When Benjamin Sim Wen Ming was born 16 years and six months ago, his parents were overjoyed.
“Benjamin means favoured son and he is highly favoured as my wife had two miscarriages. He came after my ordination as pastor and we thank God for His gift,” said Mr Davy Sim, pastor of Singapore Bible Baptist Church at Pasir Panjang Road, of his younger son. I have known Mr Sim since I was a teenager, and I’ve seen how much Benjamin means to him.
Last Tuesday, Benjamin’s young life ended – the Chong Boon Secondary School student collapsed and died after a 2.4km run.
But just a day after his young son’s demise, and even before the wake was set up in the church he pastored, Mr Sim was already back at work, solemnising a marriage because he felt it was his duty as pastor.
During the service at the wake that evening, the 55-year-old pastor spoke fondly about his relationship with his son. He called his son a livewire, talked with love about how they played sports such as soccer together, and how “I would bully him and he would bully me”, beaming with joy as he did.
“I prayed every day for him,” said Mr Sim, choking on his tears. And there were probably very few among the approximately 400 – family, relatives, friends and members of the church as well as schoolmates of Benjamin – who did not believe that that was what he did for each of the 6,035 days of the lad’s short life.
The pastor even sang his son’s favourite song, Lord, I Need You, during the service.
“My son and I like to sing,” he said quietly. “Imagine it is Benjamin singing it.”
As a trained counsellor, Mr Sim is well equipped to counsel those in grief. This time, the tears that were held back were his own as he officiated the proceedings right up to his son’s cremation.
No parent should ever have to suffer the agony of losing a child. So how did Mr Sim and family deal with their grief?
The community – his congregation – played an enormous part in helping him. When news of Benjamin Sim’s sudden passing broke, the support was overwhelming. The church was full of people offering their support for the family when Benjamin’s body lay in its white casket.
This support extended also to social media, appearing even on my Facebook timeline, with comments lauding the faith of the pastor and offering condolences to the bereaved, which Mr Sim duly acknowledged.
There was just one comment which insisted that the grieving be devastated by tragedy instead of deluding themselves with a belief in God and the thereafter. I deleted that comment because I felt that while there is a space for theological and eschatological discourse – online or in the real world – there is none for a comment that attacked the very essence of the source of comfort on a post meant for grieving people.
There was eventually an outpouring of grief on the part of the pastor at the funeral, when we each placed a flower in Benjamin’s coffin. He cried. He sobbed. But he also demanded, through his tears, that everyone be strong and move on.
There were many times that Mr Sim said he wished he could switch places with his son in the coffin. He related with a tinge of wistfulness how he had told his son, after the funeral of his brother-in-law three years ago, that he expected him to deliver a magnificent eulogy at his own sending off. He said he never expected himself to be seeing his own son’s cremation.
“Bye bye, Benjamin, see you in heaven,” he said in a way he might have said the many times he dropped Benjamin off at school.
This time, however, Benjamin did not reply.
The people in attendance cried with the family. They offered comfort and prayers. They gave them the time and space to cry.
Yet as heartbreaking as the episode was, Mr Sim refused to call it a tragedy.
“I did not plan this,” he declared at his son’s wake on Wednesday evening. “But my son’s death is not a tragedy; it is a blessing.” He explained that he felt that way because he believed his son had gone straight to heaven.
“I believe that at 10.45am on August the First, after Benjamin’s last breath and last heartbeat, his soul went straight to heaven to be with the Lord,” he proclaimed with uttermost conviction.
Mr Sim found hope in the Christian belief that the departed go straight to heaven, and this has helped him deal with the pain of his loss.
He never once blamed the school for his son’s untimely passing, but instead, encouraged his late son’s schoolmates to keep the Chong Boon Secondary School spirit alive – because Benjamin loved the school.
I could see in those three days following his son’s death that while Mr Sim was saddened by his loss, he allowed himself to laugh, to be his relaxed and casual self while he was with members of his congregation as well as visitors.
He stayed positive, well aware that death was part of life. And rather than rue the departure of Benjamin, he chose instead to celebrate the joy that his son brought him.
I visited him again on Sunday during the regular church service, and it appeared like it was business as usual.
“This has been an overwhelming week,” he said wearily. He mentioned Benjamin several times, but did not allow the boy’s death to be the main message. Instead his sermon focused on Solomon’s asking for wisdom.
“We must move on,” he said. He also reminded the congregation, and perhaps himself, that he believed Benjamin was already in heaven. “Benjamin is in a better place now, without any suffering,” he said. Meanwhile, he had a congregation to care for even as he sought wisdom to accept the things he could not understand.
Four days before, at Benjamin’s wake, the pastor told me to love my son unconditionally. He was in tears then.
On Sunday, before I left, he shook my hand and gave me a hug.
“Take care of your son,” he said. No doubt there was still a lot of sadness, but this time, he managed a smile.