Lessons from loss amid COVID-19: How do we live intentionally?


By Andrew Tan

Lessons from loss amid COVID-19: How do we live intentionally?

A note on time

Merely a fleeting semblance

A couple of days ago, I learnt about the death of my friend’s mother. She had been ill for a while, decided against treatment, and was expected to have six months left. My friend is a professor at a university in Kuwait and is grounded at home in Malaysia amidst the realities of COVID-19.

When he reached out to me a month ago, I asked him if there was any way I could support him while he was back. This isn’t an uncommon way for me to end conversations with people I care about. Surprisingly, he said there was one thing I could help with and said he’d share details with me over dinner.⁣

At dinner, he shared about his mother’s losing battle with cancer. Being a child of refugees, she was from a generation of people who never asked for anything or complained. That said, upon hearing her prognosis, she responded with a rare ask only after repeated prompts: she asked to have her photo taken again with the people she loved most (her friends and her chosen family), before she left them.

My friend had reached out to me to carry out this final request. It was an absolute privilege to be tasked with such a responsibility, but I was equally filled with apprehension—akin to the conflict of shooting a friend’s wedding, only this had much higher stakes. We spoke about the challenges and expectations, along with what the creative process of working with me would look like, keeping in mind I’m a fashion and fine art photographer. Following that, the logistics of the shoot and the division of labour. We had a plan of action, and everything was sorted.

We ended the night with me dropping by his family home and visiting his mum, Madam Cheah. I wanted to build rapport with her again having not seen her for two decades. I also wanted to interview her to see what style of photography she was partial to, and to see what her favourite representations of self were. We ended the evening with a plan—we would reconvene next Sunday to shoot.⁣

This all happened on a Saturday night. The lockdown was announced the day after. Auntie was still able to get her hair done a few days later, just before the first day of the MCO. Next Saturday rolls around and my friend ultimately makes the call to postpone the shoot to post-MCO. At the time, none of us would have a sense of what it would look like exactly, how long it would last, or how much time she would eventually have. Maybe if we did, we would have acted with more urgency.

On April 17, I found out that the resilient, loving, and wantless woman passed away without having her final wish fulfilled during the COVID-19 lockdown. ⁣

I’m thankful that my loved ones are relatively safe from COVID-19 thus far. I’m thankful to say that most of my grief has been grief for the loss of opportunity and not lives—the opportunity to see possibilities blossom, identities performed, and futures realised. ⁣

On the list of lost opportunities for me include what likely would’ve been the biggest vocational and creative achievement of my life to date which would’ve been: executive producing a series of short films on anti-corruption with a substantial budget, my first solo photography exhibition which should be happening in Toronto right now, launching an education product, and a couple of large commercial projects. ⁣

Most of these future realities died within a similar margin of time—within a week or so of the MCO. But, none quite sting with regret as much as failing to fulfil a dying woman’s wish on time. Something well within my capacity. ⁣

I suppose I just wanted to process it in writing and to share it to remind you of what we already know but still fail to live out frequently enough—to not postpone life, to love fully and to give freely within our capacity, to act with immediacy. Amidst a surplus of time for many, we still have less time than we think we do.⁣

May we take every breath intentionally.

I wrote the above a fortnight ago and shared it on Instagram. In that time, an editor at BURO kindly approached me to see if I wanted to publish the essay on their platform or to write another one. I’m writing the piece below on May 4. We were only a couple of weeks away from realising her wishes. Life is fragile and we often live with such fine margins.

While it may not be apparent in the essay above, there are actually key takeaways we can gather from Madam Cheah, applicable to our time in lockdown. Here are a few:

To receive a prognosis that forecasts your time left would probably be some of the most harrowing words to hear in one’s lifetime. To hear that she calmly understood and acknowledged her fate and rationally made the choices she could with her remaining time should inspire us. In these unprecedented times, one major lesson we can take away from Auntie is that there is freedom in acceptance.

May we learn to grieve when we need to and to accept in its fullness the reality of our situation at any given point, so we can make the best choices with the time we have.

The other outstanding impression when I think about Auntie’s life is how graceful and pleasant she was. She reminds me of many people of her generation with similar migration and/or socioeconomic circumstances. They are intimately aware of what is precious in life and want for nothing (or if they do, don’t vocalise it frequently).

Perhaps more importantly, they understand what it’s like not to have their needs met. So they are resilient, free of complaints, and focus on what they can be thankful for. She was full of grit. A quality visibly vacuous for many of us from generations since who were born into much greater social mobility. Being forced to stay home may actually be the hardest thing many of us have ever faced. May we develop grit and weather this storm with grace and gratitude.

L-R: Madam Cheah in her youth, and how her children remember her

Let’s also take a moment to decipher what Auntie’s motivations would’ve been to get her photograph taken before her death. It was a rare and clearly intentional request. She was well aware of how much time she was expected to have and had accepted it fully. I highly doubt this request was an exercise in vanity. Instead, she had her loved ones in mind. She wanted this to be part of her ritual of departure. In the process, she’d be gifting her loved ones a final memento. In a time where we are preoccupied with the interruption to our lives and its effects on us, let us remember that we are our best when we live for the ones we love.

The words of Homer in The Iliad come to mind:

“The gods envy us. They envy us because we’re mortal, because any moment may be our last. Everything is more beautiful because we’re doomed. You will never be lovelier than you are now. We will never be here again.”

This perhaps is the most important lesson from the scenario with Auntie amidst COVID-19. We’re confronted directly with our inescapable mortality in the form of a global pandemic. May our hearts and minds be fuelled by the reminder that we are not infinite. Like Auntie, we will one day also come to the end of the road. Let not that reality cripple us with dread. Instead, may it give beauty and significance to everything we experience, even when we’re under lockdown.

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