When Christmas will never be the same again
While most of us are caught up with the baking and the decorating, the shopping and the wrapping of presents, some families out there and in our midst are grappling with the stark and painful reality of having to face a Christmas (perhaps for the first time) without a dear one they have recently lost. The Thios are one such family, as Jeanette Alexander discovers.
Bernard and Ying with Jerome, taken during their 2012 trip to Korea.
Jerome (or ‘Slim’, as his family affectionately calls him) was the brave, young hero in their midst. As the baby of the family, he was hopelessly loved and doted on by his smitten family.
But he was so much more than just a cute and loveable kid. Albeit being plagued by Becker’s Muscular Dystrophy since his childhood, Jerome was astoundingly optimistic and never lost his spunk. He retained an angelic innocence most of us would have lost long before we were his age and he lived unselfishly for others.
On Sep 12 this year, his father, Bernard, who is a doctor, found him unconscious in the toilet of their home and tried to resuscitate him - but without success. Jerome’s sudden death, just two months before his 18th birthday, plunged the family into an abyss of grief.
“Jerome was my most adorable baby. He was obliging even as a baby,” his mother Ying fondly recalls. “He would open his eyes and smile at strangers even though he was already falling asleep”. The older Thios were always fascinated by the attention Jerome received as a student at Maris Stella kindergarten, where the teachers and principal would come out to greet him when he arrived at school.
He was a big boy as a kid but a gentle giant. Ying once overheard a playmate exclaim that he was “so big but you don’t bully”. These were the very qualities that made him a child-magnet – the kids were drawn to him like he was candy when he helped out as a childminder at the Couple Empowerment Programme in the parishes where his parents ran the sessions.
Jerome with his big sister Marie at her graduation (SMU) in July this year. Marie held the fort when mum and dad weren’t around and kangaroo-hugged him all night when he fell gravely ill last year.
Jerome was a very determined young man whose hero was none other than his beloved father, Bernard. A few weeks before September 12 (the day he passed away) Jerome had proclaimed (first to Dad and then to just about everyone else at home), that he would be independent on his 18th birthday.
Bernard fondly recalls, “Yes, my boy with 12% LVEF (Left Ventricular Ejection Fraction, a weak heart condition) and the most severe form of heart failure told me he would be looking after himself once he turned 18! What a truism, absolutely prophetic! Jerome was foreseeing his independence.”
He continued, “We now do not have to look after his needs. He is on his own, in a better place and with the Giver of all good things – a heavenly reward for a life lived to the full,” referring to Jn 10:10 (“I came
that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”).
How do the Thios so bravely march on with life after this? “It is surreal, but we are at peace that God’s
plan is always perfect”, says Ying. “We are all called to evangelise and my comfort is to see that when there is love, it can overcome everything, and the children’s faith flowers in adversity,” says this mother with faith so unyielding.
Getting on with life
In a moving letter to her grieving children, Ying wrote: “We are all mourning the loss of Slim because we have loved deeply. But it also means that heaven has become even more compelling…” She cited the life of St John Paul II to tell them that even though he experienced the painful deaths of his nearest and dearest in a world “marred by death and inhumanity”, he never gave up hope in humanity, but put his whole heart, mind and soul into making God’s love a reality. She then ended off saying, “We need to get on with our lives and live for others – and bring the troops home”.
Life after Jerome
Joy and chatter has slowly returned to the Thio household where Jerome lives on in their laughter and whenever they gather as a family to keep his memory alive.
“The pain comes, not immediately, but over time as the overcompensation of doing more activities starts to tire you, and the unattended feeling of loss starts to surface,” observes Joel, Jerome’s older brother and
closest sibling. “It strikes you hard when triggers like recent photographs or activities you did together are experienced.”
He often finds himself staringinto space when he relives those activities, or talking to an empty bed or soft toy they used to share. His advice to those who mourn a beloved is: “Let it happen… let the feelings of loss come; but hold on tight to your loved ones and God for support in these times. It will be a bumpy ride, but all is possible with faith and love.”
What is it that grounds her family so firmly in the belief they will reunite with Jerome in Heaven? Older sister Michelle shares: “The Love of God for me comes each time I attend mass and when I recite the creed. Fr
John Paul Tan told us that even though we may be physically separated, we are all connected in the Eucharist through this ‘communion’,” she explains.
“Therefore every time I receive the Eucharist, I know that I am in communion with “Mims” (her pet-name for Jerome). Saying the creed at mass affirms her belief in the ‘communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and life everlasting’. “To me, this is God’s promise that I will meet my baby brother
once again,” says a heartened Michelle. In the meantime, she believes that trusting and being fully vulnerable to one another helps. “In doing so, I share my thoughts and grief fully, without apprehension,” which she says is the “best form of catharsis”.
The Christmas tree
Christmas always starts in August-September for the Thios, with them singing along with Jerome to Michael Bublé’s Christmas songs in the car and Christmas carols that Bernard puts on in the hall. Joel shares that the biggest difference this year is that “Christmas carols lack those signature off-key notes he used to sing with gusto, the Christmas tree lacks that crooked top star and misplaced glitter balls from those careless hands of his, and we have one less present under the tree for our most specia baby of the family.” Christmas
will always be celebrated in the Thio household with big, bright smiles, Joel says, but this time, with “tears for both our loss, and in faith that heaven has gained an angel...”
This is indeed a story of unyielding faith, grounded in God’s love – tried and tested in the furnace and proven
gold; a story of courage, hope, strength, and steely resolve to go on living for others. Perhaps this testament of a firm belief in the communion of saints, of unbreakable familial bonds and an infinite love that transcends time and space will also help console, encourage and prepare other grieving hearts for the coming of Baby Jesus this Christmas… and for the life to come.
The Thio family (parents Bernard and Ying and siblings Jonathan, Justin, Joel, Marie and Michelle) pay a loving tribute to Jerome in a fuller story at catholicfamily.org.sg/thiotribute
PIETA – A peer ministry for bereaved parents
“If we let ourselves be sustained by this faith, the experience of bereavement can generate a stronger solidarity of family bonds, a new openness to the sorrow of other families, a new fraternity with the families that are born and reborn in hope.” - Pope Francis, June 2015
Pieta is the latest addition to the family as ACF’s thirteenth family partner. It is a peer ministry where bereaved parents find mutual support through prayers and sharing of faith experience. It was formed by a community of catholic parents who, after the death of their children, united in faith to seek God’s comfort, hope and wisdom. The word “Pieta” (pity or sorrow) expresses the despair bereaved parents feel during their loss.
Bereaved parents are invited to join in the sessions (which include scripture, prayer, reflection and sharing) held every 4th Tuesday of the month as companions on a journey at Agape Village (7A Toa Payoh Lorong 8, 7.30pm to 9pm).
“(God) comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.” - 2 Corinthians 1:4
My Christmas Wish
A grandfather, a mother, a young adult and a child share their wishes and prayers for Christmas.
Christmas is a time of happiness and for getting together with family and friends. It is made more
special when you are surrounded by loved ones. My wish for the family, as well as for families near and
far, is to be able to come together to share the joy of Christmas and to be blessed with good health all
Pereira Godfrey Allan, 65, grandfather of four in a family of nine - Church of the Divine Mercy
Heavenly Father, as the year comes to a close, I give thanks to my family who has been there for me,
through the good times and the bad. Father, 2017 will present itself with joyous occasions and challenges.
I pray that we continue to support and inspire each other. Through the family, we experience your love
for us, which deepens as we grow closer. Thank you Lord for bringing us this far, and may we continue
to strengthen under your love and face 2017 as a family. Amen.”
Matthew Chan, 20, from a family of six - Church of St Ignatius
Dear God, during this season of Advent, I pray for world peace and an end to terrorism. I pray that
people will celebrate Christmas in the name of Christ and that families will be more tight-knitted.
I pray that nothing bad will happen but if they do, I pray more people will turn to God in their dark
times. I pray that people will learn to forgive and forget, and love each other as we love ourselves. I
pray that everyone will have the courage to go for confession. Amen.”
Isaac Yap, 11, from a family of three - St Anne’s Church
Dear Lord, our favourite time of the year is upon us again. The lights, the carols and most importantly,
your birth. Growing up, my parents always imbued in us that this season was not about Santa or the gifts.
As a parent, I seek your guidance in helping me teach the right values and true meaning of Christmas
to my children. May we take your birth as a time for us as a family to start anew in the upcoming year
and be stronger in faith and in prayer. We seek your continued blessing Oh Lord. Amen.”
Michelle Pinto, 37, mother of three boys in a family of five - Church of St Francis Xavier
Catholic singer-songwriter Corrinne May shares her thoughts on various family moments and matters being a daughter, sister, wife and mother in Singapore and Los Angeles in this monthly column.
A present for Jesus
Two Fridays ago, after I picked Claire up from school, we walked through the church on the way back to the car and there was Jesus on the altar in the monstrance. It was the first Friday and so they were having
Eucharistic Adoration in the church.
Claire and I knelt down and I tried to pray, but Claire was wiggling away and getting bored. “Count how many
candles there are on the altar.” I said, hoping she’d be occupied with her new task and leave me a little time to pray.
She took a moment to count the candles. There were 14 candles altogether, 7 on each side of the monstrance. After deliberating for a while, Claire said, “There are 15 candles Mama…14 candles and Jesus!” I felt so proud of my little one.
As the prophet Isaiah says: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” (9:2). But how shall this light be seen if we clutter it out of our lives? Imagine a room filled to the brim with boxes and old toys, and old books, and dust. If one were to light a candle in the middle of the room, it would hardly be seen. But if that
room were to be free of clutter, how brightly that light would permeate the entire room.
So it is with our hearts. We need to de-clutter the room of our hearts, so that the light of Christ can fill our hearts.
I remember the homily from the second Sunday of Advent two years ago, where the priest in his homily talked about how, just as expectant parents prepare the crib and the room for a new baby, we too, need to prepare
the room of our hearts for our Savior’s birth.
And what gift should we give to the Infant Jesus this Christmas? Well, I asked Claire during the last Christmas, what she would be giving Jesus as her present. She replied : “Er...perhaps a new cross? Because the one He has now is pretty rusty.”
I was tickled by Claire’s response, but on hindsight, I suppose offering up our crosses and sufferings out of love for the Lord would be a good gift indeed. That, and the gift of our hearts.