It was the night of 19 July, 1994.
Joan Swee, 35 at the time, had barely left the hospital when she received a call from the doctor.
“Mrs Chia, you got to come back quickly,” the doctor urged.
She headed back immediately, and in the few brief moments after she had returned back to the ward, her husband breathed his last.
She recounts of the day, “I didn’t go home that night until 2 a.m. the next morning, I waited till the children woke up so I can tell them that daddy died. I had to break the news to them.”
Her children were only six and eight when they lost their dad, and Joan her husband. In the years that followed, their family had to adapt to a new normal with one of the key pillars in their family gone.
Beginning of the end: The diagnosis and prognosis
Joan’s nightmare first began in November 1992, when she received the rude shock of her husband’s cancer diagnosis.
They barely had a week to process the diagnosis before he had to go for the surgery — such was the urgency of his condition. Upon discovery, the tumour was already the size of a golf ball; it was stage four stomach cancer.
Even though the initial surgery went smoothly, the prognosis remained bleak. By the time they operated, the cancer had already spread, and medical technology at the time was not advanced enough for them to detect where exactly the malignant cells had spread to. The surgeon had mentioned that four of his lymph nodes were already affected, and preempted the high possibility of recurrence within two years.
They were left with an impossible choice: proceed with chemotherapy, which carries an exceptionally high level of risk given the unknowns involved, or go on with life while carrying the knowledge that a recurrence of cancer is a matter of ‘when’, not ‘if’.
Ultimately, Joan’s husband made the final call. He told his doctor that going ahead with chemotherapy would be akin to “giving you a blindfold and letting you do guerilla warfare on my body”. Instead, he chose to live out whatever years he had left, all the while carrying the knowledge that he was “living on borrowed time”.
And so, that’s what they did.
In March 1994, they received news of the inevitable — the cancer had recurred in the bile duct. This time, surgery or transplant was no longer an option. With no means to treat the cancer, Joan and her husband were facing the prospect of death.
Throughout this time, the couple had been residing in Hong Kong with their two sons. With no family around them, Joan knew that it was time they returned home to Singapore for the end days. She knew deep down that with the imminent death of her husband, she needed to have a support system around her, one that she wouldn’t have if they stayed in Hong Kong.
They returned home, and her husband had one last surgery to mitigate the bile poisoning in his body. One week later, he was declared brain dead. Two weeks after that, he passed on.
The stark reality of managing grief and widowhood
With her husband’s passing, Joan now had to adapt to her new role of being a single mother and widow. While managing her own grief of losing her partner, she also had to manage that of her children’s, all while helping to accustom them to a new way of life in Singapore and looking for a job.
Understandably, Joan’s two sons struggled with the loss of their father, especially in the early months. Being only six and eight years old at the time, they lacked the capacity to manage these strong emotions. In the first month, Joan recounted several incidents of her two children bed-wetting during the night. Her elder son also struggled with anger induced by grief and was easily agitated, resulting in many sibling squabbles and fights.
She would often speak to them and tell them that it was “okay to cry if they [missed] daddy”; she recounts that when her sons were angry and acting out, it was up to her to brave through and absorb their emotions. She would often hug them and tell them that “it’s okay”.
“I cried a lot,” she recounted when asked about her own grieving process. “I read a lot and […] cried through all their stories.” Besides reading, Joan also found solace in writing letters to her late-husband and to God.
Much like her son, Joan too, had to deal with her own anger. She remembers asking God, “Why did you take [my husband] so young?”. As an outlet for her anger, she recalls driving to a deserted area of Old Holland Road after dropping her son off at school. There, she would vent and shout to God. As she was living with her sister-in-law and her family at the time, she didn’t want to bring these negative emotions home, and her regular getaways in the car became her avenue for expressing grief and anger.
Other than that, Joan would hit the gym every single day. She also sought counselling to work through her loss. Fortunately, Joan was also surrounded by a strong support system of family and friends, with whom she could confide in whenever she was struggling; this served as one of the key factors in her recovery process.
Joan acknowledges that she was fortunate to have a strong support system by her side as well as sufficient financial cushion that allowed her to delay returning back to the workforce, and subsequently, hire a helper. This gave her more time to spend with her children and help them through their difficulties in school.
She did eventually re-enter the workforce five years after her husband’s passing, which was another step forward in her journey of recovery.
Journeying through bereavement was a long and often lonely journey, and it took Joan years before she was ready to take off her wedding ring.
Eventually, four years later, she did.
Healing and moving forward
In the initial years after her husband’s passing, Joan would avoid poignant events such as weddings and funerals; she was also averse to visiting hospitals for fear of triggered memories of her husband’s struggle with cancer. In hindsight, she acknowledges that this is a normal part of the grieving process and was glad she gave herself the space to do so.
She emphasised that “each individual will have their own timeline” when it comes to grief. While it is important and necessary to move beyond, the journey can indeed seem overwhelming. From her own experience, Joan has learned that time alone doesn’t heal all wounds; instead, it’s what you do with the time that matters the most.
In the first few years of her husband’s passing, grief still hit her unannounced at times; moments like seeing a loving couple walking hand-in-hand or a family laughing at a hawker centre could end up being unintentional triggers for her grief. Special days (such as anniversaries or birthdays) were particularly difficult. Now, more than 20 years since, these special days no longer bring up the same negative emotions.
How you can help
Joan urges individuals who encounter those experiencing loss to be more understanding and allow them space to grieve. After all, grieving after loss is a natural process. She advises those who are unsure of how to approach this issue to just “be a listener; put yourselves in their shoes, empathise with them, cry with them, [and] allow [them] time to unload”.
Besides that, she also recommends offering them practical help if they require it, such as assisting them with childcare, arranging playdates with their children, or offering simple solutions like helping them with groceries.
Ultimately, what these individuals need the most are sincere friends who are willing to lend them a crutch when they need support, a listening ear when they need to vent, and a community when they feel alone.
Today, Joan uses her own experience and expertise to speak hope into the lives of others who are going through similar situations through her grief recovery organisation, Whispering Hope.
Whispering Hope holds regular workshops on dealing with grief and loss, whether it’s with jobs, finances, relationships, or others. If you, or someone you know, is struggling, you can register for Whispering Hope’s upcoming Grief Recovery Method Group Program; the details can be found below:
E-mail: [email protected] for Registration Form.
WhatsApp: 8668 0043
Save $200 when you sign up by 6 February 2021!
6, 13, 20 March & 10 April, 9.30 a.m. -1 p.m.
10, 17, 24 March & 7 April, 2 p.m. – 5.30 p.m.
Otherwise, you can also contact Whispering Hope with the above details if you require personal counselling services or assistance.