Having a child die is probably the most agonising and heartrending experience any parent could ever endure. We speak to four mothers who lost their children too soon. As they share their stories of pain, healing and renewal, they hope that others who are going through this loss will find comfort in knowing that they are not alone.
Cheryl Chan Jia-En (25 October 1993 – 30 May 2003)
Already a mother to two boys, Miriam had been informed that a medical condition made it impossible for her to conceive again. Miraculously, she found herself pregnant and although she nearly lost the baby eight weeks into the pregnancy, Cheryl Chan Jia-En was born normal and healthy.
Cheryl’s bubbly personality brought joy to her family and those around her. In Primary One, she was an enthusiastic student, always eager to help her teachers. Four months into the school year, there was a flu epidemic in her class. Unlike her classmates who soon recovered, Cheryl’s fever refused to subside. It was discovered that she had stage four neuroblastoma – a terminal cancer affecting the secondary nervous system.
Despite her despair, Miriam did her best to appear strong, but the intelligent six-year-old could read the sign ‘Cancer Centre’ when she went for treatment each week. Says Miriam, “It was heartbreaking to see her go through blood transfusions, intravenous drips and injections to boost her white blood count.”
Over a period of 10 months, Cheryl had 10 cycles of chemotherapy and major surgery to remove an 800-gram tumour from her abdomen. Unfortunately, things took a turn for the worse in December 2001, when the cancer spread to her hip. By August 2002, it had invaded her spine and parts of her skull, leaving her wheelchair-bound and in excruciating pain.
Recalls Miriam, “Her parting words to me and my husband, Paul, will always remain etched in our hearts. On the night before she died, she told us, ‘Mum and Dad, even when I pass away, I will still love you very much.’”
Miriam continues, “The initial days, weeks and months after Cheryl left us were extremely difficult. Paul and I would cry privately each time we thought of her. Our family seemed incomplete. We avoided places where we used to go and stopped taking family pictures as photos were reminders that Cheryl was no longer with us. It took us nearly two years to get over this.”
With the support of close friends and by drawing strength from each other, Miriam and Paul pulled through. They also realised that they had been neglecting their boys and tried to spend more time with them, helping them through their grief.
Miriam says, “It has been over nine years and although I am able to talk about her, whenever I’m alone and thinking about her, tears well up in my eyes. I will always miss her, her hearty laughter, her hugs and kisses.”
Kareem Yeo (27 August 2004 – 5 February 2005) & Shakeel Yeo (27 August 2004 – 6 February 2005)
Aida and her husband, Raouf, were over the moon when they discovered that they were having twins. The pregnancy progressed smoothly until Aida went into premature labour at 31 weeks. Their doctors tried to delay delivery, warning of the risks of premature birth, but after five days of battling contractions, Kareem and Shakeel were born 15 minutes apart.
Aida saw her boys the next day at the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). She expressed her breast milk religiously every three hours because it was especially helpful for preemies.
One day, Shakeel suffered a seizure. Aida and Raouf were told that their boys suffered from serious complications – they had jerky movements and their eyes failed to focus. The doctors ran hundreds of tests but came back with nothing. All they knew was that the twins were not normal, but to what extent, they couldn’t tell.
On December 15, Kareem went home with a nasal cannula to assist his breathing process. Aida shuttled to and from the hospital. Shakeel was due to be discharged on December 20, but two days before that, his breathing deteriorated and he returned to the NICU. Two weeks later, Kareem’s condition also worsened and he too had to be re-admitted. Then came the terrible news. Kareem and Shakeel were not going to make it. Their lungs would continue to fail. It was only a matter of time.
Aida’s pain was immense. But she wanted Kareem and Shakeel to have siblings. “During my pregnancy, I constantly prayed for a healthy baby. Thankfully, my prayers were answered. When Hakeem came, we were overjoyed. He helped ease much of the pain. Then Danish came along, and now Nadia. I still miss Kareem and Shakeel and send them prayers every day. But I’m blessed.”
Ryken Er (20 September 2009 – 26 April 2011)
Flight attendant Georgina and her husband Oliver had been married for four years when they decided it was time to start a family. Three months later, they had good news and Georgina quit flying. She took care of baby Ryken full-time for the first year. He was an ideal baby from birth, always smiling, and he never cried for no reason. The first-time parents felt blessed to have a son like him.
Ryken developed a mild fever one night. Georgina sponged him and gave him Panadol before taking him to the paediatrician the next morning. He was alert and playing with the doctor, who diagnosed viral fever and prescribed three-hourly Ibruprofen and Panadol. Although his temperature returned to normal the next day, Georgina and Oliver sensed that something was not right and decided to take him to the hospital.
After an initial check at the Accident & Emergency department, they were sent up to the High Dependency ward to await blood test results. Ryken’s breathing became increasingly laboured and they begged the attending doctor to do something. As he drew the drapes, nurses pushed the emergency crash cart in and Georgina immediately feared the worst. “I dropped to my knees with my eyes closed, covering my ears, and cried out to God, repeatedly begging Him not to take Ryken away.”
Sadly, after almost 45 minutes of resuscitative efforts, the medical team informed the distraught parents that he was gone. Ryken had had meningitis caused by an exceptionally virulent strain of Streptococcus Pneumonae that was immune to the Pneumococcal vaccination he had had. They were ushered into a room to spend their last moments with Ryken. To Georgina, it all felt like a dream.
On the way to the casket parlour, Georgina held Ryken’s body, telling him how much she loved him, apologising for not taking good care of him, singing him lullabies. After his burial, their extended family took care of Georgina and Oliver, helping to pack away Ryken’s belongings, sending them to a storage facility.
Thanks to friends, Georgina and Oliver began to seek help. A doctor prescribed anti-depressants and sleeping medications. Grief counselling and talking to other parents with similar experiences also helped. “Oliver and I were very encouraged by them and decided it was time to start trying for another child,” shares Georgina. Ryken’s younger sister, Shiloh, was born in July this year.
Andre Jeremy Tang Jia Rong (7 September 1994 – 12 July 2009)
Twenty-two weeks into April’s first pregnancy, she and her husband, Ngai Kin, were told that their baby had Hypoplastic Left-Heart Syndrome, a rare but fatal condition where the left side of the heart is undeveloped. He was only expected to live a few days if he was born.
Beating the odds, Andre lived for 15 years. At school, Andre’s cheeky and loving nature drew friends to him. At home, he helped take care of his two younger sisters. As he grew older, he became an inspiration to others. Complete strangers, upon learning of his condition, marvelled at his courage to live and be happy despite knowing that his end was near.
Soon after his 14th birthday, Andre had a near-death experience. He later told his family that he had been given a little more time and that he chose to return to his body as he felt their hands holding him. From then on, however, his condition deteriorated. The family drew up a list of promises and a ‘bucket list’ of things to accomplish. These were completed three days before he passed away.
Seven weeks before his 15th birthday, Andre went to bed after watching his favourite cartoon show. Cradled in April’s arms, with his sisters and dad holding his hands, they said goodbye.
April says: “It was excruciating. The feeling of guilt that I hadn’t done enough for Andre consumed me and I could not sleep or eat. In four weeks, I lost 10 kg, suffered from separation anxiety, panic attacks and memory loss. I feared nightfall and in panic, would begin gathering all of Andre’s belongings to keep within my sight, for fear of losing them. I became short tempered and neglected my girls. I allowed myself to fall into depression and did nothing but cry. Until finally, I lost my sight for 24 hours and the doctor diagnosed it as stress and anxiety causing a blockage in the optic nerves.”
“That was my wake-up call,” April continues. “I sought professional help and was given medication. I realised that I could not afford to go crazy or I would be letting Andre down by not being there for his beloved sisters.”
“Nothing can fill the void in our hearts but the loss has become a part of our lives and thus, a little easier to bear. Andre taught us many things. To live our lives to the fullest as we never know if we’ll see tomorrow. To love, trust, forgive. To live a simple life and be thankful for all we have. To treasure those around us and spend the time we want to spend with them instead of saying tomorrow.”
Special thanks to Child Bereavement Support (Singapore) for putting us in touch with these mothers.