THIR.ST TALKS: Life and death in a morgue

Adrienna Tan, Burning Hearts // September 10, 2018, 7:01 pm


I remember my first body. I remember going into the mortuary that first day and feeling a bit scared because I was very used to having bodies already autopsied before they came through my doors. And so, this case was an old lady who died of a heart attack. She was very cold. And lifeless.

I also remember doing a case where it was the relative of a family I knew. And seeing that person there on that metal trolley was very sobering because as close as I was to the person, the sudden realisation that he’s not around anymore – that no matter how much I shake him, I call him – he would wake up and respond to me no more was one of the moments I felt this is death.

This is what death is.

My name is Adrienna. I’m 22 this year and I’m a pathologist.

Pathologists basically do post-mortems and autopsies on deaths that are unnatural as well as sudden deaths. As of today, I have done about 800 bodies. 

Out of the 800 plus bodies that have come through my doors, a good 100 plus of them have been young people. And in recent years, there has been an increase in the number of young people that I’ve been seeing coming to the mortuary because of suicides and accidents.

Those are some of the saddest cases for me – when I see young people come in through my doors and they are people who jumped off buildings, people that get into accidents. People that slashed their wrists; suicide cases.

I remember autopsying a body that was exactly my age. In the records, I saw that she had the same birthday as me. I cried because just that thought that if it had been me, how would my family have felt? And how would my friends respond to the news that I lost my life or that I jumped because I was upset, I was depressed? 

I had a very good friend that had some family issues and because of that, she jumped out of her bedroom window.

She didn’t tell anyone else because she didn’t want anyone of us to be burdened by her situation and as a result get depression because of her. But what she did was that she eventually wrote a letter to her family and she just jumped out of her window and her family found her body the next day when the police called them.

They didn’t even realise that she was gone, that the people yelling from downstairs were because of their daughter.

I remember her mother calling me and crying over the phone and me not being able to understand what she was saying. All she could say was like, “She’s gone, she’s gone” and I was like what do you mean she’s gone? That’s all she could say. She couldn’t even bring herself to tell us that she committed suicide.

And for a good five, six years, the parents couldn’t bring themselves to reconcile the fact that their daughter had not just died but committed suicide. So whenever somebody asked them, “Oh, where’s your daughter?”, they would say that “Oh she’s overseas. She’s not at home. She’s overseas studying ”.

As friends, the news of her passing was really hard on us too because a lot of us beat ourselves up for not noticing it earlier, for not being there for her when she needed us and just not being sensitive enough to know that she’s going through something so much so that it would push her to the point of death. 

But in processing with God this painful experience, I realised the best thing you can do for friends struggling with suicidal thoughts is to be there for them. My friend’s passing has made me very conscious of the people around me. That if there’s just an inkling of something wrong, I would be the one that pushes them like: “Is there something wrong with you? Do you need to tell me something?” – to be that outlet for them to share their emotions, share their struggles so that they wouldn’t be another one lying in front of me. 

At the same time, I understand I’m not a hero and that sometimes all I need to do is to point them to Jesus and that would be enough for them to have hope. On my own, it’s going to be very difficult because I don’t fully understand what they’re going through and I don’t understand the pain that they have gone through themselves. But I know I can point them and rally them to look to the One who has understood, who can understand.

I was 13 when I first contemplated suicide. I remember standing on the overhead bridge and thinking that if the height didn’t kill me, an oncoming car would.

But as I was up there on the overhead bridge, contemplating if I should jump, I thought of my family and how they would react to the news of me suddenly jumping. And the thought that they didn’t know what I was going through and the sudden shock that would afflict them because of my death, stopped me from actually jumping.

Now that I’m a pathologist, I have actually seen for myself families receiving the news that their loved one is dead or that their loved ones had committed suicide. And the sight is terrible because you see them breaking down when they see the body that they used to recognise is now mangled by blood and wounds. 

As someone who once struggled with suicidal thoughts, I understand that the pain can be very real and the struggle, painful. But as someone who lost a friend to suicide, as a forensic pathologist delivers the cause of death reports to the family of the deceased, I also know that there are people around willing to help; that we’re all loved and that as long as we hold on and get through the pain, there is always hope for tomorrow. 

So if you’re contemplating suicide or you’re struggling with your emotions thinking whether you should take your life, can I just say that there are people around you that are willing to help and can help? Would you talk to them and would you let them into your emotions so that they can help you out? 

In my line, I get faced death and the issue of dying almost every single day and one of the thoughts that stayed with me since the start of medical school has been that death is the great equaliser.

Whether it’s a suicide or an accident or an unnatural death, all bodies that come through my doors look the same because, through the eyes of a pathologist, it is just another corpse lying naked in front of me waiting to be autopsied.

But as a human, as a friend, as a daughter, whenever these bodies come through my doors, I think about the families of these ones. And I think of how they would react to the news when I tell them. I think of how they would think about the lives of this one that they loved. These are the thoughts that keep me human even as I work in a morgue.

And as numb as some of us can be, this is what keeps us alive.

If you or anyone you know is struggling suicidal thoughts, know that you’re never alone. The Samaritans of Singapore hotline is available 24/7 to anyone who needs help at 1800 221 4444.