Losing both parents at a young age

I’m sure everyone has had their “angsty” phase where we found our parents annoying and way too naggy. And whether you’ve grown out of it or not, most of us can acknowledge that we often take our parents for granted, thinking that they’re always going to be here – or at least for a long time to come.

My parents and I had a larger-than-usual age gap of more than 40 years, but I’d never thought too much about it; much less entertain the idea that I’d lose them so early in my life. 

Losing both parents within a short span of three years has definitely not been easy, but I’ve learned to come to terms with it over time.

Family life before their passing

Image credit: Edrico Tseng

While I’m Singaporean by birth and grew up here, both my parents are Indonesian and had mostly been living there till I was born. My mum then decided to bring me up in Singapore while my dad worked in Indonesia, so naturally, it hit me harder when she passed than when my dad did. 

However, despite the distance, I was still pretty close to my dad and flew between the two countries every other week. 

This all changed when I enrolled in polytechnic and was left alone in Singapore when my sisters and mum moved back to Indonesia to be closer to family. Having multiple assignments to catch up on and taking on part-time jobs to support myself meant that I could only visit home in Indonesia on special occasions. 

As such, my parents and I went from talking to each other daily, be it face-to-face or on the phone, to only catching up when I made trips home. 

Coping with my mum’s diagnosis

Image credit: Edrico Tseng

2013 was the year that everything changed. A sudden coughing fit my mum had didn’t seem too alarming at first, but when she began to cough blood, we knew that something was wrong. After a visit to the doctor, my mum was diagnosed with tongue cancer and was presented with the option of undergoing surgery and radiotherapy to kill off the cancer cells. 

All seemed to be well until two years later in November 2015, when my mum’s condition worsened. She soon deteriorated into a semi-unconscious state and was admitted to a hospital in Indonesia – this happened while I was still in Singapore.

The doctor advised that we could either let her go or do a tracheostomy to help her breathe. But in her state, there wasn’t a 100% chance that she would get better or even wake up.

My mum and I while on a family trip to Sydney in 2005
Image credit: Edrico Tseng

We decided to take our chances and go with the tracheostomy. Miraculously, she woke up and could breathe on her own, though she still couldn’t talk to us. Coupled with the fact that she was still bedridden, the only way she could communicate with us was by writing.

While her surgery gave some extra time to spend with her, there was always uncertainty that she might leave us anytime.

It was unsettling because I still had school in Singapore and couldn’t forgo my responsibilities to be with her all the time. This meant I ended up flying back and forth between Singapore and Indonesia whenever something happened, but thankfully each time, her condition was still stable.

While mum was under home care before she passed
Image credit: Edrico Tseng

On one fateful morning in January 2016, I received a call from my sister waking me up from my sleep. “Mum’s passed away” – three words that made me feel lost and helpless because she seemed okay the last time I saw her. 

Not knowing what to do, all I knew was that I had to fly back immediately and be with my family.

Being mentally prepared to lose my dad

My dad’s illness wasn’t much of a surprise to us, having been diagnosed with Parkinson’s for over 20 years. His condition did, however, start deteriorating in 2014 – 2015 which left him bedridden.

Like my mum’s situation, I was mentally prepared for the worst but just didn’t know when it would happen. My dad had been living in Indonesia for the most part, with a couple of visits to Singapore every now and then, so I had to fly back whenever his condition worsened. He was in an unconscious state most of the time but could talk to us when he was conscious.

Image credit: Edrico Tseng

Enlisting in the army in 2018 meant I couldn’t visit home because I was in Basic Military Training (BMT). The same uncertainty hit me – I couldn’t stop thinking about when my dad would pass and if I would be able to make it for his last breath. The only way of checking up on him was through my sisters via phone call. 

One night in BMT, just two months after I’d enlisted, I received a sudden call saying that he had passed. Once again, I was regretful that I couldn’t be there for another parent’s final moments. 

And just like that, the only family I had left were two older sisters. But with a 17-year age difference and them having their own families back in Indonesia, I was left completely alone in Singapore. 

Though I’d been living alone since poly, grieving alone was a whole new challenge by itself.

Dealing with their passing

Image credit: Edrico Tseng

Though both of their deaths were kind of expected due to their health conditions, it still came as a shock to me. No matter how much you prepare for the worst, death is not an easy concept to grasp. 

Thinking back, I’m grateful for the extra time I had with my mum, and I’m glad she held on as long as she could. Over the years, I’ve also come to terms with the fact that I’d done my part and spent as much time as I could with both of them whenever my schedule allowed. 

Eventually, I packed my social schedules with plans to meet friends and took on part-time jobs to distract myself from the loss. Healing comes in many different forms. For me, it was to seek comfort in my friends, work, and to fly back and forth to spend time with my sisters and their families in Indonesia. 

Gaining independence and not having parental figures around

Sure, I have friends who come over to fill up the emptiness of my house, but I just can’t shake off the feeling of being lonely once everyone leaves. Living alone might sound like the dream to many – i.e. not having your parents around to nag at you and having your own space – but it’s not as easy and carefree as it seems. 

Although I had already been living alone even before their passing, having to be alone after two impactful deaths in a quiet five-room flat was not easy. And it’s still a learning process even till today. Not having my sisters with me meant that I had to be completely independent and teach myself life skills like cooking, cleaning the house and paying the bills.

My house has now become the official hangout spot for my friends and me
Image credit: Priscilla Tan

Though I have some family members from my dad’s side here in Singapore, I was never close to them growing up so it was hard to reach out to them. On top of this, I found myself bottling up my emotions and found it difficult to talk about what had happened, especially with my friends. It was hard listening to them complain about their parents or when they didn’t seem to appreciate what their parents do for them. 

And while I did get angry and criticised them for doing so, I realised that I’d behaved the same way when my parents were still around. The old adage rings true: You really don’t know what you’ve had until you lose it.

I’ll admit – it wasn’t easy accepting not having anyone there physically to guide me through this loss. My sisters did, however, step up and assume parental roles in my life, giving advice whenever I needed it, sending over food from Indonesia and making sure I had enough to eat and spend. 

This assured me that I was not really alone or deprived of familial support and love and that someone would always be there for me in times of need. Maybe it’s a blessing in disguise having to go through this pain, because it was a wake-up call that I should be grateful for and spend more time with my sisters. 

How I cope today

While it’s tough, I no longer feel sad or offended when strangers ask me about my mum and dad.
Image credit: Edrico Tseng

It still tugs at my heart whenever I’m reminded of my parents, whether it’s on occasions like their birthdays, when I come across pictures of them, or when I’m asked about my parents by those who don’t know about my background

When I come across touching Facebook videos about families coming together, I can’t help but reminisce about my parents. But life still has to go on, so I tell myself it’s okay to cry it out to make myself feel better. 

Many “what if’s” do run through my mind too, like “What if I’d stayed by their sides the whole time?” and “What if therapy was done earlier for mum before the cancer cells took over?” 

However, I’ve come to realise that their deaths were inevitable – these “what if”s” were and always will remain thoughts about something that had already happened. If anything, I just had to come to terms with death earlier than most of my peers. 

There will still be a twinge of hurt because the scar will never totally heal, and I’ve come to terms with it being part and parcel of life. So, I decided that I have to cherish those around me before they’re not physically here anymore. Having an extra day to spend with my loved ones is a blessing, and I’ve made it a personal goal to take it day by day and create memories that will last with my family and friends. 

Learning to deal with grief three years later

This was taken on a trip to Bali with my friends who have now become a second family to me
Image credit: Priscilla Tan

Moving forward from grief is never easy, but what I’ve learnt from losing my parents, no matter how cliché it might sound, is to always treasure your loved ones before all that’s left of them are just memories. 

You wouldn’t want to be in a position where you can only see them through a screen and have a heart full of regrets. And three years on at age 23, I’d like to think I’ve done my part in being a good son to both my parents and that they’d be proud of where I am today. 

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Cover image adapted from Edrico Tseng
Interview conducted and written by Priscilla Tan.

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