 1970s to curb the rapidly burgeoning population from further ballooning in numbers. Thus, most couples in urban areas were limited to only one child, whilst most rural couples to two children if the first child was a girl. 

According to the Chinese government, this particular policy has prevented some 400 million stillbirths, paving the way for China to become the economic superpower it is today. However, this rosy impression does not tell the full story; the same policy has also left mothers and fathers destitute of a family who lost their only child to illness or an accident—and were too old to conceive again. These parents are known as “shidu (失独) parents”—literally having lost their only child. Whilst the prospect of grieving the loss of a cherished child is emotionally distressing for parents anywhere, this feeling is further exacerbated in modern-day China due to the societal emphasis of familial-centric values.

In January 2014, He Xiwen’s head was crushed in Yangzhou, Jiangsu Province when a truck ploughed into him on his morning commute to work, resulting in an instant death. Longing for one final look at their son, their parents, He and Liu pleaded with the authorities whether they could see the body before commencing the burying process. However, the body of the son was disfigured so severely that the police refused the parents’ request. The couple protested furiously on multiple occasions, but were continuously rebuffed by the authorities. “They intimidated us,” says He. “They shouted at us to leave.”

The couple then buried their son’s ashes in the field where they once used to grow crops, marking it with a small sculpt of earth. In certain areas of China’s countryside, old Buddhist superstitions still linger on. As such, the couple’s neighbours, who were once friends with He and Liu, began dissociating themselves from He and Liu, deducing that karma was exacting punishment on them for being “bad people”. “In the daytime, I wouldn’t go out because I was worried about seeing people,” said He. 

Three months after the accident happened, Liu’s father was taken to the hospital and promptly diagnosed with an undisclosed heart disease. Whilst the couple was at the hospital caring for Liu’s father, they looked around their surroundings and witnessed numerous ill people whose lives were hanging on by a thread. A torturous thought soon flooded their minds: Who will look after us when we get old? With the reliability of China’s social welfare system being questionable at best, the one-child policy has forced millions of parents like He and Liu to place all their eggs in one basket when stuck between a rock and a hard place, in the hopes that their only child will be capable of supporting them in old age.

When China lifted its one-child policy in 2015 to curb an ageing population and shrinking labour force that threatened their status as the “workshop of the world”, certain shidu parents went berserk. Sentiments along the lines of “the two-child policy is like a handful of salt to our open wounds,” became rife as the shidu parents concentrated their anger on the central government for failing to support them monetarily after the loss of their offspring. 

A child’s death does not only signify the termination of that child’s aspirations and desires; in most cases, it takes an enormous mental and psychological toll on their parents too. One-child families can be said to be walking a tightrope that exists throughout their lifetime where the loss of a child largely equates to the loss of all hope for the parents.  

Whilst the one-child policy has contributed to the betterment of the Chinese nation by virtue of astronomical economic growth in the government’s eyes, it can also be argued to have left a legacy of bereaved parents facing melancholia and mortification. That generation, one that bore witness to the Cultural Revolution by Chairman Mao Zedong that accompanied an era of hunger and a lack of education, must now also face the purgatory of losing their offspring. One can only imagine the emotional, social and financial consequences that hover their heads like a black cloud, an unwelcome reminder of what could have been. 

Yet, once we have been plunged into the reality of the death of a loved one, there is nothing more we can do except live on with it as a permanent part of ourselves. Life goes on with or without you. Memento Mori—Remember that you will die.

“I’m willing to lose my life so that I can give my husband a child.” – Liu Guilian

Memento Mori and the 5 Stages of Grief

“Discipline yourself against such fear, direct all your thinking, exercises, and reading this way—and you will know the only path to human freedom.” – Epictetus

This antique Latin phrase is an abiding tradition deeply rooted in the culture of Western Europe and can typically be seen manifested as various works of art or objects—rings, cups, architecture, brooches, etc. Even though these artefacts may take on a myriad of forms, they all share one commonality—symbolism for mankind’s mortality. 

Yet, the crux of this phrase is not to serve as a glooming reminder of one’s inevitable death or to brandish nihilism, but rather quite the opposite of it. It is only when we understand that death is inevitable and that time is limited do we really start living seriously. A timeless truth; the profound effect of this statement can be felt most strongly in the philosophy of stoics of the past, such as Marcus Aurelius, or Seneca, who would use it to navigate their lives and live one basked in meaning and weight. 

However, the world and society as a whole has witnessed many changes since the era of the Stoics. How then can we use this to navigate our own life and grief?

According to the Swiss psychiatrist, Kübler-Ross, whenever we are faced with any instances of grief, most of us will enter a cycle termed the “5 Stages of Grief” or the Kübler-Ross Grief Cycle. First, beginning with denial of the situation, anger, bargaining, depression, and eventually acceptance. However, even this cycle only serves to provide just a simplistic model to understand the enigmatic behemoth that is grief; some bereaved families have reported to experience the cycle in a haphazard manner, or even skip some stages outright. Nonetheless, understanding the Kübler-Ross Grief Cycle may still provide an important framework for the bereaved to navigate through their tempestuous emotions.

According to the cycle, at first, we may feel completely overwhelmed by the sudden loss and how our life suddenly makes no sense. “There’s no way that this could happen to her,” and similar thoughts start swarming our minds as we actively try our best to reject the “false news,” preferring much more to retreat back into our inner world where everything still “makes sense.” Yet, interestingly enough, this vehement denial of reality also acts as our coping mechanism to shield us from this emotional turmoil.

Next, once we have been slapped with the grim reality that this indeed is “real life,” we start feeling unparalleled indignation at our circumstances. “Why her of all people?” together with bouts of angry outbursts commonly develop as we desperately seek someone to redirect our overwhelming emotions towards. Afterward comes the bargaining part in which we may start seeking external powers, such as god, in a desperate plea to bring our world back into order. But unfortunately, there are no such things as complete miracles in real life.

The fourth stage is characterised by the surging of emptiness or void that seems to fill every crevice of your body and soul. The world seems to lose all semblance of colour as it is abruptly replaced by a monotonous hue. Nothing seems worth living anymore, and you might find temporary solace in your own little world, far away from others. It is here when you feel the most hopeless. But it must not go on like this—you must fight the urge to shut off the world and muster up the little bit of courage left. 

Acceptance is the end goal of the cycle when we start coming to terms with our situation. Then, finally, we find the courage to keep going and reintegrate back into reality, even if deep inside we have to valiantly struggle against our urge to just disappear. The journey to this stage greatly varies between individuals. It may take longer than usual for some, but that is completely fine as the healing process is different for everyone. Likewise, the journey may be different for all, but we all eventually arrive at the same destination. Grief never truly leaves our soul; we only learn to accept it as something that is now a part of our being, now and forever. 

Final Thoughts

With all of today’s modern technological, surgical and medicinal inventions and gadgets, we expect, or even subconsciously demand, to live a long and prosperous life that promises so much by way of good health and fortune. Reality however, can strike a very different tone that may present a considerable juxtaposition from one’s optimistic expectation towards life. We live in denial that sooner or later, we will eventually have to face death itself. 

But before then, live life the way you intend to, and ride the highs and lows according to the natural laws of life. Even if the path ahead may be painful and uncertain, we should live vicariously and remind ourselves daily of the mortality that lies around the corner. Those reminders can be the building blocks to live our respective lives to the fullest whilst cherishing every second that exists. The dead should not rule the living, but rather as a reminder to seek the life that we intend to create.

Perhaps we must climb into the grave every now and then to be able to step fearlessly into abundant life. 

“Viva la vida—live the life.”

By: Yun Jing & Chris

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