I can heal and help

SINGAPORE - She lost her husband almost 17 years ago, under similar circumstances.

His body has never been found.

SilkAir Flight MI185 widow Susan Chee, 56, has been through what most could never imagine - and not want to experience.

She knows what it is like to wait. And wait with no closure.

Now she wants to help family members of those who were on Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, which went missing last Saturday.

She is willing to travel to Kuala Lumpur, where the Malaysian crisis management team is based, and where family members are gathering.

The drama, which began early on Saturday morning when airport authorities lost contact with the Beijing-bound flight just 50 minutes into its journey, is into its fourth day with no word on the location of the plane.

It had left Kuala Lumpur International Airport at 12.41am carrying 227 passengers and 12 crew members. It was slated to arrive in Beijing at 6.30am.

Madam Chee's personal heartache began on Dec 19, 1997, when SilkAir MI185 crashed into the Musi River in Palembang, Indonesia, with 104 people on board.

Among them was her husband Tan Choon Yeow, 46, a financial controller.

No bodies were recovered and the cause of the crash remains a mystery till this day.

"I can understand the anxiety and anger many of (the MH370 families) would be feeling," Madam Chee said.

Buddies

Back then, SilkAir and Singapore Airlines (SIA) had provided staff who acted like "buddies" to each affected family, acting as a liaison, counsellor and supporter all in one.

Madam Chee was assigned a woman who, at their first meeting, told her: "You can call me any time for anything, even personal matters. If I cannot answer your questions, I will find answers for you."

While she can no longer remember the woman's name, what the woman did inspired Madam Chee to want to do the same now for victims' families.

"It isn't a lack of gratitude that I cannot remember (the woman's) name. But rather, there are just some things you'd want to forget," she said.

In an interview at the Wicare office in Bishan, where she is general manager of the widow support group, Madam Chee shared with The New Paper some lessons she has taken away from the painful experience.

Rumours

As least five theories have sprung up about what happened to MH370, including an act of terrorism, an onboard explosion and technical failure.

Back in 1997, there was talk of the pilot committing suicide, which heightened emotions among those gathered waiting for news of their loved ones.

"There were so many questions that were going through people's heads that could not be answered and people were angry," Madam Chee said.

It is a combination of pain and patience that will see you through, she said, because there would be a lot of waiting for answers.

And while anger might be one of the stages of grief, it usually does little to help the situation, she added.

Not knowing

In the days after finding out about the air crash, Madam Chee said she was "like a zombie".

When someone is going through grief, everything will be a blur, she said, adding that it would be good to have an extra person by your side.

In her case, she not only had the SIA-appointed liaison officer, but also her niece, who travelled with her to the crash site in Palembang.

"There will be a lot of anger and anxiety," Madam Chee said, adding that there would come a breaking point where the body can no longer take the extreme emotions it was experiencing.

Get help

At the time, the buddy appointed by the airline had spoken to Madam Chee at length, checking if she needed any help, and even counselling her children including Miss Tan Tam Mei. (See comment at right.)

She said: "I told her, 'No, it's okay, I didn't need anything.' But I didn't know what I was thinking as I was just answering questions."

With the benefit of hindsight, she admitted that while it might be difficult, people are always trying to help and it never hurts to have more people to guide you through the grieving process.

Prepare to face reality

The one thing Madam Chee is most grateful for was the woman from the airline preparing her for what to expect.

There was going to be a lot of waiting, information would be trickling in slowly, even when they were on the ground in Palembang.

Most importantly, the family had to be prepared for what they were about to see.

"She told me to brace myself, that we would see debris everywhere and that we might even see body parts," Madam Chee said.

While she didn't see any grisly bits, nothing could quite prepare her for seeing the broken plane parts that had been fished out of the river.

It was also when she saw the huge muddy Musi River that Madam Chee knew "(her husband) was gone".

Anger and more anger

While she was more numb than angry during the days following the crash, there were relatives who were very angry. It is understandable, she said, especially since many felt not enough was being done quickly enough.

Madam Chee said: "When people feel grief, sometimes they find it difficult to handle and it manifests itself as anger.

"At the time, there were a lot of angry people. Very very angry people," she said, adding that she would be able to deal with such angry families since after all, she has been through what they are experiencing.

Was she offering assistance to gain some form of closure? No, she replied.

"I do that on a regular basis during my Wicare support group, I help widows deal with grief all the time.

"For me, this is really to be there for the families, to show my support and to tell them that I know exactly how they feel," she said.

Malaysia Airlines' response

In an e-mail response to The New Paper, a Malaysia Airlines (MAS) representative said they welcomed Madam Susan Chee's help as they need someone who would be able to communicate in Mandarin with family members from Beijing.

TNP has since passed on the MAS contact to her.

lawsm@sph.com.sg


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