A Kübler-Ross cycle of post-truth grief

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(Take it easy. It’s just a heuristic piece.)

Now the dust settles. Carrie Lam won the (small-circle) (s)election yesterday – with the eerie number of 777 votes out of 1200 from the electoral college. John Tsang, though leading the poll and outmanoeuvring his former colleague by his stunning campaign tactics, lost his bout. Hong Kong is convulsing again. The angry disenfranchised generation sprang to feed frenzy on Facebook status updates and unleash their wrath at this rogue system.

Emotionalism dominates the landscape of social media in major political events – Brexit, the rise of Donald Trump, constitutional reform in 2014, rejection of HKTV’s licence application, prosecution against Uber, etc. In this so-called post-truth world, we are thrust with the taboo subject of ‘death’: the death of Britain and EU after Brexit, the death of democracy, etc. Our Facebook news feeds read: ‘It’s the darkest day of Hong Kong’, ‘Hong Kong is dying’, followed by a litany of irate trolls condemning such defeatist or apolitical attitudes.

OK. Let’s stretch our imagination here. If we have a terminally ill patient called Hong Kong (or EU, UK, US, etc.) who has been bedridden for a long time, how should we take care of her/him towards finality?
elisabeth-kubler-ross-on-death-and-dying-pic-rev2_-980x435In her groundbreaking work on near-death studies On Death and Dying, the late Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross (1926-2004) suggested a five-stage model of bereavement that many terminally ill patients experience before they die or lose someone they love. 1. denial, 2. anger, 3. bargaining, 4. depression, and 5. acceptance (in short, DABDA). It’s a versatile toolbox for us that we may even use to study our emotions after break-up or unrequited love. Psychoanalytic philosopher Slavoj Žižek once used this model to interpret the 2008 financial meltdown in his book Living in the End Times. If Hong Kong is dying with the rise of China and Carrie Lam, let’s think about how to die a better death, or have a better understanding of this slow death.

  1. Denial and isolation: Denial or isolation is the first reaction after the patient learns about his terminal illness and the coming death. The prospect of high degree of autonomy, ’50 years remain unchanged’ and constitutional reform once promised in the Basic Law is dashed. This terminal illness could be the malignant tumor of British colonialism metastasising into a more ruthless form of PRC neo-colonialism. The city showed a fluctuation between an almost total denial of this illness and a repeated attempt to bring about her death (well, is the occupy movement an example?). People in this sick city may briefly talk about the gloomy political reality. Denial is still important, according to Kübler-Ross, because it is ‘a healthy way of dealing with the uncomfortable and painful situation’ and ‘functions as a buffer after unexpected shocking news, allows the patient to collect himself and, with time, mobilise other, less radical defences.’ (p.32)
  2.  Anger: Hong Kong people can no longer deny the growing power of China and the city’s integration with neighbouring regions. Denial is replaced by ‘feelings of anger, rage, envy, and resentment.’ This anger is displaced in all directions almost at random – new immigrants, food product from China, tourists from China, etc. All our life activities or the economic miracle created during the colonial era were to go unfinished, or to be completed by someone else. The patient was allowed to be herself, hostile and demanding while there is no need for onlookers on Facebook to deliver judgement. Once the patient is able to relieve the burden, there will be another side to show – the side of Hong Kong as a vibrant city with history and collective memory, local culture, Cantonese, etc. Don’t blame your friends for posting the political news. They are just angry, and you are just denying it.
  3. Bargaining: After a hiatus of denial and animosity, the patient wants to enter into an agreement and delay the inevitable happening – 2047? The patient may lock himself/herself up in their bedroom and reject the doctor’s visits. His/her wish is about the extension of life – the life of horse-racing and dancing. ‘The bargaining is really an attempt to postpone; it has to include a prize offered “for good behaviour,” it also sets a self-imposed “deadline”…’ Does it sound like the constitutional principle of ‘one country, two systems’ agreed in the Basic Law while we’re fantasising a slim chance that in 2047 nothing horrible will dawn on us?
  4. Depression: The city will undergo more surgery and hospitalisation. Remember the express rail link that the Legislative Council was ‘railroaded’ into endorsing several years ago? Financial burdens are added. The terminally ill patient has to undergo to prepare for his final separation. Depression is just a tool to prepare for the impending loss of all the love objects. Here, at this stage, there is a common initial action: cheer up, tomorrow will be better, look at the bright side of life, etc. But as Kübler-Ross said, ‘this is often an expression of our own needs, our own inability to tolerate a long face over any extended period of time.’ (p.70)
  5. Acceptance: The patient is neither depressed nor angry about the fate of returning to China. It is not a resigned and hopeless “giving up”, a sense of “what’s the use” or “I just cannot fight it any longer” (p.91). The patient is able to express his previous feelings: including the anger at those who are still alive and the envy for the prosperous places outside Hong Kong. It is a tiring moment to contemplate the coming end with a certain degree of quiet expectation. It is not a happy stage, but is almost void of pain, struggle or other feelings.

It is just an abridged version (or almost abuse) of Kübler-Ross’s original model. The model is not meant to be a manual on managing death. It is just a description of ‘defence mechanisms’, and each stage is not necessarily linear, but reflects the possible emotions that we go through when experiencing loss.

Hope: In the end of the book, Kübler-Ross emphasised the importance of hope. ‘It is the feeling that all this must have some meaning, will pay off eventually if they can only endure it for a little while longer. …It gives the terminally ill a sense of a special mission in life which helps them maintain their spirits, will enable them to endure more tests when everything becomes such a strain – in a sense it is a rationalisation for their suffering at times…No matter what we call it, we found that all our patients maintained a little bit of it and were nourished by it in especially difficult times.’ (p.113) No matter which political tribe you belong to, hope persists through all parties, left and right.

On the one hand, I also smell from the Chief Executive-elect a slight air of menace that made me uncomfortable. On the other hand, with the benefit of hindsight, I’m not surprised by the result. After all, politics is a stage where players always have their exits and entrances. On major policy directions, these two heavyweight candidates are broadly on the same page.

Let’s give the leader the benefit of the doubt.

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