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The Singapore Law Gazette

Through the Valley – The Art of Living and Leaving Well, by Dr William Wan

When I picked up Dr William Wan’s book, Through the Valley, my first impression was that it is a book for the older reader. After reading the first couple of chapters, however, I realised that the book is for every one of us. In fact I know of two of my friends in their twenties who will enjoy this book.

The book starts off by taking the bull by its horns and talks about the ultimate death we will all face when we step into this world. He refers to DASH, the way we live life, from the day we are born till death, being the most important.

The book is divided into three parts – living and ageing well; leaving well; and being prepared to die. The book is semi-biographical in relation to the themes and is filled with nuggets of references and information gleaned from health professionals, philosophers and authors who have written about death, such as Dr Paul Kalanithi. I enjoyed information from the World Health Organisation referring to the age group of 18 to 65 as youth or young people; and 66 to 79 yearers as middle-aged. 

Dr Wan’s matter of fact writing style on life, growing old and facing death is reflective, positive and informative. As a person in his early 50s, it gives me hope and passion about the future ahead of me. In our society where we often feel that life is over at 50 or 60, Dr Wan shares the bucket list he created when he turned 61 which consisted of skydiving, snipe sailboat race, scuba diving, rock-climbing, glacier tracking and bungee jumping, all of which he has ticked off at his current age of 71.

Another concept in the book which resonated with me is the importance of adding life to years and not adding years to life. It is not about the length of our life but the kind of life we live. We should celebrate life, no matter how short it is for some.

On leaving well, Dr Wan, a former lawyer, discusses the need to prepare for death, explaining the legalities of making a Will and Lasting Power of Attorney. He focuses quite extensively on the Advanced Medical Directive (AMD), a topic not dwelt on much by lawyers and others. The importance of the AMD, he elaborates, is to take responsibility for the end of one’s life and not leave the heavy and difficult responsibility to our loved ones.

Preparing for death also involves letting loved ones and friends know how we feel about them and to show our appreciation for them during their lifetime and not after they die. Eulogies, he says, are important but are too late for the departed.

Self-penned obituaries, life legacies, planning our own funeral, and death cleaning are other leaving well concepts that the book covers. Death cleaning is the subject of a book by author Margareta Magnusson.

Death cleaning refers to decluttering our personal belongings and giving away our valuables to loved ones during our lifetime. I found this not only interesting, but relevant.

In the final part of the book, the postscript, Dr Wan, who is also a church minister, gives deep insight into the grieving process, from a psychological and personal viewpoint, which is very informative to the layman.

Some parts of the book are a bit repetitive and the references to other reading sources can be heavy going. I wish Dr Wan had shared more about his own enriching life, most of which was spent overseas, or talked about his past experiences as a psychometric analyst and his present role as General Secretary of the Singapore Kindness Movement. Perhaps, that could be the subject of his next book.

Through the Valley – The Art of Living and Leaving Well is available at bookstores and at www.stbooks.sg at $30 a copy.