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  • Writer's pictureDr. Henana Berjes

If they are dying, let them know

Abdulrahman was 58 when he died of lung cancer, a fact the family had hidden from him for the months that he slowly deteriorated.

The last few days when he had completely taken to bed and he knew he was dying, he asked his son how long had he known.

“A couple of months, Papa,” he had replied.

“You should have told me, son, you should have…”

Those were the last words he uttered before he fell totally silent.

You should have told me…

“Why would he want to know the most distressing news of his life?”

“Why would he have wanted to bear the trauma of dying long before he was actually dead?”

The son asks me as we sit across from each other at his home where I have gone for the condolence meeting.

I fall quiet for a moment when it hits me.

“We plan decades ahead of us, brother. We aren’t prepared for sudden death,” I tell him. “There’s a lot of work to be done. Ties to be mended, Debts to be paid, phone calls to be answered, graveyards to be visited,” I pause. “We need to ask people for forgiveness. We need to make those last visits. Time is never enough and you can't deny it to a dying man,”

“Yes, I’m so sorry,” he says, tears upon his lashes. “I thought I was saving him a lot of pain,”

“I know. That’s how we think but it isn’t wise. A dead man doesn't deserve to carry more burden to his grave than he actually ought to. Unsettled business is a lot of pain, it doesn’t let you sleep, leave alone die.”

I was sorry that I had uttered those words and I knew I was only increasing the pain of regret he might have felt.

“I am sorry,” I said as I got up to go. “Maybe I shouldn’t have answered your question,” I tell him.

“No, perhaps in my heart I already knew the answer. I just wanted to confirm my worst fear,” he replies.

“It’s a terrible feeling. May Allah help you through this,”

“Insha Allah, but spread the word. You are a writer,” he says.

I smile at him as I leave.

Unfinished business, unsaid words, and we all have those…heaps of them, loads to carry. I think as I walk towards my car. The sun is setting on the horizon and I have a story to tell.

4 May 2023

Dear friends,

It’s been a while since we spoke, but I have been a little unwell lately and I need your prayers.

It was somewhere in the year 2016 when I was a third-year resident pursuing my MD in anaesthesiology when we received a young boy of about 25 years of age with multiple gunshot injuries.

‘He isn’t gonna make it,’ I knew even before I assessed him.

It was bad, too bad.

While we tried to stabilize him, fluid oozing out of more places than we were trying to pump in, he had the pale look of death upon his handsome face. His hair was a matted mess of blood.

We worked together as a team, the general surgeons, the neurosurgeon, the technicians and the paramedics, as we stabilized and put him to sleep at the same time.

He ought not to feel any pain. I thought, watching my consultant intubate him.

What if he is? I wondered as I pushed in the drugs.

After a tiring and gruesome 5 hours as we were about to shift him to the ICU, he had a run of VT that we reverted on the table.

We earned him a few more hours or days.

The boy died after five days but before he did, he had spoken to his family.

He spoke to them for less than five minutes but he died with a smile on his lips.

Maybe we had actually earned him a peaceful journey towards death.

Had he died of VT that day, even though we knew he wouldn’t make it eventually, maybe he would have died without a smile on his lips.

He died with a peaceful heart.

You cannot deny peace to a dying soul.

Sana, (name changed) lost her mother a couple of years ago. She told me about it one day.

“Mom was suffering from cancer and before we knew it had blasted to a full stage four. It was too late when we found out. No one wanted to talk about it,”

“I will take some iron tablets and I’ll be fine,” Mom said looking over her blood reports. She had retired as a nurse from one of the leading hospitals in the city. “Just some anaemia..” she added.

I didn’t show her the other reports but she kept on asking.

Somehow, she realised she wouldn’t make it.

“Something is wrong with me, right?” she asked me one evening as we were taking a stroll in the park.

I looked at her weighing my words.

“Mom, I…”

“Sana, I am your mother and you are bad at hiding things,”

“How much time do I have?” Was the next abrupt question.

“Mom, listen…” I tried to grasp the situation.

She looked at me for a moment and said,

“You know, the reason I told you to take me out for a stroll was because I wanted to know. I can feel it in the hushed silence around me at home. Your father is so bad with his facial expressions,” she chuckled. “You guys are bad. Wonder how you’re gonna manage without me. You don’t know a thing. Now get talking,”

“It’s stage four,” I blurted out.

“Oh,” she said as she sat down on a bench.

I had been abrupt. I had been blatant. Maybe I should have slowed down a bit. It would have been the right thing to do.

But as I contemplated my foolishness and my inability to hide things from my mom, she looked at me, lifted up my chin and smiled.

“Thank you,” she said with tears in her eyes, “I knew I could count on you,”

“Mom…” I exhaled.

“And over the next few months, I watched her sort out her things, She went over her papers, gave me the key to her locker, wrote some letters and made a few phone calls. She told me about the people she owed money to, made a list and asked me to pay her debts. She transferred her bank accounts to me and asked about people we hadn’t seen for years. And then one day she told me to make a phone call.

“It’s the number of a cemetery, Mom?”

“I need to be buried there,” she simply replied.


“I know, but that’s where I want to be buried. Tell them I will pay extra for that piece of land,”

“I would never know why my mom asked me to be buried there when we already had a family graveyard less than two kilometres from home. The one she had chosen was a good fifty miles.”

“A year later, I saw Mom in my dream. She had flowers in her hair and she had a smile on her lips. I was glad that I hadn’t failed her,”

“I understand,” I said, patting her hand.

Maybe Sana had been a bit too abrupt, but then her mother was a strong woman. Not everyone is strong but that doesn’t mean you deny them their right. Gently, slowly, patiently, they ought to be told. They have to leave on a journey. They need to pack their bags and pack them right.

And then I realised what Abdurahman had been denied.

I wish he knew, I seriously do.

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