Andy and Katherine were expecting their second child when they learned he had pancreatic cancer – she was 25 weeks pregnant then. Within six months of the diagnosis, Andy passed away, leaving behind his wife and two children, a four-year-old son a two-month-old daughter.
It’s been nearly 10 years now, and Katherine shares her story for the first time, in hopes it can spark hope for anyone who is navigating grief.
“I remember it clearly. In that same month, we lost my grandmother to old age and my father-in-law to cancer. It was at the funeral of my father-in-law when we first noticed the whites of Andy’s eyes were exceptionally yellow. We dismissed it as fatigue.
But we took the advice of family and friends, and sought the opinion of several medical professionals before finally learning the worst: that Andy had Stage 4 pancreatic cancer, and with treatment he had just two years, and without, just six months to live.
“Surgery is not possible,” the doctors said. “There is no alternative other than trying to prolong his life.” The words still wrung in my head.
From there on, we tried juicing, eating organic, cutting out oil and meat from our diets. During this time, on 17 August 2009, I gave birth to my second child.
When nothing seemed to work, we decided to pursue a treatment in Shenzhen, China. My mother-in-law offered to take care of the children, including our newborn, and my husband and I left for Shenzhen.
We rented an apartment and embarked on this ‘new treatment’ which was, somewhat unorthodox – but harmless. It required my husband to drink certain amounts of water which they provided, and we had to stir it seven times with a stirrer – which they also provided.
In any case, looking back, I think we somewhat enjoyed those weeks together as a couple, not realising it was our last days together. I cooked, I fed, and I cared for him, daily. I even read to him every night. If anything, during our time in China, I’d describe us as being hopeful, and kind of grateful, for it was just us. One day, six weeks into our time in Shenzhen, while I was feeding him his lunch, Andy drew his last breath.
“You will find the words”
When I returned to Singapore, alone, over 30 family members were at the airport to receive me. I scanned all their faces, and when I locked eyes with my son, I ran towards him and hugged him so very tightly. I opened my mouth to speak. But I had no words.
When I did get a chance alone with my four-year-old, I said to him, “Daddy is no longer around. He is in a better place. He’s building a place for us. We cannot visit him as yet. But someday, we will all meet again.”
I repeated this line over the next few years, mostly for my children’s understanding, but also, strangely, for my own acceptance.
“You will make changes”
The grief is unbearable. I spent the first month buried in a ton of paperwork. My husband used to handle things like finances, bills, insurance, etc., and now it was something I had to do. It seems impossible at first, but it eventually gets done.
I’m much better now, both at being independent and at handling family administrative matters, but I don’t always or easily identify with the status of a widow. I still feel like I have a husband; he’s just not physically present.
I returned to work in early December 2009. I work in a semi-conductor factory-office in Woodlands and we are made up of three buildings. There is a 7min walk between two buildings, the start of the walk was – for the longest time – where I would dial my husband and we would chat on the phone until I got to the end of the walk. For an entire year after my husband’s passing, I called my sister as I took this walk.
“You will have bad days”
My husband had this – seemingly simple – weekend routine, which was to bring the entire family (my father, my sisters, my mother-in-law as well our helper) out for a meal on weekends. I remember trying to desperately honour this memory. And one day, in the middle of a crowded Vivo City, unable to find a restaurant that could accommodate all of us, (which included a baby in a stroller) I had my first meltdown. I felt so useless, so alone, so trapped, so angry, and so unbearably sad.
I demanded we all went home, and I locked myself in the room and cried the entire night. When I finally regrouped and gathered my thoughts, I told myself to pull it together. That was the first and last time I let my folks see me in that state. I also put a stop to weekend dinner out; we now eat at home.
These days I still experience bad days. I would be at my kid’s graduating ceremony for instance, and I would look at proud fathers, busy capturing their child’s performance on their camera phones, and I would feel an acute sense of loss for my children, knowing an essential part of their growth journey had been taken from them. But just like I made changes to my daily routine and habits, I allow myself to be momentarily sad when these moments come, embrace it and process it, and then put one foot in front of the other and snap out of it with positive thoughts. I tell myself that bad days come, but bad days also go.
“You will find joy again”
Photo: Straits Times
I was introduced to Wicare – a support group for widows – and I attended my first meeting on Christmas Eve of 2009. I entered a room full of smiling adults, and happy children, and quite immediately I remember thinking to myself ‘How can you be happy?’
At that point I just could not imagine myself ever smiling or laughing again. There were about 10 of us present. And one by one, every one and any one who was willing shared their story – their testimony with the group.
I cried through everyone’s testimony, but above and beyond just sharing each other’s pain, it ignited in me a flicker of hope. Connecting and listening to the testimonies of other ladies who had walked the same path, same journey as me has definitely helped me a lot. It gave me the assurance that it was possible: It was possible to live without your spouse; it was possible to bring up children on your own; it was possible to smile again, to laugh again, and to find joy again.
“You will laugh again”
Now, my typical day goes like this: I send my daughter to school in the morning, before going to work. Along the way, sometimes I’ll point out where her daddy used to work, or something he used to say. The children still see some pictures of him in family photos displayed around the place. He is very much in our daily conversation. I get home in time for dinner with my children. After dinner we take a short break, and after that I coach my daughter with her school work. Before bedtime we will all lie on the bed and do some stretching exercises. My daughter takes Chinese dance and ballet, and she is flexible, unlike my son and I, who are stiff as boards. We often collapse into a pile in laughter. I love my day.
I know now – more than ever – that our time on earth is finite and temporary. Friends and colleagues and family members will tell you that I don’t hold on so tightly to things that don’t matter anymore. Regardless of good or bad days, I tell myself that “this too shall pass”. I take things easy, and I do not fret over what I deem unimportant.
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 help, support and guide women and their children going through one of the most traumatic episodes of their lives. The group started 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/