'In a better place? But I want him here': Parents open up on anguish of losing a child

Nicholas Yong
Assistant News Editor
The palm prints of Christy Liew's baby girl Amanda, who was stillborn. (PHOTO: Dhany Osman/Yahoo News Singapore)

SINGAPORE — Every year, during the Hari Raya Puasa celebrations, Muhammad Reeza, 40, becomes a ‘single parent’ for the festive season.

“My son’s death anniversary is the 5th day of Raya (in 2016). Until now, my wife (Fazilah Kamaruddin) doesn’t want to celebrate Raya, so I’m the one who takes the kids out,” explained Reeza, who is a father of three.

Speaking to Yahoo News Singapore, the civil servant said, “I force myself to bring them out. But I don’t want to force her. I just let her deal with it naturally. When my relatives ask me, where’s Zilah? I just say, you know lah.”

It was on 10 July 2016 that three-year-old Ayden died suddenly after what was initially thought to be a bout of food poisoning. “I was carrying him in my arms to take him to the hospital when his head suddenly slumped on my shoulder. I didn’t know that he had taken his last breath then,” recalled Reeza.

“They couldn’t revive him.”

A postmortem revealed that Ayden had suffered from a rare condition called infarction volvulus, or a twisted intestine, which is difficult to diagnose.

Asked about the immediate aftermath of her son’s passing, Fazilah, a pre-school teacher, replied quietly, “I don’t remember much. But I know I was screaming. I’m pretty sure I lost my mind.”

During the interview, the 37-year-old’s hands often went to her necklace, on which hangs a pendant containing a photo of Ayden with his parents. She added, “The image that stuck with me for a very long time is my mother-in-law saying, ‘He’s gone. You cannot save him.’”

As the couple are Muslims, Ayden had to be buried as quickly as possible. “Everyone was rushing because they have to get it done quickly, but they seem to forget that that was my last moment with him,” said Fazilah, tearing up.

“The last thing I worried about was the burial. You just want another minute.”

Reeza and Fazilah were one of three sets of bereaved parents who told their stories to Yahoo News Singapore in August. All have attended Child Bereavement Support (Singapore), a support network for parents who have lost children.

CBSS began in 2005 as an informal grouping to give peer support for bereaved parents via monthly meetings, providing resources and bonding through friendship, according to co-founder Valerie Lim.

It has seen about 400 sets of parents over the years. The walk-in meetings are free of charge and typically attended by 10-15 people. While the meetings initially saw more expatriates in attendance, more locals have been coming in the last five years as they become more open to the concept of self-help and support groups, Lim said.

“When bereaved parents first come to the group, in my experience, they typically need to just talk about what they are feeling, which can range from confusion to regret,” explained Lim, who has herself lost a child.

“Every parent has his or her healing path. This is usually determined by the parent's personality and general outlook on life, the immediate support network and the circumstances of death.”

And while friends and loved ones often feel the need to say something, anything, the parents all reported that their well-meaning words ended up hurting instead.

“Someone said, ‘Ayden is in a better place now’,” recalled Fazilah. “But I don’t want him to be in a better place. I want him here with me.”

‘Is it okay if I cry?’

Insurance agent Christy Liew, 34, poses with a baby gown that she sewed. Liew volunteers with Angel Hearts Singapore, which repurposes used wedding gowns into gowns for deceased babies. PHOTO: Dhany Osman/Yahoo News Singapore

Insurance agent Christy Liew, 34, was nervous and tentative as she met with Yahoo News Singapore for an interview just four months after her daughter had passed. Her husband Ryan, 35, declined to participate.

“Is if okay if I cry?” she asked.

In April this year, Liew went to her gynaecologist when she felt that her baby was not moving in her womb. She was 31 weeks pregnant at the time, and she and her husband had been trying for a baby for two and a half years.

Everything had been going smoothly until then. So the doctor’s words to Liew came like a bolt from the blue. “She said that the baby was gone.”

The death of her infant was an acute event, or a condition that occurs suddenly and for a short duration. For many cases of stillbirths, their cause cannot be found despite extensive investigation.

“It’s like someone squeezing your heart to the extent that you cannot breathe,” recalled Liew. “It was so painful.”

Worse was to come as Liew then underwent the ordeal of a 37-hour labour to give birth to a stillborn child. Doctors advised her against a cesarean section for fear of possible complications. “They cleaned her up and let me hold her. But instead of her crying, you are the one crying.”

Liew named the little girl Amanda. The couple scattered her ashes at sea, and keep boxes with locks of her hair.

‘Why isn’t she waking up?’

Agnes Tan, 61, holds up a photo of her late daughter Isabelle, 18, who passed in 2012 from brain cancer. PHOTO: Dhany Osman/Yahoo News Singapore

Agnes Tan, 61, noted the calm demeanour of her daughter Isabelle when the teenager was battling brain cancer.

“She never complained. She never asked, why me?”

Isabelle, the fourth of five children, was 18 when she passed in 2012. “She was pretty and very popular in school, she sings,” recalled Tan.

The student at SJI International had been suffering from headaches for years before a magnetic resonance imaging in 2008 revealed a whitish blur in her brain, according to Tan. Then in 2011, she suffered a seizure and collapsed.

It turned out that Isabelle was suffering from a glioblastoma, a particularly aggressive form of brain tumour. “I took her to Houston for a clinical trial for her type of cancer. It helped in the beginning, but she was just deteriorating,” said Tan.

When Tan brought Isabelle back to Singapore in January 2012, tests revealed that she was fighting five infections. Her lungs were filled with more fluid and because she was having trouble breathing, the medical team attending to Isabelle had to intubate her, Tan added.

Tan advised her other children to spend more time with Isabelle before she was intubated and tell their sister how much they loved her.

She recalled Isabelle’s words when she explained what was about to happen. “She said, ‘Yay I like to be sedated (because there’s no pain)’. In her mind, she was just going to sleep and she would wake up,” Tan said.

“And that was the last time she was conscious, because she had a stroke while she was sedated.”

Trying again

Today, Christy Liew is trying for another child via in-vitro fertilisation (IVF). At the time of the interview, she had been taking hormone pills for three months. It is an expensive and uncomfortable process. “(When you take the pills), you feel super hot. There was once I fainted at home because I got so giddy,” said Liew.

But nothing will ever replace the little girl who was her first child. “I just wish I had my whole life to spend with her,” said Liew wistfully. “I gave birth in April, Mother’s Day was in May. It was the saddest day of my life.”

The immediate aftermath was the worst part of the grieving process, with well-meaning loved ones inadvertently making it worse. “People feel very awkward, they will try and say things to make it better. ‘Christy, it’s going to be fine, you will have another child’”

But Liew has been keeping herself busy. She is now a volunteer with Angel Heart, which sews gowns for deceased babies.

“Whenever I think of her, I just start sewing.”

“It’s my faith that helped me’

Isabelle passed on 4 May 2013. “Nobody wailed. It was just finished,” said Tan.

Her husband took it hard, said Tan, whose family is Roman Catholic. “My husband was a relatively new convert, and he kept thinking, ‘She’s paying for my sins.’ Even now, at the mention of her name, his voice starts shaking.”

Her son, who was just two years apart from Isabelle, turned away from the church after her death. “He thought: If God is so powerful, why didn’t he do anything?”

Asked if she felt any anger over Isabelle’s death, Tan shook her head and said her faith has helped her see things clearly despite the persistent questions in her mind initially.

After much prayer and reflection, Tan eventually came to terms with her daughter’s passing, “What she went through, what I went through, God had a purpose in it, and only He knows it. Once you understand that, you are at peace.

“Whatever it is, I know that God is looking after her.”

‘She brings joy back to the family’

Bereaved parents Muhammad Reeza, 40, and Fazilah Kamaruddin, 37, pose in their Pasir Ris flat with two of their children Ely Faryza, 8, and Eryn Falisha, one and a half. PHOTO: Dhany Osman/Yahoo News Singapore

More than three years after Ayden passed, the dark clouds hovering over the family have lifted somewhat. Eryn Falisha, at one and a half years old, is now the youngest member of the family alongside her siblings Fazry Adam, 13, and Ely Faryza, 8.

“She brings joy back to the family, there’s more laughter in the house,” said Reeza of his youngest daughter, who was conceived with the help of IVF. “When she was younger, she looked like a boy. She really looked like Ayden.”

It was Fazilah’s idea to have another child, despite her husband’s reluctance. She said, “We agreed that it’s only going to be one try. I strongly believed that having another baby would help, and it did. I needed a reason to continue living.”

The couple still visit Ayden’s grave every other week, painted pink because he liked the colour. “I remember him every day, every second. He’s never out of mind,” said Fazilah, who is on anti-depressants and continues to go for counselling. “On some days, I can’t function.”

But she is adamant that nothing will ever replace Ayden.

“Eryn’s not a replacement. She’s just like the rainbow after the storm,” said Fazilah with a smile.

If you are a bereaved parent in need of support, you can contact Child Bereavement Support (Singapore).

This story has been amended to correctly reflect the details of Ayden’s death anniversary. Reeva and Fazilah’s middle daughter is named Ely Faryza.

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