James (not his real name) recalls his first experience of dealing with death as clear as day. The Singapore Civil Defence Force firefighter was on his first call when the request for assistance came in. “It was a particularly terrible accident, we were warned, so we could mentally prepare ourselves for what we would find. And it was my very first call and I found myself shaking as the Red Rhino approached the scene,” he said.

Even after a decade as a firefighter, handling death first hand can still be a harrowing experience for him. Not that that should surprise anyone. Most of us who have lost someone know about the emotions that surround death. But while we may think there can be nothing more difficult than dealing with death, it is arguably easier than having to manage the death of a complete stranger. And for first responders, this is something they do, over and over again.

My own first experience with death occurred when I was very young. Waking up in the middle of the night to the sound of wailing, I stepped out of my room and saw my grandmother crumpled in a heap on the sofa while my mother was sobbing, the telephone receiver cupped in her hands. My dad was seated nearby, his head in his hands. The sorrow was visceral, multiplied when shared.

At the crematorium the following day, my dad lifted me so I could see my uncle in the coffin, telling me to say goodbye as he was “going away forever”. I felt sad, but nothing prepared me for what followed in that viewing gallery.

As my uncle’s coffin traversed towards the incinerator, the entire room erupted in cries. I broke down from sheer panic and fear. That experience still haunts me anytime the issue of death comes up.

Benjamin Franklin famously uttered, “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” I’d always considered this quote in levity, but in recent years I’ve come to the opinion that he simply meant these two things were the great equalisers in life that no one can escape. The recent attacks in Manchester, Homs and in past years in Paris, Istanbul and much more have only served to remind the world that life isn’t predictable and while we can all hope for a well-lived life and a painless end, nothing is certain.

First on the scene

First responders like James experience death on a constant basis, but it doesn’t inure them to death; rather, it impresses the fragility of life even more. They don’t just deal with the dying and the dead but also those who survive them.

James’ first case was a violent accident that was a rude awakening to the theoretical lessons first responders go through in their training. A man had been hit by a pickup truck and his body was dragged under the vehicle for over 20 metres. At the scene, his then-supervisor quickly surveyed the wreckage and returned to the vehicle. A quiver in his voice, he directed his men into action. “I was the smallest in stature and it fell on me to go under the truck to pull the body out,” he explained. “My colleagues would secure the vehicle’s frame to make sure we could safely extract the victim.”

The only problem was, there wasn’t much of a body for him to pull out. Everything James tried to hold on to turned to pulp, so he had to resort to scooping up the man’s remains. He forced himself to work fast because he was gagging every couple of seconds.

Psychologists and grief counsellors will explain that the average person’s first response to death, whether personal or impersonal, is to freeze. Dr Susan LaCombe, a psychologist and psychotherapist who focuses on holistic psychotherapy as an alternative to medication when recovering from traumatic life events, explains that the “fight, flight or freeze” first response is buried deep in our reptilian brain stem and it isn’t limited to death but every single trauma we experience, physical or mental.

That reaction is often later coupled with shame and guilt at having frozen and not reacting. Both can last for weeks, even months, before the body recovers. First responders have to learn to fight this instinct to do their job.

James recalled another incident when a jumper leapt from a high-rise, hit the ground just a few metres from him, bounced off the floor several metres high and then landed in a tangled mess. It was horrifying. But his training took over. “I thought about what I needed to do and I rushed towards the body to check for a pulse, although I knew I was unlikely to find one,” he explained. A decade into his work, that fear instinct still hits every time he’s called to a scene but he’s learnt to overcome it. “In the beginning the stress took a toll on me because I bottled up my feelings. Years later, when I opened up to my fiancé, things got better,” he said.

It’s not always impersonal Danial (not his real name), a staff sergeant in the Singapore Police Force who has served for close to a decade, may have forgotten the first death he’s had to call in, but there’s one incident that he finds hard to put aside. We met at a coffee shop late one evening and he looked particularly worn out. He explained that it’s been a particularly long shift as he’s had to cover for a colleague whose uncle passed away earlier in the day.

Policing in the country is often closely tied to the community and officers are often encouraged to forge close relationships with members of the community to ensure civil safety. An elderly man living in government-assisted housing, who he affectionately referred to as “Uncle”, was his liaison in that area. Danial would encounter him sitting outside his home with his neighbour musing about the weather or the stray cats in the area. They frequently drew him into their conversations. One morning, he heard that said neighbour had passed away. He made a mental note to check on the elderly gentleman but other work matters kept him busy until the following week.

“When I finally got the chance to visit Uncle, I sensed something amiss,” he said, his voice heavy with the memory. “There was a packet of food hanging on his gate. I’m not sure who it was from, perhaps it was a charity programme delivery or someone had left it for him. I could smell that the food had spoilt for some time. Then I caught a waft of that unmistakable smell coming from inside the apartment. My heart sank.”

When he and his colleagues finally gained entry into the flat, they found his badly decomposing body near the bathroom. The stench was suffocating. His body had been exposed to the sun, so it was particularly bad. His skin was blackened, and maggots had got to his body. Danial called it in and excused himself from the flat.

Danial’s experience makes me wonder if that might someday happen to me and what emotions it must arouse. Did the old man have no one who would visit him and check on him periodically? How awful it must be to die alone and forgotten, and for days to go by before someone discovered his body.

Danial took a while to get over the case. “It’s important to be able to talk to someone about it. My wife is my sounding block. Every time I have to handle a situation like that, it takes me several days to get over it. Even when I’m at home doing something mundane like watching TV, I would still be thinking about it,” he revealed.

It doesn’t deter him from his work, though, and I admire his resolve. Danial doesn’t fear death. On the contrary, dealing with so much death in his job has taught him to value life, so that when the end finally comes, he can embrace it.

 

Farewell crew

In my conversations with Danial and James, both mentioned having to help the Tong Aik with the bodies. I took the term to mean “undertaker” in dialect. It is only when I spoke to Jenny Tay and Darren Cheng, directors of Direct Funeral Services (DFS) that I learnt that Tong Aik is a subsidiary of their business. That’s also when I learnt that first responders aren’t the only ones who have to deal with horrific cases of death.

“We’re contracted to handle all of the police cases so our guys have seen some terrible things. They work with the police and the SCDF to gather the bodies at a scene, so they tell us about having to pick up severed limbs and scoop up brain matter all the time,” Darren shared.  

Having to deal with dead bodies and funerals so often, don’t they ever become depressed and jaded? Jenny was quick to tell me no. “Being so close to death on a daily basis has made me strive to become a better person. I’ve become more filial, and I no longer hold grudges. Life is too fleeting for that,” she said.

Part of Darren’s job as a funeral director and grief counsellor is to help families get through bereavement. “I usually ask them to tell me about the deceased. Remembering how their loved ones lived often helps people to deal with the passing,” he said.

“I always remind myself to use my time on earth effectively because life is just ticking away. That’s the grim reality that my work hammers into me.”

“The toughest funeral we have planned was for a friend’s young sibling who had committed suicide because of academic pressures,” Darren added. “It was really difficult seeing the regret on the parents’ faces. Their usually stoic personas completely melted away, and all that was left was sadness.”

These professionals value life more than we do because they deal with mortality on a daily basis. However, their stories serve as a solemn reminder that life is unpredictable, lest we get caught up in the rat race, and forget to live.

This article was first published in the June issue of AUGUSTMAN.

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