March 2019 Feature
This book, as the author himself notes, draws its title from the Twenty-Third Psalm: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil”. Appropriately, this slim, readable volume does not merely address fears of ageing or of death. It speaks instead of journeying through the valley to age well and die well.
The author, Dr William Wan, is eminently qualified to write on this topic. He won the Active Ageing Award in 2011, and still serves as the General Secretary of the Singapore Kindness Movement – a position he took up at age 64, when many others are beginning to enjoy a laidback retirement. Dr Wan, now in his early 70s, continues to keep 15-hour work days, preaches regularly at different churches, and is a frequent contributor to the Straits Times. This book was fittingly written while he was on sabbatical for his 70th birthday.
Through the Valley* comprises four sections: ageing well, dying well, being prepared, and a concluding postscript. In all the sections, the reader is led to consider what it means to both live well and leave well.
The first and lengthiest section begins with a scene-setter: Singaporean society is greying. “Successful ageing” must therefore be viewed from various levels, including the individual, the family, the community and the nation. At the individual level, Dr Wan shares, in a manner that is not pushy but matter-of-fact, how his Christian faith and spiritual disciplines provide an important anchor in his own experience of growing old. The author’s reflections are invaluable in demonstrating the importance of spirituality in ageing well, a dimension that is not always elaborated in other literature on ageing.
The book also covers familiar topics such as maintaining one’s mental and emotional health, eating well, proper exercise, remaining engaged and humble through constant learning, and the simple pleasures which come from showing kindness to others, including to caregivers.
Dr Wan presents the concept of being re-fired for work and service even after being retired, and explains how his Bucket List comprises not merely leisure activities but pursuits which are new and somewhat challenging, which push him to remain open to new experiences. These are useful concepts, although some readers may wish for more elaboration on what these might look like for different groups: those who fear premature retirement due to skills obsolescence or workplace ageism, those who cannot afford to stop working due to their financial situation, or those who are already in poor health upon retirement.
The book takes a helpfully nuanced view of nostalgia, showing how it is not merely a negative preoccupation with the past, but can also be both a positive force which sustains self-identity and self-image. The numerous anecdotes, short stories, jokes, and reflections in this section make for a lively yet thought-provoking read.
Part Two on Dying Well begins with an overview of how each of the main religions in Singapore view death and the afterlife. The views of agnostics and atheists are also acknowledged. It remains a fact common to people of all faiths (and none) that death is certain, and can often be sudden. Hence, the author argues, one must make appropriate preparations in order that one might die well.
The book addresses the taboo of speaking about death, which is common in Singaporean society. While the author acknowledges legitimate fears – of the unknown, of making a faux pas, of being a burden, of not being able to resolve unfinished business – he points out that not speaking can have negative consequences not just for the deceased, but for those who remain behind. Given the inevitability of death, and virtually everyone’s desire for a dignified departure, it is crucial to have honest conversations (what the author calls die-logues) before it is too late.
Dr Wan himself leads the way in shedding the coyness in speaking about death by sharing his own near-death experiences, and by elaborating on his own intended die-logue with close friends. This provides an excellent model for readers who may be struggling to even begin having such conversations.
Part Three, titled “Be Prepared”, begins by introducing the concept of death cleaning (from the Swedish döstädning), which points to the importance of making adequate preparations so as not to leave a mess for others to tidy up.
What does this preparation entail? The book uses an analogy that is familiar to well-travelled Singaporeans. Dying is like emigrating to a different country. In order to make a proper exit, one must have the appropriate immigration papers. These papers include a last will and testament, a Lasting Power of Attorney (LPA), an Advance Medical Directive (AMD), an Advanced Care Plan (ACP), and even one’s intentions concerning organ donation or the release of one’s cadaver for medical science. Such documentation, though uncomfortable to consider and converse about, is crucial in sparing one’s loved ones from confusion, contention, or compunction.
At the same time, while the book mentions briefly that an AMD does not allow a doctor to actively hasten the arrival of death, it does not highlight related terminology such as physician-assisted suicide or euthanasia, nor explain why these are ethically problematic. Readers should be careful not to confuse suicide with the legitimate and important preparatory documents listed in the book.
The final section titled Postscript is not a mere afterword. Rather, it addresses what happens afterward, that is, after one has passed away. The audience for this section of the book is primarily the bereaved. The author explains the different stages of grief and the importance of tears in coming to terms with a bereavement. One recalls the traditional Chinese saying男子汉流血不流泪 (“real men shed blood, not tears”), which turns out to be not at all helpful in coping with grief.
And just how does one comfort a person who is grieving? Dr Wan provides many helpful suggestions, gleaned from his years of experience as a pastor and counsellor, concerning what to say, as well as what not to say.
The book closes, not with a conclusion from the author, but with writers of various backgrounds sharing their personal stories about living well and dying well. A fitting end, for no matter one’s creed, class, or skin colour, we will all age, we will all face death. Readers of Through the Valley will certainly be better equipped to face these well. This is a book I will undoubtedly get for my parents as they step into their senior years.
*”Through The Valley: The Art of Living and Leaving Well” by William Wan is available at all good bookstores and at www.stbooks.sg.
Gilbert Lok is currently pursuing the Master of Divinity at Trinity Theological College. He hopes to serve in the pastoral ministry after he completes his theological studies. Gilbert worships at the Aldersgate Methodist Church.