Madam Germaine Yeo was 49 when she was diagnosed with stage fourcolorectal cancer in 2008. She was told she had three months to live. At this stage, patients would traditionally be put on palliative care. But her doctor, wanting to give her a chance at life, went against his seniors’ advice and recommended a less conventional and more aggressive treatment.
Madam Yeo went through two major surgeries and aggressive chemotherapy. The treatment worked and for about two years she was cancer-free. And then it returned.
In February this year, seven years after a cheerful and courageous fight, she succumbed, leaving behind her husband, Vince Lin, and their only child, Keegan.
A pharmacist with the National Cancer Centre, the young Mr Lin, 33, journeyed with his mother throughout her ordeal. He recalled what it was like to live with a cancer diagnosis.
“It was always a challenge for me, first to accept the diagnosis and then to accept that medically there was so little we could do about it, we were limited by medical technology. While having to come to terms with these, we had to make important decisions with regard to her treatment options and lifestyle changes.” No cure has been found for stage four cancers so far, except lymphoma, he added.
“It was terrible. I think cancer is a cancer of the family, not so much of the individual. The more close knit you are, the more it affects you. We were suddenly struck with the idea of mortality and that we could do nothing about it.”
As his mother was receiving treatment at the cancer centre, he was often the first to find out about her condition.
“I kept receiving bad news. Every doctor’s visit, 90 percent of the time, I heard things like ‘Hey, I could see signs of the treatment not working so well. Maybe we should consider alternative treatments, which is probably more expensive, more toxic.’ It was depressing.”
Grace in acceptance
While father and son struggled to come to terms with the prospect of losing their wife and mother, something else was happening in Madam Yeo.
Keegan described her as a worrier, very efficient, focused and well-prepared for worst-case scenarios. The eldest among five siblings, she was the first to rush over to see to things at home in an emergency. She was selfless and felt she had the responsibility to set things right. She also had an aggressive and impatient streak.
When the cancer struck, there was no way she could prepare for it, noted Keegan, “It was very taxing for her because it was so not her. So she completely abandoned herself and she just trusted in God.”
He added that his mother’s attitude changed after the family was baptised about 15 years ago, but did not elaborate. “This was an even more profound change. So much so that she seemed the strongest one among us throughout her illness. She was the one consoling us.”
Keegan recalled what she once said, “You know in retrospect, during prayer I said a lots of things, I said, ‘I love God, I trust God.’ But I trusted Him so little. In comparison to what I’m doing right now, it was almost like doing lip service, even though at that time I felt I was sincere. Nothing is more sincere than where I am right now.”
She also told him, “One day I would have to go, don’t worry about where I’m going because I’m not worried. Can you imagine if I was not a convert? If this were to happen I think I would be scared out of my wits. But I’m strangely calm because I know that God is with me, and He is good.”
Keegan said the journey did “a lot of character building. I thank God. He watched over us every step of the way. It took a lot of courage, a lot of trust in Him and a lot of hope that things were not what they seemed.”
Seeing God at work
While the trio did not reach out actively to their parish community for support, they found that the Lord sent many angels their way: Franciscan Missionaries of the Divine Motherhood Sr Carmen was introduced by a friend, and she sometimes gave her Holy Communion at home. Extraordinary communion ministers would drop by their house, as did the Neighbourhood Christian Community 500 of the Church of Christ The King. She was prayed for by the St Peregrine Cancer Support Group in the parish.
Perhaps emboldened by this, Keegan asked for a miracle. “His miracles came, lots of it, but tiny ones. Sometimes I would say, ‘I know God, I’m a bit greedy, but give me one big one. Let her be fine. But it’s not meant to be. That is not to say that He was not there because you could see Him everywhere.”
The day Madam Yeo passed away, Keegan and his father were planning their dinner, talking about what she would have liked to eat. She passed on peacefully, looking like she was sleeping.
Keegan recalled, “The loss was almost surreal, I felt like I was not myself. I think God was standing in my place because if I was myself I would have crumbled. There was nothing I imagined that could be worse than her death.”
He added, “Her life was always for others and so my dad and I were strengthened and consoled because of that. God is with her, what have we to worry? She has finally reached the end-goal and for that we are happy. That is the end-goal of life, isn’t it, to be with the Lord. I feel she had run the good race.”
To keep Madam Yeo’s memory alive, Keegan and his father would visit her niche at the church columbarium after every Mass. He would also pray the Divine Mercy Chaplet at three o’clock every day in her memory. Often she would come to mind with the request “to pray for others... for the poor souls in purgatory.”
Added Keegan, “I do miss her presence in church. But I also know that with the Communion of Saints, she is with us... She is still very much a part of us.”
|Cancer support in the archdiocese|
|Life in the Vine group
Base: Church of the Holy Spirit
Contact: Eugenius Kuntarjo Budiono (6252 5646)
St Mary of the Cross group
Base: Meets monthly at a member’s home.
St Peregrine group
Base: Church of St Mary of the Angels.
Contact: Karen Sng/Lionel See (6567 3866)
Loss was opportunity to return to God
It was Chinese New Year 1998. Ms Siva was deathly pale and feeling like the world was spinning. Her husband rushed her to the hospital where doctors discovered she was bleeding internally.
A gynaecologist found that she had an ectopic pregnancy, where the foetus latched outside the fallopian tube, instead of in the uterus.
After the emergency surgery, she woke up in the hospital’s maternity ward.“The women had babies, but not me,” she recalled, adding that “things happened so fast, I had no chance to process what was going on. All that registered in my head was the word ‘ectopic’.”
She does not remember grieving, not even during her maternity leave. “I remember that even while in hospital, I was doing work, calling people as we were organising a concert. That’s how much I enjoyed my work,” she said.
However, each time she recalled the loss of her child, she would blame herself. “I would think, ‘Perhaps God is saying I’m not a good enough parent.’”
Ms Siva returned to work before her six-week medical leave was up and shortly after, she lost her job. Then she lost a niece, whom she was close to.
“Those events were the beginning of my search for my faith,” she said, adding that although she was not a practising Catholic at the time of her sudden illness, she prayed the Hail Mary.
She also had her son baptised at the Church of Our Lady Star of the Sea, to her husband’s surprise.
But the memory of her lost child would not leave the family. In the weeks and months following her operation, whenever she spoke to her husband about trying for another baby, he would flatly refuse, fearful of what would happen.
She would also think of the child whenever her son grumbled about his being an only child, or when she was with a friend whose son would have been the same age as the baby. She needed a proper closure to the loss, she said.
“Looking back, I found that God has always been with me. My Catholic education was influential in me calling on Mother Mary. Growing up, I did not have a family that was prayerful or went to church faithfully.”
Ms Siva added, “I also realised that there are no answers to everything. Perhaps if those events did not happen, I would not have returned to the Church and have my son baptised.”
Peace came through community
Ms Rennie Jonathan lost her husband, Percival, on their 15th wedding anniversary 19 years ago. What was meant to be a day of celebration turned into days and months of mourning for the then 34 year old mother of three.
Mr Percival, 39, suffered a massive heart attack.
“I was in a daze,” Ms Jonathan, now 53, recalled. “ I didn’t want to believe what was happening. ‘How could something like this happen to me?’ I kept asking myself. There was disbelief.”
She remembered that their family doctor had said then that her husband was fit and had no medical issues. But on October 16, 1996, Mr Jonathan felt unwell after exercising and went to the family clinic. It was there that he collapsed, shortly after being given medication. He was rushed to the hospital where he passed away.
With her husband’s death, Ms Jonathan lost her first love and best friend. “I met my husband when I was 16, he was my first and only boyfriend,” she said.
With Mr Jonathan’s passing, she was left to raise the three kids – aged 11, seven and five – on her income as a senior executive officer in an insurance company. “I had to think of the future. What I was earning wasn’t enough and I took on several part-time jobs to manage financially,” she recalled.
She often found herself wondering about what had happened. “At one point I was lamenting and refused to go to church. I wanted to stay away ... That made it worse because I had no one to turn to.”
In addition, she had to hide her grief from the kids. “The mourning was continuous. I felt extremely sad but for the sake of my three children, I could not show them that I was heartbroken.”
She found it trying to care for the children, see to their studies and juggle a few jobs. At the same time, she felt the void left by her husband, especially during Christmas when her in-laws would get together for a big family dinner.
Thankfully, she received support from kin and community. “I had a lot of emotional support from my family, in-laws and friends in church,” Ms Jonathan said.
Praying together as a family to thank God for blessings received was also healing, she said.
At that time, the Church of the Holy Trinity, where she is still a parishioner, was running a programme called Rainbows, which offered social, emotional and spiritual support for the widowed and divorced. She took part in it.
“The bonding and fellowship with other ladies and their children made me feel I wasn’t alone. I was in the programme for three months and we met weekly. We have been coming together for 15 years now, although the programme was stopped after just a few months of my joining it.”
Ms Jonathan would consult the group when she had questions or struggled with raising the children. “It would be good to have this programme in every parish. Prayers for people like us would uplift us.” (See boxed article above)
Ms Jonathan felt that “acknowledging the loss and pain was difficult” but it helped in her grieving process. “What kept me going were my children because I felt that they needed me to be strong in order for them to heal themselves too.”
She also credits her positive mindset for not dwelling on her loss for too long. “I told myself back then, ‘Yes, this has happened to you. Just go on.’”
The family keeps the memory of Mr Jonathan alive in several ways. “Time and time again, the kids and I would talk about things we used to do together. They would recall vividly such moments with joy. Although we still tear up sometimes when speaking of the past, there is also acceptance and peace,” she added.
In addition, the family visits the cemetery at least once a year, offers prayers for the soul of Mr Jonathan and keep his photographs.“Our wedding photo is displayed in our bedroom. We also remember him on his birthday, death anniversary and on All Souls’ Day. We believe that he’s looking after us from heaven,” said Ms Jonathan.
Ms Jonathan shares the following to cope with grief:
- Be patient with yourself, believe that God has you in the palm of His hands and allow the grieving process to take place naturally.
- Get support from family and friends. By confiding and sharing difficulties you can heal and grow together as a community.
- Turning back to God is important to stay strong.
|Help for the widowed, divorced and permanently separated
Beginning Experience Singapore is a peer ministry for the widowed, divorced and permanently separated individuals to facilitate the resolution of the grief surrounding the end of a marriage/relationship.
The movement started in the United States and was introduced in Singapore in 1988. The current spiritual director is Fr Eugene Vaz. To find out more, visit http://www.besingapore.com/