Moving on after spouse dies

It was a shock to engineer Katherine Ho to see people smiling and joking not too long after the death of their spouses.

This happened at a Christmas gathering for widows and their children under 12 in 2009.

Ms Ho, 35, recalls blurting out in tears: "How can you all be so happy? I can't see my future, how I could be happy again or laugh again?"

Her husband, engineer Andy Yeo, had died two months before that, in October 2009, just six weeks after he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

Their son was then four and daughter two months old.

Ms Susan Chee, 55, general manager of Wicare, the support group for widows which Ms Ho attended, says: "The grieving period depends very much on how the husband died - whether it was a sudden accident or suicide, which are very traumatic and take a longer time."

Ms Chee, whose husband died in the 1997 SilkAir crash in Indonesia that killed 100 people, says how a spouse copes after a loved one is snatched away - or even after a lingering illness - depends a lot on the individual.

Widows and widowers SundayLife! talked to say they took anything from a year to three years to accept reality, but making practical everyday changes help.

Ms Ho - who now serves as committee member in Wifilles, a Wicare offshoot support group for widows with kids under 12 - started with mundane chores.

Her late husband had seen to all money matters, including the paying of household utilities, insurance and even her credit card bills.

As a way to expunge her grief, Ms Ho, who was on maternity leave, took that time to "dig out documents, sort out papers and understand what's going on", before going back to work at a semi-conductor firm in November 2009. She also turned to her extended family for support.

At work, instead of calling her husband on the way to different meeting rooms as she would normally do, "just to hear his voice", she called a younger sister instead.

At her request, her father and youngest sister moved into her apartment in Sengkang for 11/2 years after their four-room flat in Tiong Bahru was involved in an en-bloc sale. They moved into their new four-room flat in the same area later.

She says of their ongoing support: "It's important for my kids and me to have the people who love and care for us around us."

There was also the matter of her children's education.

She says: "With my husband around, their education is a shared responsibility. Now, how my kids turn out is based solely on my decisions."

The fear that she was not doing enough led her to push her son to become an independent reader.

She turned to a sister-in-law, whose younger of two children was about her son's age, for advice. The suggestion: Sign him up for a phonics class.

She says: "Without her advice and support, I would be wondering if I was doing enough as a mother and exposing my children to the best of their abilities."

In the short term, even friends and neighbours can be pillars of support.

When her late husband, a delivery man, died of a heart attack in February 2009, Madam Siti Patimah felt helpless.

He was the sole breadwinner. Their children were then 12 and nine.

Says Madam Siti, 42, in a combination of Malay and English: "I had no money, no job and two kids. I was crying every day for six months and the utility bills were piling up.

"Friends and neighbours paid the utility bills or brought food, but I had to revive my spirit for my children's sake."

At her friends' suggestion, she went to the Association of Muslim Professionals at Pasir Ris, where she attended various skills-training classes, including its micro-business scheme in massage therapy.

Now, her income as a freelance masseuse supplements her take-home pay of about $940 as a health-care assistant in a nursing home.

She recalls: "At first, I couldn't accept his death and I was angry with myself for being at the market and not at home when he collapsed.

"But I keep telling myself, 'You just have to look forward, not backwards.'"

Even in cases of death after a long-term illness, it may not be easier for surviving spouses to cope.

When Mr D. Thong's wife of 18 years died in April 2010 after a 13-year fight against bone cancer, he devoted more time to his mildly autistic son.

He would return home from work as a product manager in a telecommunications company two hours earlier than usual at around 7pm.

Father and son kept each other company at night, watching television till the boy nodded off to sleep in the master bedroom.

Mr Thong, 55, says: "The direct impact was my performance at work suffered."

At one internal meeting to update the bosses, he got his sales data wrong and was ticked off for it.

He quit the job last August, went to a school that trains missionaries for about half a year while working part-time in a headhunting firm.

He took up his current post as a student facilitator in a mission agency last month.

The many family photos that used to adorn his old home and photo albums of their holidays together are now kept in boxes in the storeroom.

Only one framed photograph of his wife sits on a table in his bedroom.

He says: "I want to remember my dear wife but I don't want my memories of her to be tied down to her death."

For Madam Rosie Lim, the "memories are still raw" and she is torn between wanting to hold on and letting go.

Her husband of 42 years died of pneumonia in July last year. He was 68.

Madam Lim, now 69, cries at the slightest reminders of him - from the sight of his favourite chair in their four-room HDB flat in Bedok North to missing the routines of showering and feeding him.

He had had Alzheimer's disease since 2008, with breathing complications. She was his caregiver for five years from 2007 until his death.

Previously a homebody, she now volunteers once a month at a Buddhist association, bakes cookies for staff of the hospital where her husband was a patient and exercises twice a week at a playground nearby.

Her two married daughters take her out for lunches on weekends. On weekdays, she looks after three grandchildren, aged 14, 12 and eight, in her flat, which she now shares with a younger, single sister, who moved in to keep her company.

"But I feel very lost, very empty," says Madam Lim several times during the interview, dissolving into tears.

She even thinks of him as she taps her fare card on bus journeys. His photograph is in her purse. "I say to him, 'Pete, you are with me', as I flash the card going up the bus."

On days she finds the loss too overwhelming, the ex-florist spritzes his favourite Ralph Lauren fragrance on curtains in their bedroom to "get his scent".

Ms Ho of Wifilles knows what to say to Madam Lim: Take baby steps.

She says: "The things I used to do as a family of four with my husband and the kids, like going for weekend meals, I still did because I didn't want to deprive the kids of that."

But she took the "whole gang" along initially, including her father and two younger sisters.

"So we weren't a family of three, but a family of more."


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