I felt an unbearable pain after I lost Thomas.
We met in University; I’ve known him for half my life. We forged our careers together, started a family together, raised our kids together, and had a roadmap, an itinerary, and a plan. When he passed on, this roadmap went to fire.
I was sad, so sad. I just wanted to whole world to stop, to not move on. If everyone would just leave me be, not talk to me, let me sleep, let me not brush my teeth, let me not wake up… I felt very, very sad, an unbearable pain I have never ever experienced in my life.
I was physically there for my children, but not entirely there. I had told my kids (who were three, six, and nine years of age then), ‘don’t worry, I’ll make sure daddy gets well; daddy will come home from the hospital.’
At the wake I still remember my six-year-old screaming at me, ‘You promised to bring daddy back!’ and she kicked a chair and stormed off. I felt so guilty.
Then, I became a nasty, nasty person.
All that grief turned to anger. My friends were all so afraid of me. Simply asking me ‘how are you?’ or saying ‘time will heal’ (or worse, ‘he’s in a better place’) or commenting that I was ‘very strong’ would set me off. I’d tell them to shut up, or snap at them that they weren’t widowed – they couldn’t know how I was feeling.
Despite this, well-meaning friends still tried their best. I had a friend who dropped books off for me, and there was this one time I took one look at the book, titled Finding Your Way Through Loneliness (something like that), turned to the first chapter and it read: “Loneliness is a gift…” I threw the book at her. I just wasn’t a nice person. I was a nasty friend, nasty mum and nasty daughter.
And all that anger turned to self-pity.
When you go from being a unit to half a unit, it’s like all the emotions and duties and hardships are doubled. I felt I had to be both mother and father to my kids now. If anyone said something wrong, I was doubly offended. If I went through any setback, I had to take it on 100 per cent because there’s no one to share it with, you know?
There was a memorial on the 40th day. The first 40 days I didn’t actually cry much. People thought I was ‘very strong’. Some even speculated that my husband and I weren’t that close.
It did not dawn on me that he was gone, I only felt like he was out-posted. I just could not identify with being a widow. When everybody left that night, I finally broke down. I cried so much I vomited.
For the next couple of months, I’d isolate myself from the world. I hid myself in the gym, took my lunch alone, and at night, the nights, oh, the nights… the nights were so lonely. After the kids were in bed I’d take a drive out to Upper Bukit Timah Road, park the car by a huge field, and I’d scream and cry for an hour. Then I’ll drive home – I did this four times a week.
It took two months, and a flat tyre, for me to finally admit that I needed help.
The turning point came when two months after he passed away. I was driving alone along Selegie Road, and my car broke down, the tyre was busted. I sat by the empty road, and remembered thinking to myself, ‘car trouble should not even be my problem, and it’s the husband’s problem.’ Even the car was his. I asked ‘why me?’ repeatedly. I must have sat there for an hour, paralysed with anger and self-pity.
And then it hit me: I’d been angry for two months, and sitting around wasn’t going to help. They say time heals, it’s more than that, I could sit there for another hour and air was not going to go into that tyre. I had to take action.
So I called AA (it’s that simple, but it still took me an hour.) This is a silly story I know, but it’s a good analogy of the place I was in, and truly a turning point for me. To know that time alone doesn’t heal. Action does – if you want to survive. And that I needed help.
Hello, hope. I’ve missed you.
From that point, I acknowledged that I needed help and I accepted help. I put myself through counselling, and I put my children through counselling. My late husband’s boss had – very kindly – offered to take care of the bills, and it took me two months to accept the help.
From here I was introduced to Wicare – a widow support group. Someone called me and I was asked to attend a gathering for widows with young children. I remember being in a bad state when I first entered the meeting.
It’s only been months since my husband’s passing, all my emotions were still very raw and very real and very unstable. My kids were acting up, I was second-guessing myself about attending this meeting, I was conscious about accepting the label of a widow. But when I entered, they just hugged me, and all those feelings were gone.
The parable came to mind: “I cried when I had no shoes, until I saw a man that had no feet.” Some of the widows had to do two jobs; some did not have husbands who took care of their insurance and finance matters; and some had hospital bills and debt to pay off – and I didn’t have any of that.
I’m not saying this to compare grief, don’t get me wrong, it’s more that the self-pity I had turned into self-awareness, and I saw hope. Some of them had their children running around – happily, and they have been bereaved for years, and I saw that it was possible to ‘do well’ again. Some of them were further applying themselves by paying it forward, volunteering their time and services to Wicare, and I was inspired.
From here I slowly began to mend. The counselling helped my children and our relationship. I made peace with my friends. It took some time, but I started to hang out with my couple friends again; for a long time, I didn’t know how to hang out with friends who were happily married.
I apologised to my friends, family, and my parents. I became better at reaching out and asking for help, and I know now that embracing and accepting my vulnerability is a strength.
I still suffer from insomnia, but that’s okay.
Preparing myself for this interview really put things in perspective for me. I am proud of some of the things I’ve managed to do; things I never believed I could accomplish. Like gardening, fixing light bulbs, the air-con, putting up pictures, settling car problems, finances, insurance.
I mean, granted, most of this is just me being good at picking up the phone or googling a solution, but when I think back about the state I was in, I have come a long way.
These days, I’m better. I am grateful for a wonderful circle of friends, happy with my life, I am proud of my children. I pay it forward by volunteering as a legal counsel at Wicare. I picked up tennis again, and play competitively now – even won me some medals! I still don’t sleep well at night, but that’s okay.
Joyce Lye, a widow who lost her spouse to a car accident in 1985, founded Wicare in 1993. (It was officially formalised in 1996.) She wanted a casual group to organise help, support and guidance to women and their children going through one of the most traumatic episodes of their lives.
The group starting out small, with only a turnout of five ladies who met monthly at a restaurant in Upper Paya Lebar. Over the years, the group steadily grew in size and today, Wicare provides intimate, personalised and group grief support though their peer-to-peer support groups and initiatives.
More info here: https://www.wicare.org.sg/