Editor's note: This article takes on an experience we wish no one has to endure, but is as real for some as the celebration of new life that parenthood brings. The writer is the co-founder of Child Bereavement Support Singapore.
Just over 20 years ago, on December 31, 1999, while the whole world was celebrating the coming of a new millennium, my world fell apart.
My 16-month-old baby girl, Ning, succumbed to a viral infection and laid lifeless in my arms. She was in the hospital for less than 48 hours, and then was gone forever. The finality of her death overwhelmed me.
My heart broke into a million pieces. Nothing prepares you for that.
They say: “Losing your parent is losing your past; losing your child is losing your future."
Your parents hold the key to your history and your roots, but your future, your hopes and dreams are often projected onto your children.
In suffering the loss of a child, many parents like me question our identity and self-worth, and often we feel that our future is over. The parent-child relationship is always intrinsically intertwined.
The weeks that followed my loss were surreal. I was thrown into a grieving abyss with no sense of time or clarity of purpose.
I now know that grieving is a natural human response to separation. Grief needs to be processed, which simply means you must allow yourself to feel the sadness or any difficult feelings.
But also let yourself discover feelings of consolation, hope and strength, then revisit every emotion over again.
And it vacillates. There is really no way to get around grief. You must go through it.
Time is the platform on which the grief is processed; you get better at adjusting your needs, redefining your purpose, and growing in various ways as time goes by.
There were many things revealed to me through the years – here are just three.
1. Let others support you
I was blessed with the quiet support from my spouse, family, and friends.
They knew when to let me wallow and when to pull me out of a downward spiral of self-pity. They would take me for a walk or bring me comfort food, or just stay silent by my side.
Grief counsellor and author Gary Roe says, “Though grief is lonely, none of us were meant to grieve alone.”
In his book, Shattered: Surviving the loss of a child, he suggests why everyone needs helpful, supportive people.
I was fortunate to have such a team of supporters, even though fewer would have also sufficed. We simply need people to care for us because we are just not "present" enough to care for ourselves at the time.
2. Choose one goal at a time
There is no schedule to “get over” loss and there is no “right way” to deal with it either. There is only your way.
But there are choices you can exercise. For anyone going through a similar pain as I did, various activities help us process grief – some people take walks or read, others indulge in making music, journalling or drawing, talking to others with similar experiences, or just being in silent meditation – the list goes on.
I remember distinctly asking myself: “What do you want now that she is gone?”
Many things ran around in my head – nothing made sense. But slowly, I decided on my first goal and charted a path towards it. It was a simple goal of waking up and making my bed.
The next day, I set another one: “Today, I will buy groceries”.
One goal at a time, one day at a time. With patience for myself, I found purpose taking little steps and, later, strides. But I was cautiously walking forward all the same. Eventually, I dared to choose to live well again.
The bonus was that with every step, I felt my daughter Ning with me.
3. There will be hope and new memories
When death happens, there is no negotiation. You can’t rewind.
To live without hope is terrifying, but in the early days of loss, the hopelessness is palpable.
I can’t remember exactly how I held onto hope even while feeling immense hopelessness. Undeniably, it was the people around me who propped me up and held onto hope for me until I was strong enough to find a grip myself.
This grip tightened when I became pregnant again, giving me a promise of life, sprinkled with Ning’s angel dust against a bright rainbow sky.
Truth be told, my pregnancy was laced with trepidation and anxiety, and I had to constantly surround myself with positive energy.
My rainbow child, Noah, was born to me that year, and two years later, I had Toby, named after a character in the Bible who walks with an angel in his travels.
Together, we have built new memories with no fear of forgetting Ning. You never forget your loved one. My boys grew up playing with her toys and knowing she is their big sister.
Joining the dots backwards, I know I have evolved and grown through my grief. I am certainly more introspective, more patient, and more grateful for what I have.
I recognise my own vulnerabilities and reach out for help when I need to. I still see Ning’s smiling eyes, hear her tiny voice, and feel her soft skin and baby-breath against my face.
Her absence has been both despairing and life-giving, showing me how to lean on others, lean on self and lending myself to be leaned on.
Grief has taught me what beauty in life really is. But it is a "collateral beauty" that I have learnt along the way, discovered only by keeping a broken heart wide open for love and kindness to fill the cracks, and humility and grace to keep its rhythm.
For over 16 years, the Child Bereavement Support Singapore (CBSS) has supported parents from all walks of life, who have suffered the death of a child in pregnancy, still birth, by illness, accident, suicide, and murder.
While every loss is different, the pain suffered by a parent is always very deep and despairing. CBSS’ monthly peer support group offers a safe space to talk about the pain of loss, share memories of our children and discuss strategies to cope with the new reality.
Meetings are held every second Thursday of the month at 7.30pm. Visit their website for more information.