Life hit rock bottom for every single member of my family the day my mum took her own life.
On 28 July 2018, my brother was diagnosed with delusion disorder. Since then, I had a hunch that my mother might one day take the path that she did. Nevertheless, I tried to brush this thought off as I believed that with my love and support, she would be able to accept and overcome the challenges of coping with my brother’s condition.
It is hard to imagine when looking back how I got by the last few months. On hearing the news that day, it felt like I had a brain concussion – the shock, the disbelief, the pain! It was a traumatic experience having to identify her and sign the death certificate. Nothing made sense. She had been just lying next to me the night before, after I had given her a massage, and within hours, she was gone forever! A cold corpse lying in the mortuary for me to kiss her goodbye for the last time.
It was agonising to see my frail dad heartbroken, and crying his heart out like I had never seen before. Even though I was devastated, I held back my tears in front of my dad to avoid upsetting him further and ignored my feelings to ensure the funeral arrangements were attended to. It was the last thing I could do for my mum – for us to bid our final farewell to her.
If you think things must be difficult during the wake, I can tell you that it was even harder after the funeral. I had suddenly become the head of the household overnight, the pillar for everyone in the family to lean on and the one responsible for ensuring the family was well despite the tragedy. My immediate priority after the incident was the welfare of my dad and brother. My dad is getting on in age. As an ex-stroke patient, I was afraid the blow would be too much for him to take. He could neither sleep nor eat well ever since. He even refused to take his regular medication. I had to step in as I could not allow him to undergo any further mishap or stress that aggravates his health.
I was also worried about my brother’s condition, which seemed to have worsened with my mum’s sudden death. He became very distanced and quiet. His refusal to seek treatment to-date did not help to alleviate our stress levels. Relations were constantly strained at home as we experienced changes and adjusted to new family dynamics. It was hard to communicate with my brother when everyone’s emotions were running high. Our ignorance about his condition brought the tension to the next level.
As I write, it has been almost six months since my mum’s passing. My heart stops whenever I recall the dreadful day. What I have learnt in that time is the importance of support. I would still be living like a zombie, completely dazed, if I had not been open to seeking help and speaking to others as part of my healing process. I realised that I could not handle everything by myself, and that my family needed a lot of support during this difficult period. In order to hold my family together, I reached out to as many resources as I could to tide us through.
Although what I experienced was tremendously painful to deal with, I now accept that life goes on. Everyone has their own challenges to deal with in life. What matters most is how we cope with it, and the attitude we adopt to overcome our hurdles. My family has never regretted not being there for my mum as we constantly spent quality time with her. My mum will always be with us as we continue to hold on to the values she instilled in us. Her early departure just created an opportunity for us to build stronger bonds with my dad now. Being a traditional man, our relationship with dad had always been distanced as displays of open affection were just not my dad’s cup of tea. Since my mum’s demise, dad had made a huge effort to change himself and our relationship with him now is stronger than before. This makes caring for my brother a lot easier when the family is on the same line.
Living in a society like Singapore, with our lifestyle getting more and more stressful, we should be proactive in taking care of our mental health. I recently heard that 1 in 7 Singaporeans will suffer from mental health issues. I wish that I had prior knowledge of mental health and the impact it has on people, so that I could have gotten early treatment for my brother and mum, and avoided this tragedy. My brother is at present finally seeking treatment, and I was surprised when the doctor shared he had been living with his condition for the past four years. I often wonder why I had not noticed it earlier. On the other hand, I am relieved that he is getting professional care now and I just need to be more patient on his road to recovery. Now that the family is aware of his condition and united in supporting him, I believe we are stronger and more resilient in the face of mental health obstacles.
I want to encourage everyone to ask for help when necessary. In our Asian society, we care so much about face that sometimes we would rather suffer in silence than seek help. When it comes to crises like this involving my loved ones, I have learnt to become shameless. I do not care what others think about my situation. All I know is that I simply cannot risk losing a family member again. It is important to ditch the “losing face” mentality. Ditch the thoughts about how others might view you! Ditch the stigma around mental health conditions! Get proper support for yourself.
As much as I love my family, I have also learnt to love myself more. As caregivers, self-care is important. You can only take good care of your loved ones when you are well. Weeks after my mum’s passing, I proceeded with a planned vacation as I needed to get away and recharge. I also made the decision to take a career break to focus on rebuilding myself first. I would not have had the courage to do so, especially in our society, without the support of my loving dad and sisters. It is important to realise what really matters in life, and I have come to be more positive by appreciating something good taking place each day. Simple things that can make my day are: a meal cooked by my dad, a colleague buying me a cup of kopi, receiving a sweet message to cheer me up, or even not having to wait very long for the bus. After all, we only live once, and I just feel fortunate to have this opportunity.
It is good that the government is beginning to recognise the role caregivers play in the society these days. I hope that more can be done to fight against mental health stigma – for instance, I would like to see workplaces refrain from questioning applicants whether they have had past mental conditions during the selection process. This causes discrimination and stops people from seeking help.
If you are a caregiver, make sure you seek help. If you have not attended the courses offered by CAL, do register for one soon!
Natalie would like to thank the following for supporting her through this period:
Organisations: Caregivers Alliance Limited (CAL), Samaritans of Singapore (SOS), TRANS Family Services Centre;
Dr. Tham Kwang Wei from Singapore General Hospital (SGH) & Institute of Mental Health (IMH) for their medical teams;
Relatives, friends and colleagues for their emotional support;
Eunice Quek and Evelyn Chng from CAL, who visited her family and provided help and guidance
Story and photo provided by Natalie Tan (story edited)