Let’s be honest. We all know grief.

It could be from the loss of a beloved item, a pet, a job, your hopes and dreams, a friendship, a break-up or even someone who isn’t with you on earth right now.

According to a 2019 study by SMU, even though more Singaporeans are comfortable with talking about death today as compared to the past, it is still a taboo subject among many. It does not help either that the pandemic has also made the grieving journey lonelier and tougher than it already is.

Processing grief is a personal process and everyone deals with it their own way.

These two women, having gone through multiple losses in a span of a year, turned grief into strength and are now helping others who are going through a similar journey to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

She sets up webinar to help others empathise with the bereaved

Within three months, Yeo Miu Ean, 57, lost two of her three sisters.

Her youngest sister Peggy, 46, collapsed at the dining table during a Christmas Eve dinner with her friends last year. Ean received the news through a call at around 8pm. She rushed to the hospital, and waited anxiously through the night. Her sister died early in the morning on Christmas day.

This year, Chinese New Year was different for Ean. The festive air whisked her back to February 2018, when she was at the Chingay parade with her youngest sister. “The colours reminded me of the Chingay celebration I attended with her,” she says. “I couldn’t stop thinking about it.”

She had an artistic eye for photography and design and loved to paint. Ean always adored her works, she tells The Pride.

Ean with her youngest sister Peggy at the Chingay parade in 2018. Image source: Yeo Miu Ean

And just when Ean was still reeling from her sister’s death, her second youngest sister Shirley, 53, suddenly passed on in a morning in March, after her breakfast.

Says Ean: “She was just walking on the street, and then she collapsed. Her funeral was held on my birthday.”

Ean is the eldest of the four sisters in her family. Every year in May, the family would gather over a meal to remember their late mother and celebrate Mother’s Day. Every July, they would celebrate their children’s birthdays together.

Ean looked forward to these events, but with her sisters’ deaths and the pandemic, this year’s emptiness took a toll on her emotions. She spent a great deal of time looking after her father, ensuring that he ate his meals and took care of himself.

Not only did she have to help her family deal with grief, Ean went through an emotional turmoil herself.

No matter how she distracted herself, her grief still returned to haunt her. When she got on social media, her Facebook albums would still display pictures of her sisters smiling into the camera. The dramas she watched to distract herself were entertaining enough to keep her from her breaking point, but when she sees a character die on screen, the memories and the emotions would all come flooding back again.

“I cry at least three times a day, still,” she tells The Pride.

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Despite the immense pain she felt from the loss, she still keeps photos of her sisters on her Facebook wall, and reshared photos with them from her Facebook memories. “It’s so painful to post this, but I want to do it as my own way of dealing with extreme grief,” she wrote in one of her posts.

Grieving during the circuit breaker period was a double-edged sword for Ean. While she could withdraw from society to grieve alone, it also meant that few people reached out to her in support.

The few friends and colleagues who approached her did so with kind intentions, yet struggled to convey it with the right words. Words meant to console her, such as “they’re in a better place now” and “I could have recommended a doctor if you told me about their condition” only delivered punches to her gut.

The disparity between what they said and how she received it made Ean, a gerontologist and training consultant, realise that it was part of a greater problem – we don’t know how to deal with a colleague who is suffering from a loss.

Colleagues fall into an awkward category of people in our lives. Some, you may see every day for years on end, but don’t really know them. Others become firm friends, closer than families, even. But most fall into a comfortable familiarity that skirts private issues out of a respect for personal boundaries. It is easy to congratulate a colleague for a wedding; it’s not so easy to find the right words when there is a funeral.

Image source: Yeo Miu Ean

As an advocate for empowering the lives of seniors, Ean noticed that many in the workforce were allowed only up to two days of bereavement leave before returning back to work.

Once back at work, employees are then expected to function “as per normal”; when the grief may very well be lingering. This shocked Ean, as she took way longer to partially recover from mourning.

“Grief is not an on-off switch,” she explains.

Since corporate policy is hard to change, Ean conceived the idea of building a supportive and empathetic workplace for those who are grieving.

She was especially concerned for seniors in the workforce who are often supporting a terminally-ill family member, or face a higher chance of experiencing a loss of a loved one due to their age.

On October 10, World Mental Health Day, she launched a webinar as a pilot programme among her close friends. Titled “Encouragement for Keeping On”, it was targeted at employees, with tips on how to help their co-workers cope with grief upon returning to the workplace.

The hour-long webinar, which Ean hopes to open to the public, offers insight to the healing process explained with theories and anecdotes like the stages of grief. Participants would also discuss a scenario that involves grieving while working from home.

“Despite my grief, I still want to make something positive out of this,” she says, “and it helps me get back to functioning.”

She creates self-care kit to help others process feelings

Florence fong
Florence with her parents. Image source: Facebook/ A light in the night.

Within a year, Florence Fong lost five of her closest family and friends to illness.

The string of tragic events started in May 2019 when her boyfriend died suddenly. A couple of months later, she found out that her grandma passed away in Singapore. Then came other news in quick succession – of two friends’ babies and someone else she knew. All these happened while she was in Vietnam on a community development project.

Florence, 35, now studying full-time for a masters in counselling recalls her experience dealing with loss and grief of those closest to her passing away one after another while being away from home. The string of personal loss had a huge impact on her, especially her boyfriend.

“Everything happened very suddenly, one after another. Friends and family reached out to me, but I didn’t want to talk to anyone about it initially. When I was finally ready to talk, finding a therapist was an uphill task.”

An introvert, Florence took to journaling to help express her grief as she did not have anyone she was able to talk to about how she was feeling. While Florence was still overseas, she found a Singapore-based therapist and started her sessions online. It was then that she started to draw more.

She returned to Singapore due to the pandemic and started therapy sessions face to face until the circuit breaker meant she could only see her therapist online. That was not ideal as the lack of physical connection made it tougher for her to open up.

It struck her that this lack of physical connection did not affect only her, but many others who may be going through their own grieving process too. And after talking to a friend, Florence decided to use her personal self-healing journey to help others, with a project titled “A Light in the Night”.

Items in the self-care kit. Image source: Facebook/ A light in the night

She created self-care kits for people going through grief to start on their healing journey. Items in the kit include a journal, coloured pencils, origami paper, colouring mandalas, essential oils or scented candles, a plushie and a booklet on shared stories from fellow travellers on their healing journey.

Anyone can give these kits to people who are suffering to give them a personal space to deal with their grief while being alone, especially during this period of physical distancing. It can be a source of help until they find a community of support, or create a method of coping with their feelings.

“I wanted to help others who may not be able to meet friends or their therapists during this difficult period process their feelings in their own safe space. Hopefully this kit will be able to do that,” Florence tells The Pride.

Using her savings, Florence started small with a hundred self-care kits. However, after advice from a friend, she applied for the [email protected] fund, and it has enabled her to reach out to more people who have been going through a similar experience.

To date, the project has allowed her to share her kits with over 300 people, mainly through the Singapore Hospice Council who has connected her with individuals who are providing support to their loved ones in hospices around Singapore.

As an advocate for suicide prevention, she will be working with the Samaritans of Singapore (SOS) for Suicide Loss Survival Day on Nov 21 by providing 100 self-care kits to those families and individuals who are grieving for someone they have lost due to suicide.

For those who are going through grief, Florence says: “It’s okay to do so at your own time and space.”

As for friends, family or even colleagues?

“Be patient and persist in reaching out. Even though your offers may be rejected initially, know that it is not personal. They need their time and space, and when they are ready, they will come to you on their own.”

“It is helpful not to say things like, ‘you’ll get over it’ or ‘don’t think too much into it’ as it invalidates their feelings. Sometimes saying the simplest things such as ‘I’m here with you during this time’ will mean the world to them.”

Faith Lee contributed to this article.

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