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Facing Up to Grief and Loss

Facing Up to Grief and Loss

Three Caregivers share how they navigated grief and bereavement which can be more than just an emotional experience

When people think of grief, they usually picture emotional reactions such as sadness and heartbreak caused by loss. Yet, grief goes beyond emotional responses and encompasses the physical, behavioural, psychological, spiritual, and social responses to loss. Grief is also influenced by one’s cultural experiences and it is therefore important to pay attention, offer platforms of support, and be aware of the different ways one may grieve. Our community’s response to managing grief has evolved over the years as we have become a more compassionate and grief-literate society.

KNOWLEDGE AND FAITH

Sisters Sai Gek and Gek Choo have been caregivers for their mother, 99-year-old Madam Gan, since she was diagnosed with dementia 13 years ago and subsequently with end-stage lymphoma. Dementia is a term used to describe a group of symptoms affecting memory, thinking, and social abilities.

Caring for Madam Gan has been a long and arduous journey filled with many losses, such as the simple pleasures of life. For Madam Gan for instance, though she used to be very active and travelled frequently, often meeting her friends to ‘jalan jalan’, she is no longer able to get about without 24-hour supervision. Due to her memory loss, she no longer talks about her good friendseither .

For the sisters, witnessing their mother’s mental deterioration has been difficult, to say the least. In addition, having to ensure 24-hour supervision also impacted their lifestyles. They no longer have the freedom to go out at will or to rest without worrying about their mother’s well-being and safety at home. It has also been challenging to experience their mother accusing them of things they did not do and dealing with her confusion about daily activities.

Sai Gek and Gek Choo decided to embrace this new situation they faced by equipping themselves with knowledge of Madam Gan’s illness and finding strength in their faith. Sai Gek said, “Knowledge is important; recognising that the person is sick, not well; that’s why they say such things.” 

Despite Madam Gan not being able to express appreciation to Sai Gek and Gek Choo, the sisters find comfort and strength in their faith, constantly sharing that: ”God told us to love one another, so this is the way to show our love to our parents”. They have found spiritual assurance that should Madam Gan pass on, she will return home to her Creator.

Madam Gan’s daughters discovered her talent for drawing and colouring and created opportunities for her to engage in an activity that she finds enjoyable. This helped Madam Gan cope better with the deterioration of her mental health. 

Madam Gan at a colouring activity at SEA Aquarium

Madam Gan attends the SCS art therapy programme. She was also referred for daycare services so that she can be actively engaged in social interactions with others while ensuring that her caregivers can get some respite from their duties. In addition, SCS also looked into fulfilling her wish of going to the SEA Aquarium. This is the kind of holistic support that the Singapore Cancer Society (SCS) Hospice Care team provides for its patients in palliative care.

FAITH AND COMMUNITY

Poh Choo has been a caregiver to both her parents since 2019, when her late father suffered from submandibular gland cancer and chronic kidney disease and was under home palliative care until he passed away at the end of 2022. Her mother has advanced dementia and is fully bed-bound. It has been a challenge both physically and emotionally to care for them, as Poh Choo recounts having to give up her job and not having any personal time at all where simply taking a breather was a luxury. Despite the struggles and losses, she persevered to care for them out of love.

Shortly after her father passed on, Poh Choo was diagnosed with a very rare and aggressive type of breast cancer and was given less than a year to live. As such, not only did she have to grapple with the loss of her father, but she now had to contend with facing her own mortality. At the forefront of Poh Choo’s worries were her mother and her care arrangements when Poh Choo passed on. Sharing a close relationship with her mother, she hoped to be able to have more time to spend with her. Poh Choo also faced losses in her own physical functions, needing more assistance from others, and losing her independence.

In making sense of her grief as a caregiver and patient, Poh Choo found that experiencing her father’s passing had allowed her to find acceptance in her own cancer diagnosis and end of life. As she understands the limitations of her own time, she has gotten her brother, who is residing in Malaysia, to be more involved in supporting her and her mother, including making plans to ensure her mother will be well cared for in a nursing home.

Scrapbook made for Poh Choo by Ambulance Wish Singapore volunteers of her Gardens By the Bay outing with a bible verse that resonates with her

Poh Choo also finds comfort and support from the people around her: fellow members of her bible study group who accompany her for her medical appointments and give words of encouragement to her every day; volunteers from Ambulance Wish Singapore who organised an outing to Gardens by the Bay to fulfil Poh Choo’s wish of spending quality time with her mother; as well as SCS, which is supporting her with financial assistance and home palliative care services.

In Poh Choo’s words, “As much as I grieve and acknowledge my sadness about facing death, I have no fear of death itself because of the faith I have in God. I have also received lots of love from others, even from people I do not know. Because of the love I have received, it has allowed me to stay strong and positive.” In facing her own grief and mortality, Poh Choo has chosen to respond with resilience and positivity, grounded in her faith and community.

The stories of Sai Gek, Gek Choo, and Poh Choo as caregivers illuminate some of the diverse ways caregivers navigate and respond to their grief and losses, finding strength from knowledge, hobbies, life values, spirituality, and their community.

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