The death of a child and our mortality

On a fateful morning on 16 April 2014, the lives of hundreds of families in South Korea were fundamentally altered with the sinking of the MV Sewol. On the morning of 5 June 2015, the lives of seven families in Singapore were forever made different with the death of their young children. On 19 April 2018, the parents of 19-year-old Ms Kathy Ong Kai Ting lost their beloved daughter to a road accident at the intersection of Clementi Road and Commonwealth Avenue West. Four days later, the family of Ms Jasmine Lim picked up their 19-year-old daughter from the mortuary at Block 9, Singapore General Hospital, after an accident the night before. I was there and the unspeakable and invisible pain in the eyes of her parents remains etched in my heart till this very day.

Children are special. They are an act of love. Parents yearn for their children to grow up in a healthy and secure environment. They look forward to the many beautiful days ahead when they can attend their own children’s graduation and eventually their nuptials. They grow old as their children grow up. No words or amount of words can ever describe the trauma that accompanies the knowledge that your precious beloved child is no longer alive. It is one of the most wrenching of experiences of the human condition. Having a child is like having a part of your soul and being living outside of your mortal body; your most precious one perpetually exposed to the joys and dangers of this brutal world. But never once would any parent entertain the thought of coming into contact with the cold, lifeless body of their own child and preparing for a funeral that literally takes their lives away. It’s a deep hard punch in the gut, a pain that lingers, a silence that the closest of spouses may not even speak about; the regrets, the hurt, the burdens. An unspeakable consciousness, a wrenching pain. No amount of ransom can bring a child back from the grim reaper.

How does a parent come to terms with the premature [and sudden] death of a child? Each individual grieves differently, and their [non-]responses to grief can be wholly different from one another, even for parents of the same child. Singapore as a developed society does have a long way to go to put in place at the community level a holistic bereavement support structure for grieving parents. There are however at present some individually-driven initiatives in Singapore that set a good example of grief support for bereaved parents in Singapore. Angel Hearts, for instance, is a volunteer-driven group set up by bereaved mothers who seek to “bring comfort to bereaved families whose baby have gone before them.” They not only assist to dress babies with dignity for their final journey by repurposing wedding gowns, provide bereaved parents avenues to be supported by those who have suffered similar losses but also instil hope and provide services for bereaved families to rebuild their families. They focus not only on grief support, pregnancy loss, mid-term and infant loss as well as mental health issues of grieving parents. I urge your support for their initiatives, programmes and fund-raising efforts.

For Mr and Mrs Ong, their lives will forever be [re-]defined by pre- and post-19 April 2018. On the evening of 19 April 2018, they lost their only child, their most precious daughter in a car accident in Clementi. Gone in an instant, their grief and pain were palpable.

“We keep asking ourselves why this has to happen to you but we know we will never find an acceptable reason.

People say time heals but with the passing of each day, we missed you even more. we missed your laughter, your smile, your loving hugs and forever sweet words. we are decorating your room with all our beautiful memories, and it will always be awaiting your return.

[. . .] Today is Mother’s Day and we should be having a lovely day together but moving forward, this day will forever be a painful day for mummy.”

Keith Ong, 13 May 2018

As they begin to rebuild their lives, they started an Instagram account in December 2018 in their late daughter’s name. In it, they post photos of their travels with their late daughter in tow, clearly something that they would love to do alongside her. This was one of the most moving and thoughtful act to hold their late daughter in a timeless manner. Through a photo [and a repository of photos], their late daughter becomes enjoin with their parents and fondly remembered across a different time and space. In life, a simple photo. In death, it was more than a photo. It hurts and heals all at the same time. It was their late daughter. When was the last time you had a family portrait taken and have you had your [last] portrait taken? A last portrait, leaving behind a beautiful memory for your loved ones.

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That day I stood in the mortuary of KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital. I have since forgotten the date. But I remembered it was a sweltering afternoon. And there I was waiting alongside my colleague to pick-up a stillborn. For what felt like ages, out walk an elderly uncle pushing a cart with a small little child in it. Such a cart would not have been out of place in any other maternity ward, instead, its wheels brought it to the mortuary. Following steadily behind the mortuary supervisor was a young gentleman. He looks a tad younger than I am, clutching pieces of documentation in his hands with a forlorn look on his exhausted frame. He could have been me.

I took a look at the child. A beautiful newborn with features fully formed and a life well ahead of her. Alas, it was not to be. Having wrapped her nicely, we placed her into the basket that we brought and after a short conversation with her father, I cradled the basket and off we went, back to our funeral parlour. At that moment, I felt like I was the grim reaper himself, snatching this precious being from her parents, both of whom are likely to be too exhausted to comprehend the fluidity of events taking place right in front of them. Till this date, I can still feel the heat emanating from the basket, the warmth from inside her mother’s womb which has yet to dissipate. I can only imagine the crescendo of emotions and experiences of her parents from preparing a welcoming cot back home to a casket for her newborn.

We go to bed expecting to wake up the next day. What if we don’t? What if today’s sunset is our last and there will never be a tomorrow for our mortal self? Our social media may forever stay silent in the next instance and our WhatsApp may stop scrolling today. Do not forget as you leave home tomorrow, tell your loved ones that you love them, that you really do, very much. You may not have a second chance at that. Our love for one another is timeless and it is this love that leaves lasting memories in our hearts.

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