Death is a transformational teacher


Death is a transformational teacher.

When I was young, I couldn’t really appreciate the true meaning of death. To me, death is to be feared and it should be avoided. So when I saw a wake in my neighborhood, I would quicken my pace or turn my head away. That was how I were instructed by my parents to respond. It never occurred to me that by doing so, I am losing the rare opportunity to learn about living. Sound contradicting, isn’t it? In any case, the number of deaths occurring around me is small. Even if I am to meet the occasional death, I will forget about them reasonably quickly. Out of sight and out of mind. I carried on with living my life pursuing commonly defined ‘successes’ of our society, e.g. fame, status, career, 5Cs and etc.

When I was 35, the first realization of how death can be a transformational teacher suddenly hit me. It happened when my beloved grandma suddenly fainted and passed on on the second day of the Chinese New Year. She was trying to prepare a good meal for our coming family reunion lunch to celebrate our kinship and she fainted in the process. Later, it was discovered that she had a stroke which led to massive bleeding within her brain. She didn’t make it through the ordeal. It was the first time after a long time since I first encountered a death of my love one. My grandma is very close to me. Until this very day, I missed her and her loving kindness. When I received the news of her fainting, I was unprepared and felt angry. Why of all people in this world, it has to be my kindest grandma? As I calmed my mind and reflected upon the entire chain of events,  I discovered the importance of self-love from the death of my grandma. Almost all mother is selfless and my grandma was an epitome of it. She had spent her entire life caring for others until the very day that she passed on. The reason why she was able to sustain this high level of commitment in continuously caring for her love one was because she really took special good care of herself. I learnt from my grandma’s death that self-love is an essential catalyst for anyone who want to become selfless and loving. This is in part similar to the airplane emergency protocol on flight when you need to put on the oxygen mask on yourself first before putting it on for your child. Loving yourself is the first condition for you to become selfless in giving. And my grandma taught me that.  I am forever grateful to my beloved grandma. For even at her death, she taught me valuable life lesson.

As I approached 41, two of my close University’s friends passed away in quick succession. Friend A died due to lung cancer, while Friend B died of a heart attack. Friend A was diagnosed with 4th stage lung cancer out of the blue and her health rapidly deteriorated within a short few weeks. Until today no one knew exactly what happened to Friend B, he just failed to wake up alive one day. I attended the wakes of both of my friends. As I looked upon their pale facial make-up, their deaths reminded me how close death is to me. If that could happen to them in a short span of week/day, it could happen to me too. That thought forced me to critically review what life really means to me. My relentless search for answer to this question completely shifted my life pursuit and philosophy. I learned to practice being kind and loving in my words and actions regardless of who I interacted, even to strangers and people who I can’t get along with. I realized my true calling lies not in the pursuit of fame, wealth, status, or career, but in the caring of my well-being both mentally and physically. I give altruistically knowing how this will make this world a better place and hopefully it will also bring love, joy, happiness and peace to everyone. I start to actively volunteer my time, skills and experiences to contribute to the society. 

More recently, within a span of a month, I have experienced five deaths, three of my relatives, one of a close friend’s mother in law and my wife’s friend. It seems that I have arrived at an age range when death is going to be a frequent event. Surprisingly, I have no fear towards death. While I do not hope for more people I know around me to pass on, I know clearly in my mind that with every chanced crossing with death, I will be taught by death to become a better person. I know through the lessons of death I will become increasingly effective in differentiating between what I must have and it is good to have in my life. I once joked with my close friends that having witness so many deaths around me in a short span of time is my dark secret to happiness. Just like the Bhutanese. 🙂

It also reminds me of this memorable paragraph in one of my favorite book ‘Tuesdays with Morrie’


Since it is obviously clear that death is the common thing that will fall upon every one of us, what is most important to me now is to make sure that every day is:

  1. a day that I take personal responsibility in taking care of my mental and physical well-being;
  2. a day that I commit to being wholesome and kind in my words and actions to others; and
  3. a day that I treasure relationships in my life that defines the meaning of my living

I hope you too will be able to find the true meaning of your life through the lens of death.

Death indeed is a transformational teacher.

“Once you learn how to die, you learn how to live” – Mitch Albom

Jenson Goh

PS: This blog is all about motivating you to live well and meaningfully by reflecting upon the deaths around you. I am an individual that believes firmly in the wonders of living and I wrote this post to help you see it too.


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