THE KDK REPORT: When tomorrow never comes

A UNIVERSAL unwavering truth is that at some point, we will all die. How, when or where will never truly be known in advance. And yet we rarely live each day as if it were our last. We constantly take people for granted, keep new clothes neatly folded away waiting for a special event and intrinsically anticipate multiple goals can be accomplished tomorrow or the day after. But what if tomorrow never comes and you knew that when you closed your eyes you’d never wake back up? Would you have any regrets or would you be happy with what you did that day? Or as someone famously once said, “I never heard anyone on their deathbed say, ‘I wish I had spent another day at the office’.”

I suspect every graveyard across the world is stock full of regrets and unfulfilled promises to self.

Truth is, dying is not something we ever want to face head-on so in dismissing it, we also forget about its inevitability. The concept of death is chilling, sensing the emptiness and loss of never seeing our loved ones again.

But one of the deepest threads that connects us as human beings is the loss of one we love is something we will have to endure at some moment - and it will change our lives. We often relegate discussing or even thinking about this until we reach senior age and death looms ever-presently. But a quick glance through the obituaries and it becomes painstakingly obvious that death is no longer an old-people’s dilemma.

No one knows this better than the patient highlighted in today’s report who, in less than two years, lost more than ten close family members, including three brothers, two nieces, one nephew, three cousins, her aunt and her father-in-law. They each died from either COVID-19, crime, heart disease, a stroke or cancer and she feels these issues must be addressed particularly in the black community. It is an unfathomable loss and the dynamics of her life have changed forever.

This patient is one of the most remarkable I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing and when speaking to her earlier today, she said prayer and her strong faith in God got her through every challenge she’s faced. As the eldest in her family, she also realised she has to remain calm and provide a shoulder to cry on for those she holds most dear. But her strength was shaken years prior at the death of her stillborn son who was cremated by the hospital without her consent and when her beloved mother died. Those were the two times that brought on a mountainous crashing wave of pain and depression that was all-consuming.

Her desperate fight to overcome that pain has provided her with an understanding that helps her with each successive loss and an inner peace knowing the divine presence has the final say in the circle of life.

According to her, every day when we open our eyes, we open the greatest gift of life and nothing else is important without that one gift so, when we see life through that lens we are able to cope with anything. She’s learned regret is a poor companion on this road of life, and it doesn’t belong in our future. When death comes we carry too much disappointment and need to grieve and ask for strength to move on because at some point we will have to do it again. She knows she may not have a lot of money to help others but she can give a smile, offer a prayer to those in need and hope each day that if it’s her last, she’s done something worthwhile for her fellow man on that day and all the days before.

When asked what else she’d like for readers to take from her story, she suggested something I was not expecting, given the grief she has endured and how she has managed to move forward, still offering forgiveness and prayer. She said plainly that death brings an emotional strain and you don’t need a financial strain as well. She recommends estate planning which sounds like a fancy term but even for those with little, not leaving your loved ones with huge debts to bury you takes planning. Make sure an insurance policy with a death benefit is in place. Have a discussion with your loved ones about what they want in their obituary and how they’d like their funeral to be organized. She did it for her mother and it was the last most powerful gift she could provide to honour her memory.

Views on death vary widely from one culture to another. Native Americans, for example, believe that sickness manifests when one is out of balance with nature and in death ancestors return to guide the spirit. Those who practice Hinduism, on the other hand, believe in reincarnation where a deceased person returns in the form of another. They refer to this birth, life, death, rebirth as the cycle of samsara and their faith teaches that the atman (or soul) moves into a new body immediately following death and if an atman has good karma from a previous life, it will be reborn into a better life. African death rituals alternatively include covering all the windows in the house and removing the bed of the deceased. Bodies are then taken on a circuitous confusing path to the burial site in hopes the deceased will remain an ancestor and not wander back home. Whatever tradition your culture holds, it is a difficult self-reflecting time and an unyielding reminder of the fragility of life.

Personally, I’ve also had one too many encounters with death but I believe it’s made me more empathetic and much more appreciative of the loved ones who remain. After the deaths of my grandparents, uncles, brother, father and closest cousin, I became ever more attuned to the fact that today is not refundable. Such are lessons one never wants to learn but are best learned sooner rather than later.

Many people have asked me where I find the time to write a weekly health column but for me healing a patient’s foot and ankle issue or helping them to walk again is easy but helping them share their stories so that others can walk through life a better version of themselves – now that’s a legacy to be proud of and one I’ll want in my obituary, when tomorrow never comes for me.

• Nicknamed ‘The Prince of Podiatry’, Dr Kenneth D Kemp is the founder and medical director of Bahamas Foot and Ankle located in Caves Village, Western New Providence. He served as the deputy chairman for the Health Council for five years and he currently sits on the board of directors for the Princess Margaret Hospital Foundation in his role as co-vice-chairman.


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