Losing My Loved Ones Twice
Death is inevitable and losing a loved one is something we will all go through in life, whether we like it or not.
Pardon the solemn wake-up call. See, this September marks the tenth year without my dad and the second year without my maternal grandmother. Though it hurts thinking about the memories, it has also taught me many things about myself that I would have never thought of, like coming to terms with my own fear of death.
If you’ve ever lost someone yourself or fear the day you will, here’s my story to see if you can relate.
Losing my father when I was 9
My dad sending me to mathematics tuition in 2011
My relationship with my family has always been quite difficult to explain. We were neither distant nor close, but rather, we shared a comfortable level of tough love mixed with compassion, if that makes any sense at all.
As for my father, he was a very soft-spoken and kind man. He wouldn’t even flinch giving in to my requests for chocolate — no wonder why my baby teeth were ruined before the new ones grew in.
I remember my dad guiding me with my maths homework step by step one time, even though he had to wake up super early the next day for work. FYI, I was really bad at maths, so teaching me was like talking to a wall.
My paternal bond was all rainbows and sunshine, that is until my dad got admitted to the hospital in 2011 and was diagnosed with kidney cancer which had spread to his lymph nodes. The diagnosis came as a shock to us all as he was always in the pink of health. Cigarettes and alcohol, he partook in only occasionally.
My dad holding my hand after I got traumatised after seeing a huge lizard in Penang
Within a single night, the world I knew crashed down on me and my family. My dad, who was the sole breadwinner then, suddenly became the most vulnerable person amongst us. And as an 8 year old, it didn’t register that it was going to be a long-term illness.
After the diagnosis, my dad was advised to take medication in order to keep his condition under control. But that didn’t mean that we were in the clear — he had to take them in order to be in a healthier state for a surgery.
As a mark of optimism, my family went on a trip to Penang weeks before his surgery as a way to enjoy each other’s company before my dad would spend an indefinite time in recovery — or so we thought. Unfortunately, that was the last time we all travelled as a family of four.
My dad in the ICU a few days post-op
Though the surgery was successful, there were many complications during his recovery. My mum was constantly by his side and looking after him, no matter how little hours she slept or times she went home to change her clothes. Every day presented itself with so much uncertainty as we couldn’t tell if the situation was getting better or worse.
Eventually, his organs started failing on him after a few weeks post-op. The glimmer of hope upon finding out the operation was a success faded just as quickly as we had started to believe that everything was going to be fine.
On 3 September 2012, the unthinkable happened. My sister and I were at the hospital food court when we suddenly got called up to his room. I remember watching as the heart rate monitor beeped erratically and the numbers dropped lower every second. It was like a scene from a movie except there weren’t any slow motion effects or suspenseful music — it all just happened so quickly.
As I was still digesting what I was seeing, I got dragged away by my aunt and put in the waiting room which, to be fair, was probably the right thing to do for a 9-year-old who just witnessed her father’s passing.
To this day, I still remember my last phone call with him before he went for the surgery, where he kept reassuring us that everything was going to be alright. Unfortunately, I don’t remember what his voice sounds like anymore as we rarely took any videos or pictures as a whole family, which is a big regret as we hardly have any to look back on now.
Losing my grandmother during the pandemic
Having lost a parent before I even turned a teenager is likely a foreign concept to many – myself included. Being so young, I didn’t know what mourning was. The concept of death wasn’t clear to me which made the grieving process rather short. It was only in 2020 when I lost my grandmother that I came to have a better understanding of death.
It didn’t help that 2020 was one of the worst years ever with the pandemic hitting and countless restrictions. For me, it wasn’t the global phenomenon that turned my year upside down, it was my grandma’s passing.
I was much closer to my grandmother when I was younger as we used to live together. She would cook my favourite childhood combination of omelettes and rice whenever I asked and she would giggle every time I was playing with my uncle. However, we drifted a lot after my family moved out and I naturally got caught up with my own commitments as a teenager.
We definitely had difficulties communicating as there was a language barrier between us — she mainly spoke Hokkien and I, unfortunately, have a very limited vocabulary in that field consisting of less than 10 words and phrases.
Texts to a friend after receiving news that my grandmother’s condition was deteriorating
It almost seems as though September is a cursed month for me and my family, as my grandmother passed away due to an infection in her lungs. We, including the doctors, didn’t know if it was due to Covid when it happened as the test hadn’t returned yet.
The part that made it feel like a tidal wave crashed down on me was how her death was extremely sudden. We got called to the hospital at 1am but were unable to say our last goodbyes as there was still a risk of it being Covid. That meant that we were only allowed to see her body after the doctors had unplugged her from life support.
I vividly remember tearing up on the way to the hospital because I was just filled with regret. Thoughts like “I should have visited her more” were just flooding my mind non-stop.
Dealing with their deaths in different ways
It’s funny what a difference 8 years make.
A few days after my dad passed, I didn’t feel sad at all and I was pretty unfazed at my dad’s funeral – a stark difference to crying a lot in the hospital when it happened. My reaction to everything was so short but thinking back now, it was the lack of knowledge about the whole concept of death allowing me to accept things much quicker.
I loved my dad so much but even after the cremation, I just carried on with life like nothing happened. Of course, there were days when I would think about him and miss him, but other than that, it was almost like I skipped through the five stages of grief and went straight to acceptance.
However, even though I was completely fine after my dad’s passing, I couldn’t bring myself to visit the place where his ashes are at — even now, I would hesitate for a bit before agreeing to go as I am afraid of what it could trigger. Though it has gotten slightly better over the years, I also actively avoided going to any funeral as I was afraid that it would bring up traumatic or bad memories.
Texting a friend to keep me company right before I had a panic attack
On the flip side, dealing with my grandmother’s death was probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to experience. I started getting panic attacks every night leading up to the date of her cremation and was completely out of it mentally and emotionally.
Images of her lying on her deathbed as well as the scene at the crematorium would often pop up in my head. It was like her death was haunting me, and I couldn’t escape the thoughts no matter what I tried to do.
Acknowledging my fear of death as a teenager
In my religion, you learn that you’ll have eternal life even after you die and that your soul will continue to live happily in heaven. I wholeheartedly still believe in that, but when you’re grieving, it’s hard to accept and listen to those beliefs. Much less, share your thoughts with others.
Opening up often took a lot of courage and trust, which meant that it also would take months before I had that kind of relationship with another person.
I have to admit that I was voluntarily suffering in silence after my grandmother’s passing. People around me would ask if I was feeling alright, and I’d just brush it off every time and tell them that I was doing “fine”.
The only people that I was able to confide in were my church mentors and a friend from secondary school. Even so, my conversations with them weren’t always 100% truthful, as I would hide some stuff that I felt was too embarrassing to share.
It was until a month after my grandmother’s funeral that I realised that I was living a life full of fear and trauma.
I dreaded taking showers because that was when all of those intrusive thoughts would start to appear in my head. And as absurd as this sounds, I also refrained from sleeping early. I was irrationally paranoid that if I managed to fall asleep before 11pm, I would receive news to rush to the hospital immediately.
The morbid thought of losing my other family members often pops up in my head too. I think about how I am going to deal with that and if I could even handle the fact that I’ll lose all of them one day, seeing as how I am the youngest in my family. Quality time spent together is something that I’ve grown to cherish as a way to deal with the trauma.
How I cope with the concept of life and death now
My constant fear made me also consider reaching out to therapists and helplines but never got to do it as I just didn’t have the guts to. I didn’t want my mother to know about the things I was going through either, so I just pretended that I got over my grandmother’s passing without a hitch.
From my experience, there are many ways to cope with mental torment. Talking to a trusted friend definitely helped me a lot, as I really just needed someone to listen to everything that was going on in my head.
Seeking professional help through counselling or therapy was always going to be the last resort for me, if talking to friends didn’t work out well.
As I reach my final year as a teen today, the concept of life and death is still a tough pill to swallow but I am slowly accepting it. Living life to the fullest and having little to no regrets is something that I am consistently working towards as I go about my day too.
My Journey Of Acknowledging My Trauma & Fear Of Death Is An Ongoing Process
If there’s anything I’ve learnt from the series of events that led up to my acknowledgement that death is very real, it is that there is no set recipe to get over loss or fast forward through grief and trauma.
When I was dealing with everything by myself, I often wondered why I couldn’t find materials and instructions to help me get through it until I realised that everyone has their own way of coping. The saying “time heals all wounds” rings true, no matter how much you want to speed through it.
My advice for those who are going through the same thing? Don’t deny your feelings, embrace them and find an outlet to vent. It could be in the form of a person or even a hobby — just do whatever feels right for you and be patient. After all, things only get bad so that they can get better.
If you’re seeking professional guidance and counselling, check out these resources:
All images courtesy of writer.