Writing to son helps with grief

Mrs Shailaja Nair lost her son Praveen in a motorcar accident. One of the things she did to help her cope with her late son's death was to bake for four hours on his birthday.
PHOTO: ST

Seeing so many children die in the Sabah quake broke Mrs Shailaja Nair's heart.

She knows what the parents of these children are going through, as her only child died in a traffic accident four years ago.

The pain will linger, she said.

But she wants them to know that accepting what has happened and moving on with life is the only way forward.

Mrs Nair, 53, lost her only child, Praveen, 22, in August 2011 when he died in a car accident while holidaying on Batam with his friends.

Mrs Nair, who worked as a sub-editor at The New Paper from 2000 to 2006, said: "Every time I read about any parent losing a child, my heart goes out to them. There is nothing worse than losing your child in any way.

"The grief never ends."

She said that while it has been 45 months since she lost Praveen, it still feels like it happened yesterday.

She added: "The uncertainty of life is brought back to me again."

Mrs Nair, an associate editorial director at a news agency, initially blamed herself for her son's death.

She said: "I shouldn't have woken him up that day. I shouldn't have let him go to Batam.

"All these thoughts went through my mind. The guilt inside me was at its highest when it just happened."

But she said she has since accepted that what had happened was beyond her control.

She said: "I have slowly realised there was nothing I could have done to prevent it."

She said her life has never been the same since her son died.

"The fact that I can never hold him in my arms, hear his voice, or see him again - these things haunt me every morning when I wake up.

"You will never have the same sort of personality again, but you learn to accept that it happened."

For Mrs Nair, one way of coping was going for counselling.

She also goes for a monthly support meeting with members of Child Bereavement Support (Singapore), an informal network of bereaved parents.

She said: "I feel a weight lifted off my shoulders when I walk into that room.

"It's a very good support group and we get immense support from other parents who have also lost their children. I get to help other bereaved parents too."

Another way Mrs Nair copes with the loss is by writing to her son frequently.

She said: "It could be about work, or an issue I am facing. I pick up my laptop or my iPad and I write. I communicate with him all the time."

BIRTHDAY PARTY

On May 14, Praveen would have turned 26.

Mrs Nair and her husband, travel agent Rajendran S R Nair, 61, used to throw a birthday party for him every year.

But as Mr Nair was diagnosed with cancer recently, they celebrated Praveen's birthday this year at the hospital instead.

She said the pain does not lessen with time, but one has to learn to cope.

She said: "It's like barbed wire is wrapped around my heart, and someone is squeezing it all the time. It is difficult to get up in the morning, but I must wake up and continue my day. I cannot give in to depression."

Praveen's room is almost the same as it was when he left, except that Mrs Nair has replaced his bed with a sofa.

She said: "He made the bed on the day he left, and having it there made me feel that he would come back any time."

As for his clothes, Mrs Nair had given away three to four suitcases' worth to orphanages.

She kept some of the shirts he always wore, saying: "When I miss him a lot, I wear them. It feels like he is hugging me."

Accept it before you can heal

It has been 14 years since retiree Lawrence Loh, 66, lost his son Daryl, 20, in a naval accident.

But it was deja vu all over again when he saw news of the Sabah quake.

Mr Loh, who was the executive vice-president of marketing at Singapore Press Holdings when he retired in 2012, told TNP: "I could feel how I felt when my son died. I could empathise with how the parents must be feeling - the anxiety, the grief, the emotional aspect and so on.

"The pain can be excruciating. No one can relate to it unless they are personally involved."

In February 2001, Daryl, who was doing his national service, died in a freak accident at Changi Naval Base.

Mr Loh said that although people say time heals all things, the pain lingers.

He added: "It's something parents have to live with. I don't see how a parent can get over it completely."

Mr Loh took about four months to accept his son was gone.

He said: "The worst came after the funeral. I was left alone to reflect after everything was over, and the pain was so great.

"My heart was so congested, so painful. All I could do was to lie flat on the floor and let the pain subside."

Mr Loh used to go to the gym with his son every weekend, but he stopped for many years after his son's death as it reminded him of their time together.

These days, the bereaved father especially misses his son when he meets up with Daryl's friends.

He said: "It does bring back memories. I would think: 'He would be one of them, in terms of marriage, life, career.' These thoughts come to me."

Mr Loh feels bereaved parents should go through the grieving process for healing to take place.

He said: "For the parents who are affected, they have to accept the fact their child is gone. If they go through the grieving process, then healing can take place."

He encourages bereaved parents to talk about it as it relieves the stress.

"When I talk about it, it gives me the opportunity to go through the entire episode again and again to a point where I begin to accept it. Keeping it bottled up will have detrimental effects.

"Cry if you need to, there is no shame in crying."

Experts: Talking about it helps

Anger, frustration and self-blame are common early grief symptoms, said psychiatrists, and it will take time before such emotions pass.

Dr Adrian Wang, consultant psychiatrist at Gleneagles Medical Centre, told The New Paper: "There are no words to describe the painful emotions from such an event. A parent losing a child - particularly one so young is such an unnatural situation - most people don't know how to begin coping with it."

He said there will be constant reminders of their loss as time passes. Watching other children play, revisiting familiar places - things which used to bring comfort will now bring pain. He said even hearing about other children's PSLE results this year will sadden them.

But parents should not hide their feelings.

Dr Winslow Rasaiah Munidasa, psychiatrist at Novena Medical Center, told TNP: "They need to talk openly with people whom they love and trust. Those who don't talk about their feelings feel pain for a longer time.

"Losing a child is always more difficult as it is natural that parents always think they will die before their child. If the opposite happens, the emotions are rawer.

"From my experience, those who express their emotions more openly cope better."

Dr Wang advised anyone having trouble coping to speak with a professional like a counsellor, a religious worker, or a psychologist or psychiatrist.

He said: "It doesn't mean the person has a mental illness. Grief is normal. But at a difficult time like this, even the toughest person may need a bit of help."


This article was first published on June 12, 2015.
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