Transmitting digital information instantly -- from sound recording to images of reality, the internet has changed every aspect of the way we live our lives – including the way we approach death.
My uncle – my mother’s youngest brother was the first one in our family who experienced dying in the internet age. At a senior age of 80, he was hospitalized in China after suffering from cold, which quickly turned to be more severe problem of pneumonia.
The sad news about his ailing health spreads through the WeChat family group -- who scatter across three continents and span over three generations – from his teenaged nephews to his elder siblings. With daily images and video of my uncle lying on the hospital bed, the news has instantly gone viral, wrenching the heartstrings of each and everyone of the group members – who either shared genetics and DNA with him or relate to him through their loved ones. Day-by-day, and week-by-week, posts filled with love, care and good wishes have poured in, making him an instant celebrity of the family.
“Don’t worry too much,” one of his nephews’ son posted from Michigan US, soon after the uncle was admitted into the hospital. “The machine reading shows normal level of blood pressure and blood oxygen saturation level. “
But more gloomy status report soon indicated that my uncle’s illness progressed rapidly, leaving him losing lung functions and slipping in and out of coma. As hope of his recovery diminished, my mother wrote a story, giving a vivid account of his younger brother’s vibrant life and career achievement. Her story soon resonated with everyone in the WeChat group, with many following suit in memorizing the emotional bond with the uncle and commemorating his warmth and kindness.
我一个表弟的妻子发帖写道， “舅舅是我的婚姻红娘，在他的撺掇下， 我和他的侄子成了婚......当时我还年轻，是舅舅的一名同事，他为了我们的婚事费了不少心机。”
“He was the matchmaker of my marriage with my husband – one his nephews… At the time, I was a young and just becoming new college of the uncle, and he went out his way to make sure that I and my husband would tie the knot,” one of my cousin’s wife posted.
The technology allowed the article and comments to be quickly brought to his bedside, and my uncle’s eyes swelled with tears as he was read to when occasionally waking up from coma.
The doctor suggested more invasive treatment – which may cause more physical and phycological pain to the patient -- to save his life. Losing his consciousness and lacking a will, he was inadvertently forced to forfeit the right of choosing his treatment options, allowing his families to act on his behalf. But the issue was soon dividing group members.
The most popular suggestions seemed to be to extend his life by resorting to any avenue in sight. “We should encourage him to fight it till the very end, using every possible way to keep him alive.”
But others adapting to the ideology of peacefully letting go suggested avoiding any further treatment that cannot provide a cure but adding too much pain:
“While uncle did not leave a will, experiencing a peaceful death must have been what he wanted… The treatment would be torturing him. Extending his life in this way may offer us some comfort temporarily but make him suffer much more.”
Uncle may hardly be aware of most part of the concerns and cares among his loved ones, but he sure has embarked on a different life-end journey than any other family members who had died before him – including my father. Unable to fly back home at the time when my father was dying in hospital two decades ago, I’ve been torn by a lifelong regret that I did not have a chance to see my father’s peaceful smile when he was leaving the world.
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