With a strong support system, the grieving can learn to live again.
ESTHER would have turned eight this year. It is not hard to imagine her, pretty as a princess, in a pink ballet costume, with her hair swept in a cute updo. She would have taken to the cartoon Frozen, like countless other girls her age, and learned the theme song, Let It Go, by heart. But little Esther never made it past her third birthday. Seemingly overnight, the toddler died of an undetected brain tumour.
Claire George, 36, was devastated that she knew nothing of her middle child’s condition. “We were in Kota Kinabalu for our yearly Christmas holiday. She was just really sleepy throughout and one night, she started having convulsions. We brought her to the hospital for an MRI scan and that was when we discovered she had a brain tumour the size of my fist,” says the mother of three. Even though the family opted for immediate surgery, Esther passed away two days later, leaving behind her grief-stricken parents and two brothers.
“I was in shock. I kept asking: ‘Why must it be her?’ I was angry at everything. I couldn’t stop crying and I didn’t want to see anyone. No parent should ever have to bury their own child. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do because I loved her so much.”
Those who have lost loved ones say the pain never really goes away. Mention of her daughter saddens Claire, but she comes across calm and dry-eyed for the most part. She speaks of her daughter like a cherished memory and there is even the hint of a smile at times. “The people around me kept saying the wrong things. They’d tell me that I could still have other children. Or hinted that maybe I shouldn’t have loved my daughter so much. There was a time when I couldn’t even say Esther’s name without crying. But a year later, I recovered.” And according to Claire, it was only because she and her husband, Lim Heng Seng, went for grief support.
It was two months after Esther’s death that they stumbled upon Grace to Grieving Persons Outreach (GGP), a free community service in bereavement support provided by trained caregivers who have themselves gone through grief. The couple took part in a 13-week grief support group meeting led by GGP founders Edmund Ng and his wife Pauline Chong. Ng is a psychotherapist specialising in grief therapy and is a certified thanatologist.
“When you’re grieving, you think that no one else in the world shares your pain. We had no expectations when we joined the group. We were such wrecks that we wanted something, anything, to help take the pain away. We walked into a room and were suddenly surrounded by people who knew exactly what we were going through. The support was immense,” Claire says.
Through the group and Ng’s guidance, Claire slowly found the courage to come to terms with her daughter’s death. “When I first started out, I couldn’t bring myself to look at another person holding a baby girl or even look at a baby girl’s dress without being reminded of Esther. As ‘homework’, I was told to go to a children’s department to buy a dress. I refused, of course. I told Edmund: ‘I just can’t.’ And his reply was: ‘Why can’t you? If you can’t do it this week, go back and try again next week.’ ”
Despite the dread she harboured, Claire took Ng’s advice and trudged to a department store. “The first week I was there, I stood outside the children’s department, but didn’t go in. I went back to Edmund and told him that. He was very encouraging, and told me to give it another try. A week after, I braced myself, and went to the department store where I used to buy Esther’s clothes. I grabbed the first dress I saw and the tears just came. I was crying and howling and everyone was just staring. After about 10 minutes, I stopped. It felt as if a burden was lifted from me,” Claire says.
This year marks Claire’s return to her old life as a primary school teacher, almost four years after the tragedy. “Whenever Esther’s birthday comes around, I’d still be overwhelmed with grief and cry, but I’ve learned that it’s OK to feel the grief again at that moment. I just won’t let it linger for too long. I’m grateful that I have my husband for support throughout this whole journey and we’ve become closer. I no longer panic when strangers ask ‘How many children do you have?’. If I feel like it, I’ll tell them the truth. Otherwise, I’d just talk about my other two children. Instead of shying away from the topic, talking about the situation, especially to my own two boys, has greatly contributed to the healing process,” says Claire.
Learning to grieve
According to Ng, who founded GGP in 2007 with his present wife Chong, there is no predictable schedule for grief – the grieving process differs from person to person, though with proper support, things can get a little easier. Ng and Chong have been helping families cope with their losses – through group support, community talks and one-to-one sessions. The couple work on a pro bono basis, though they do accept donations that are channeled towards a Widow’s Fund, to aid widowed mothers lacking financial support. Ng and Chong will be giving their sixth annual community service talk on grief support tomorrow at Bukit Kiara Equestrian and Country Club, Kuala Lumpur.
“Most people, when they experience loss, do not know how to grieve. In society, there is very little patience for the grieving. People want you to quickly move on because if you’re not back to normal, it affects them. No one likes talking about death; we somehow think we can forget it by suppressing the pain. But, if we do not deal with grief, it will remain in us, just waiting to be triggered off,” says Ng, 62.
The former property consultant suffered a tragic loss when his wife of 24 years died of a brain aneurysm in 2005. The couple’s two children were then in their teens. “I was devastated. People who visited me were concerned for me, but they did not really know how to help me. They would ask me to ‘move on’, but they could not tell me ‘how’ to move on. They told me not to cry because I had to ‘be strong for the children’. I felt really hopeless, like I had lost my purpose in life,” he recalls.
Ng struggled with coming to terms with his wife’s death right up until he met Chong, 50, who had also undergone the same traumatic experience of losing a loved one. She was only 27 when she lost her husband of two years in a car crash. Their son had just turned one. It took seven years for Chong to get past her grief. “Along the way, many people avoided me. The friends who came to talk to me avoided mentioning my husband altogether. I kept to myself most times. My only saving grace was my mum, who supported me throughout,” says Chong, who recalls losing so much weight that she started looking gaunt and sickly, on top of losing her former cheerful disposition.
Though she had spoken to her son about how his father died, the former sales vendor manager was disheartened when she learnt that he had not reconciled with his loss, even after a few years had passed. “I found out he had been telling his friends at kindergarten that his father was working overseas. I had to explain to him that it’s OK to tell people that his father is no longer around.”
Together, Ng and Chong realised that there were many others like them who had no “safe” place to turn to in their moments of grief. “I read about a respected local judge, the late Tan Sri Eusoffe Abdoolcader in the 1990s. Every year after the passing of his wife, on her death anniversary, he would take up a full-page newspaper advertisement dedicating love poems to her. But on the third anniversary of her death, he shot himself because the grief was just too great. There are so many people who are grieving silently on their own. If only there was a formula to help them put hope back into their lives,” Ng says.
Armed with a newfound purpose, Ng decided to pursue a post-graduate counselling course in Australia and later obtained a certification in thanatology in the United States. “I learnt that in 20% of people, what is typically ‘normal’ grief will develop into complicated grief without proper support and guidance.” When left unresolved, grief can eat away at the body, causing depression and other psychosomatic physical manifestations. Ng adds that instead of telling those grieving “not to cry”, we should say “cry all you want”.
“We encourage families to cry and go through the grieving process together. It’s very normal to experience feelings of denial, anger, guilt and sometimes, shame, before finally accepting the loss of your loved one. Studies show that most people take about two years before they come out of their grief. But with proper support, it can be a year or less.”
Picking up the pieces
When A. Tan lost her husband, A. Yee, of 25 years in 2009, it took her almost five years to come out of her shell and adjust to the “new normal”.
The two had worked in the same healthcare company and were used to seeing each other daily. “We have a son and the three of us were really close. It was catastrophic when he left us just like that. He collapsed one day and never regained consciousness. The doctors suspected that it was a heart condition, but he never showed any symptoms. It took me a year to stop crying over every little thing that reminded me of him. I was carrying around this big leaden feeling in my heart because I missed him so much,” recalls Tan, whose husband passed away in his 50s.
Tan was distraught, but she was careful to hide it from her son, who was studying for his major exams then. “In retrospect, I did try and hide the extent of my grief from him because I didn’t want him to be burdened. I didn’t want him to think he had to take care of me, on top of everything else,” she says.
Thankfully, with the help of family and friends, Tan managed to overcome the financial and household responsibilities that cropped up after her husband’s death. But it was when she discovered the GGP grief share group six months later that things started looking a little less bleak. “When I joined the grief share group, it was so comforting to be around people who knew exactly what I was going through. We could cry about the same things and laugh about the same things and that was a huge relief,” says Tan.
To Tan, the hardest part about grieving is the solitude that settles in when everyone else has gone back to their own lives.“I remember a year and a half after my husband died, a group of friends invited my son and I to join them for a trip to Disneyworld in December. All lit up for Christmas, how could it not be the happiest place on Earth? But it was our first family vacation without my husband, and the void of his absence was so pronounced, I cried every day during that trip. Still, I didn’t want to be a downer for the rest of the group, so I hid it from them. I remember some friends dragging me out for lunches, dinners or events, even though I had absolutely no wish to go. But it proved a welcome distraction from the painful reality. It may have been just a few hours of relief but it was comforting to know that they were there with me, supporting me. I don’t think anyone ever ‘gets over it’, because we are forever changed after losing someone we love dearly. But we learn to adjust and to cope and live again.”
What to tell the grieving
What to say
- Tell them you can never fully know the depths of their pain but you are there for them.
- Remind them that they need not bear the grief alone, as there are people who care for them.
- Ask them how they are doing, and if they do talk, listen to them attentively. Show concern about their struggles, however trivial they may seem to you.
- Say what is sincere and comforting but don’t talk too much.
What not to say
- Don’t say platitudes like “You have to move on.” Most may not know how to.
- Don’t say unhelpful words like “Don’t cry.” They should be given the liberty to cry all they want.
- Don’t say “Call me when you need help.” Instead, offer specific help to them.
- Don’t say “You can always have more children” to people who have just lost their child.
- Don’t say anything to compare, evaluate, judge or solicit sympathy for yourself.
Grief support community talk
Date: Saturday, Nov 29, 2014
Venue: Bukit Kiara Equestrian and Country Club, Kuala Lumpur
Time: 2pm to 5pm
Join speaker Edmund Ng, his wife Pauline Chong and their team of caregivers comprising of widows, widowers and grieving parents to journey through these topics: the Grieving Process, Learning to Grieve Properly and Completely, the Latest Researches on Grief Counselling and Helping Children to Grieve.
Admission is free but prior registration is required. No walk-ins allowed due to limited places. Grieving Persons are to register by calling 012-387 8668. All registrants will be given an Entry Reference Code for admission purposes.