“We eventually lose everything we have, yet what ultimately matters can never be lost.”
Kubler-Ross & Kessler
I am an adult orphan. My dad passed away when I was 12 years old rather suddenly – 2 months after a diagnosis of an advanced stage of cancer. I am not sure how my mother coped, she never talked about “it” nor did anyone talk to me about how I felt. Yet somehow life carried on.
My mother soldiered on with work, running the household, taking care of my aged paternal grandparents who stayed with us, and raising my sister and I.
Growing up, mum and I had a difficult relationship. Often it felt like I could not communicate with her: she was very strict and dogmatic whilst I craved encouragement and freedom of expression.
The divide between us was palpable, in spite of her silent support over the years of my unconventional life decisions in school, marriage and career. I often failed to appreciate her love expressed in small practical ways, and let frustration at our inability to understand each other stand in the way of meaningful conversations.
Thankfully, what we lacked in depth and openness of relationship, we made up for in the quantity of time we spent together. We had very ingrained routines of regular mealtimes together as a family.
Signs of mum’s ill health came on rather gradually, beginning with a sudden loss of weight. Doctors could not find the cause of her breathlessness and lack of appetite. In June 2016, she was admitted to hospital and diagnosed with cancer. During those 2 weeks, with my 3-month-old baby in tow, I spent as much time as I could in the hospital with mum.
I brought her food and pushed her into eating; I hounded the nurses to follow up on the doctor’s instructions; and made sure the place was uncluttered (mum was a neat freak) so that she would be comfortable. There was little room for feelings; I just needed to get things done.
Despite the fact that death loomed large, I was not prepared for it. Whilst discussing death is considered taboo in Asian culture, mum – in her love and wisdom – was unexpectedly forthright about her death wishes: She did not want to suffer and she wanted a quick, painless death.
One fateful morning, her heart stopped. One moment she was laughing as my sister recounted my nephew’s antics, the next moment her eyes rolled backwards and her body became rigid as the heart monitors beeped crazily.
Even the doctors did not seem totally prepared. As the medical team tried to resuscitate her, one doctor advised us that we should aim to make her comfortable whilst another suggested that we put her on life support to continue the aggressive treatment of the cancer.
It was a dire choice but through a blurry of tears, my sister and I knew what mum would have preferred. As her heart slowed down, we just sat by her bedside holding her hand, certain that she could hear our awkward whispers of love.
Everyone will grieve in their own time and their own ways. It may follow Kubler-Ross’ 5 stages of grief – that is, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance – or it may not.
For me, I sought refuge in reticence. My husband was shocked that I had not told many of my friends about my mum’s passing. There were tears of course, eulogies to be given, and genuine conversations to be had at the funeral. The outpouring of love and support I received at her funeral was overwhelming. But after that I retreated. Perhaps I had hoped that if I did not talk about it, it would be less real.
The outpouring of love and support I received at her funeral was overwhelming. But after that I retreated. Perhaps I had hoped that if I did not talk about it, it would be less real.
During this period, some books gave me the vocabulary to understand the whole gamut of emotions I felt. Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, CS Lewis’ A Grief Observed, When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, WH Auden’s Funeral Blues lent me the words to express my despair, disappointment, and detachment.
Having been part of a family that was silent about our emotions, I was determined that my family be different. When I felt ready, I began to talk to the children about losing and missing their grandma. Judith Kerr’s Goodbye Mog and Michael Rosen’s Sad Book, in particular, helped to open conversations with them about their feelings.
Talking about mum became cathartic: I would tell my boys stories about their Popo’s personality and quirks, reminisce with my aunts and uncles on memorable moments, and meet mum’s friends just as she would over dim sum.
It is observed that all over the world, there is cultural pressure to conceal negative emotions. But I made a conscious effort to let them out into the open. I hosted gatherings with extended family on her death anniversaries, and took every opportunity to talk about mum rather than let conversations lapse into superficial pleasantries.
I even brought out old photographs of mum for my aunts to see and talk about – something that I found uncomfortable to do with mum when she was alive.
Sometimes I saw my aunt getting misty-eyed as we chatted, but shyness thus far has prevented me from reaching out and giving her a hug and telling her “I miss mum too”.
My mother’s items were left untouched in her wardrobe for the longest time. Even after the first year, I could not open my mother’s wardrobe without a fresh sense of loss. Shopping was one of our bonding activities.
Many of her items hold fond memories for me – the bag which I got her as a birthday present, her favourite dangling earrings from Tiffany’s, the clothes we bought at our most recent shopping trip after a doctor’s appointment…At first, I just left her things alone but over time, the emotions slowly loosened their grip and I finally managed to pack some of her things away with my sister’s help. I came to recognise that putting them away did not mean I was forgetting her.
Over time, the emotions slowly loosened their grip and I finally managed to pack some of her things away. I came to recognise that putting them away did not mean I was forgetting her.
It has been three years since mum passed away. While daily activities may have carried on, life has not been the same.
At times, I still feel inexplicably lonely because mum, the one who formed and shaped me, who took care of me even when I could take care of myself, the “adult”, is no longer around.
This sense of loss may diminish and memories fade over time; yet I hope that through conversations and stories, I will always preserve and keep alive my memories of mum.
As Robert Woodruff Anderson puts it: “Death ends a life, but it does not end a relationship.”
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Sue-Anne Wu is a coffee lover and nature seeker. An avid reader, books are her lifeline in the choppy waters of life, marriage and parenting. She lives with 4 rambunctious boys aged 3, 6, 8 and 38.
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