Terminal illness and death, an African perspective 

We all die eventually, even those who seem invincible will find themselves face to face with their mortality. While mankind has accepted this reality, the actual process of dying haunts even the bravest amongst us. Some more advanced societies ( or primitive depending on your point of view) have used the idea of life after death to portray death as less final and therefore more acceptable. The more radical ones have gone a step further to make unsubstantiated promises of rewards in the afterlife to push people to kill themselves (and others) in service of a higher power ( whose presence is also unsubstantiated). I guess if we were to be objective we would conclude that this is the ultimate demonstration of accepting death.

I am not qualified to discuss deities, except to give my opinions, so I will stick to discussing terminal illness and the process of dying. In African culture this discussion is taboo, we generally do not discuss our mortality or that of our loved ones, even when it seems imminent. Whenever a person is given a terminal diagnosis, the family will go out of their way to get a second opinion that makes them feel better, even if it means going the spiritual route. A sure way for any well meaning doctor to become an enemy of his patient and their relatives is to send them to a hospice.

We recently asked a group of medical students how they would prefer to die, suddenly without any illness or after a long illness.

All of them gave the same answer, they all preferred a sudden death, which is what any person would be expected to say really. Who in their right mind would prefer to be sick for months or years, in pain and discomfort, with the pills and injections that come with it?

We then asked the same students how they wanted their loved ones to die. All of them gave the opposite answer. They wanted a loved one to die after a long illness. Losing someone suddenly and unexpectedly is painful and difficult to recover from. We prefer to get time to say goodbye, to adjust to the reality that a loved one really is dying and prepare for life without them. 

While this simple experiment demonstrates the selfish nature of our kind (even in death), it also makes it clear that we need to change the way we deal with the process of dying. Recently I met a 10 year old boy who has spent the last 2 years believing that his mother is in Australia when the truth is that she has been dead for that long. The relatives had not allowed the child to see his mother while she was sick believing that they were protecting him, 2 years later no one in the family seems brave enough to correct this mistake which only gets worse with each passing day. I can only wonder how the poor child will take the news when it is finally broken to him, obviously Australia will never be on his list of places to go (in all fairness it’s as hot as hell).

The only time we discuss death with our children is when we want to scare them to deter bad behaviour, we tell them stories of ghosts, haunted places that they should not go to, and other mythical reincarnations that feast on naughty children. To them death is punishment for bad behaviour  and not a natural process that it is. When it then occurs to a loved one it becomes more difficult to understand and accept.

It is about time we started introducing a new culture of dialogue and openness about death. Children need to be part of the process so that they get closure, an important part of the healing process. This can only be possible if we, as the adults, also accept and embrace our mortality, after all the joy of life is partly embedded in knowing that it will soon come to an end.

– the end – 


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