Dealing With Death and Loss

By TAN Kee Wee

(MediaCorp 938LIVE’s Money Talks, Thursday, 16 October 2008, 7.50 am and 7.20 pm)

When stock markets began its plunge a few weeks ago, it was seen as a great opportunity to buy. It spurred wave after wave of bargain hunters to rush in, hoping to make some money. Instead, all they got were bloody noses.

As prices continued to slip, many investors were left in a state of shock. Soon, across trading floors, phones stopped ringing. Clients were not even calling up their stock brokers to seek advice and reassurances.

It is the classic situation whereby investors are not able to face up to their losses. For them, the natural way to overcome the pain of losing money is to refuse to recognize the extent of their losses.

From struggling for breath a few weeks ago, many investors began to breathe quietly and felt numb. This numbness usually occurs sometime before the last phase, or the capitulation phase. That’s when investors finally give up, and dump all their stocks at whatever prices.

For investors who still have the money, this capitulation phase is important because it’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance to buy. Because it usually marks the lowest point for prices.

The trick is to know when this capitulation phase is upon us. It’s certainly not this week, with the markets still so energetic. It could be next month. It could be next year. No one really knows.

But what we do know is that the market’s frame of mind, right to the capitulation phase, is very similar to the frame of mind of a man who has just been told that his illness is incurable, and that he would die.

The noted expert on death and dying, Dr Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, identified the stages that dying people typically experience. These stages do not necessarily progress in a specific order. But, they are real.

In the first stage, there is usually numbness, denial or disbelief. The second stage is when the dying patient is angry and starts to blame others. Then there is the stage whereby the dying patient would bargain with his god for an extension of his life.

As the end approaches, the second last stage is marked by depression, weeping, and immense sadness. Then comes the final stage. This is one of acceptance or coming to terms with death.

Like the investor who finally decides to dump his stocks, this final stage is also a liberating time for the patient. Once death is accepted, and when death is seen as a part of life, he will be at peace. He will feel as if a great weight has been lifted from him. He will see more clearly. And he will begin to look forward to his next journey.

Unfortunately, not all dying patients get to reach this final and peaceful stage. All patients should really. One of the main aims of hospice and palliative care, which is a branch of medicine helping patients cope with terminal illnesses, is to guide patients towards this peaceful stage.

Because once we reach this peaceful stage, we’ll recognize that it’s not how long we live that matters. It’s the quality of our life that really matters.

In the face of death, we should not just respond to it by breaking into tears or poetry, or just take drugs to dull the pain. That would not be right. The principle of hospice and palliative care teaches us that the right antidote to death and dying is life and living.

In other words, we’re to go home, love our children, try not to quarrel, eat well, feel the rain falling on our heads, and laugh as often as possible, especially at ourselves.

The principle of hospice and palliative care can also teach something to investors who have lost money recently. The right antidote is not to grieve over the money lost, which we imagine would give us happiness. The right antidote is to find our happiness through other means.

For every minute we spend grieving over our loss, is a minute of happiness we want for ourselves and will never get back.