thesundaytimes August 4, 2013 August 4, 2013

Sign him up for a phonics class. She says: “Without her advice and support, I would be wondering if I was doing enough as a mother and exposing my chi...

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thesundaytimes August 4, 2013

August 4, 2013 thesundaytimes

Moving on after spouse dies Support groups and family members can make it easier to get over the grieving period

Eve Yap

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t was a shock to engineer Katherine Ho to see people smiling and joking not too long after the death of their spouses. This happened at a Christmas gathering for widows and their children under 12 in 2009. Ms Ho, 35, recalls blurting out in tears: “How can you all be so happy? I can’t see my future, how I could be happy again or laugh again?” Her husband, engineer Andy Yeo, had died two months before that, in October 2009, just six weeks after he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Their son was then four and daughter two months old. Ms Susan Chee, 55, general manager

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of Wicare, the support group for widows which Ms Ho attended, says: “The grieving period depends very much on how the husband died – whether it was a sudden accident or suicide, which are very traumatic and take a longer time.” Ms Chee, whose husband died in the 1997 SilkAir crash in Indonesia that killed 100 people, says how a spouse copes after a loved one is snatched away – or even after a lingering illness – depends a lot on the individual. Widows and widowers SundayLife! talked to say they took anything from a year to three years to accept reality, but making practical everyday changes help. Ms Ho – who now serves as committee member in Wifilles, a Wicare offshoot support group for widows with kids under 12 – started with mundane chores. Her late husband had seen to all money matters, including the paying of household utilities, insurance and even her credit card bills. As a way to expunge her grief, Ms Ho, who was on maternity leave, took that time to “dig out documents, sort out papers and understand what’s going on”, before going back to work at ST PHOTO: CAROLINE CHIA

a semi-conductor firm in November pany at night, watching television till 2009. She also turned to her extended the boy nodded off to sleep in the family for support. master bedroom. At work, instead of calling her Mr Thong, 55, says: “The direct husband on the way to different meet- impact was my performance at work ing rooms as she would normally do, suffered.” “just to hear his voice”, she called a At one internal meeting to update younger sister instead. the bosses, he got his sales data wrong At her request, her father and young- and was ticked off for it. est sister moved into her apartment in He quit the job last August, went to Sengkang for 11 /2 years after their a school that trains missionaries for four-room flat in Tiong Bahru was about half a year while working involved in an en-bloc sale. They part-time in a headhunting firm. moved into their new four-room flat in He took up his current post as a the same area later. student facilitator in a mission agency She says of their ongoing support: last month. “It’s important for my kids and me to The many family photos that used have the people who love and care for to adorn his old home and photo us around us.” albums of their holidays together are There was also the matter of her now kept in boxes in the storeroom. children’s education. Only one framed photograph of his She says: “With my husband wife sits on a table in his bedroom. around, their education is a shared He says: “I want to remember my responsibility. Now, how my kids turn dear wife but I don’t want my out is based solely on my decisions.” memories of her to be tied down to her The fear that she was not doing death.” enough led her to push her son to For Madam Rosie Lim, the “memobecome an independent reader. ries are still raw” and she is torn She turned to a sister-in-law, whose between wanting to hold on and younger of two children was about her letting go. son’s age, for advice. The suggestion: Her husband of 42 years died of Sign him up for a phonics class. pneumonia in July last year. He was 68. She says: “Without her advice and Madam Lim, now 69, cries at the support, I would be wondering if I was slightest reminders of him – from the doing enough as a mother and sight of his favourite chair in their exposing my children to the best of four-room HDB flat in Bedok North to their abilities.” missing the routines of In the short term, showering and feeding even friends and neigh- “I want to him. bours can be pillars of remember my dear He had had Alzhesupport. imer’s disease since When her late hus- wife but I don’t 2008, with breathing band, a delivery man, want my memories complications. She was died of a heart attack in of her to be tied his caregiver for five February 2009, Madam years from 2007 until Siti Patimah felt help- down to her death.” his death. less. He was the sole MR D. THONG, 55, whose wife Previously a homebreadwinner. Their died three years ago body, she now volunchildren were then 12 teers once a month at a and nine. Buddhist association, bakes cookies for Says Madam Siti, 42, in a combina- staff of the hospital where her husband tion of Malay and English: “I had no was a patient and exercises twice a money, no job and two kids. I was week at a playground nearby. Her two married daughters take her crying every day for six months and out for lunches on weekends. On the utility bills were piling up. “Friends and neighbours paid the weekdays, she looks after three utility bills or brought food, but I had grandchildren, aged 14, 12 and eight, to revive my spirit for my children’s in her flat, which she now shares with a younger, single sister, who moved in sake.” At her friends’ suggestion, she went to keep her company. “But I feel very lost, very empty,” to the Association of Muslim Professionals at Pasir Ris, where she says Madam Lim several times during attended various skills-training classes, the interview, dissolving into tears. She even thinks of him as she taps including its micro-business scheme in her fare card on bus journeys. His massage therapy. Now, her income as a freelance photograph is in her purse. “I say to masseuse supplements her take-home him, ‘Pete, you are with me’, as I flash pay of about $940 as a health-care the card going up the bus.” On days she finds the loss too overassistant in a nursing home. She recalls: “At first, I couldn’t whelming, the ex-florist spritzes his accept his death and I was angry with favourite Ralph Lauren fragrance on myself for being at the market and not curtains in their bedroom to “get his scent”. at home when he collapsed. Ms Ho of Wifilles knows what to say “But I keep telling myself, ‘You just have to look forward, not backwards.’” to Madam Lim: Take baby steps. She says: “The things I used to do as Even in cases of death after a long-term illness, it may not be easier a family of four with my husband and the kids, like going for weekend meals, for surviving spouses to cope. When Mr D. Thong’s wife of 18 I still did because I didn’t want to years died in April 2010 after a 13-year deprive the kids of that.” But she took the “whole gang” fight against bone cancer, he devoted along initially, including her father more time to his mildly autistic son. He would return home from work as and two younger sisters. “So we weren’t a family of three, but a product manager in a telecommunications company two hours earlier than a family of more.” usual at around 7pm. Father and son kept each other [email protected]

Madam Rosie Lim is still grieving over the death of her husband last year but has grandsons Gabriel Lim, eight, and Ryan Wee, 12, to keep her company.

I was about to enter the women’s shower facilities at a club recently when the uncle manning the towel counter outside stopped me. “Excuse me,” he said, gesturing towards my son. “He’s too big.” Confused, I could only parrot: “He’s too big?” The explanation for why my boy had to tag along was on the tip of my tongue: There was no one else to mind him. He might get lost if I left him alone outside. And how could he be too big? He was only... six. Then it hit me. Suddenly, I could see my son through a stranger’s eyes: a lean bundle of energy that, if you can get him to stop moving and stand straight for a second, will come up to between my elbows and armpits. Yup, there was no denying it. He’s a big boy now. In that instant, I was consumed by a swirl of emotions: a jolt of shock at seeing him in a new light; a sense of wonder at how fast he has grown; and a pang of loss at how quickly these precious years are slipping by, against my will and control, like water trickling through a clenched fist. There was a time when I couldn’t wait for him to grow up. During his first year, I was constantly checking baby books to mark off various developmental milestones: when his head would stop lolling about; when he would stop requiring so many darn nappy changes a day; and when I could safely wean him without incurring the wrath of those “breast is best” fanatics. I was desperate to know when I could get a semblance of my old life back. How nice if human babies were like the young in the animal kingdom, I bleated repeatedly to my husband. Within minutes of being ejected from their mothers’ womb, they would be standing or suckling unaided. Yet, now that my son is raring to fend for himself, I’m loath to let go.

“Hey, you are a big boy now so you can no longer follow me into the female restroom,” I told him, somewhat wistfully, after the episode at the club. “From now on, you have to go with papa or visit the men’s loo on your own.” He nodded – too enthusiastically, I thought. I was the one who didn’t realise it was high time to sever the umbilical cord. When, I wondered, had the last padding of baby fat melted off him? When did his limbs, once chubby and clumsy, start to work in harmony and with such agility? For some time now, I’ve been free to sit in one corner and fiddle with my cellphone instead of watching him like a hawk when I set him loose at the playground. I didn’t realise that meant we had crossed yet another milestone. Six years on – after a fractured arm (a superhero stunt gone wrong), two X-rays (bungled attempts to escape his cot that saw him landing, head first, on the floor) and a three-night stay in the hospital for salmonella poisoning – our first-born is still largely intact and due to enter Primary 1 next year. All the signs of his budding independence have been there. Not only has he been refusing to put on anything I pick out for him, but he has also started to dictate what the rest of us should wear when we head out. “Papa, I want you to wear this shirt,” he would say. “I like the colour and you haven’t worn it for a long time.” Once, he scooted off with our tray at a food centre while I was paying. Fearing I would lose him in the crowd, I yelled for him to wait. Without a backward glance, he shouted back: “I’m going to look for a seat first.” For the first time since I became a mum, I’m starting to miss those days when I was his entire universe. “Can you stop growing so fast? Why don’t you remain six years old forever,” I told him one night, only half in jest. At six, a kid is perfectly manageable – old enough to articulate his thoughts and feed and clean himself, but not quite old enough to challenge your authority or lose all vestiges of a child’s charming innocence. “That’s impossible,” he replied, wrig-

gling out of my embrace. “I want to be taller than you and papa.” So I wax nostalgic by telling him stories about when he was but a prune of a baby: how he fitted neatly, perfectly in the crook of my arm; how I cried when he had to remain in hospital to be treated for neonatal jaundice; how his marathon crying fits at night drove us bonkers. In turn, he regales me with made-up tales of how he is off to work or a holiday with his pals. All the stories have a pointed reminder: “You cannot come with me.” It is not quite game over yet for me though. He still likes to hold my hand when we are out and has no qualms asking to be carried, especially when he sees his younger sister happily ensconced in our arms. I have a place in his (fantastical) future plans too. “Mama, when I grow up, I will buy a big castle for you, me, mei mei and papa,” he informed me solemnly one day. Another time, he wanted to know how and where he can get himself a wife. “Can you help me look for a good wife?” he asked. After we worked out the pretend logistics, I teased: “What if your wife doesn’t want to live with me and papa? Will you chase us out?” He pursed his lips and pondered for a while. “I will tell her she cannot behave like this.” Oh, the gift of innocence. I’m not looking forward to the next phase of his childhood – the start of formal schooling will bring on an unwelcome avalanche of homework, exams and stress, even as his growing independence and circle of friends draw him further away from us. But I know I will look back on it, some day, with the same fondness that I now have for those bleak early days, for we will still play a major role in his life. It is true that your life will never be the same once you have kids. It is also true that once you have kids, you can’t ever imagine life without them. [email protected] What do you miss most about your child’s growing-up years? E-mail [email protected]