What it’s like losing both parents before the age of 23

I’d always imagined that my wedding photos would include my parents. 

However, when cancer took my mother away in 2011, I had to accept that the wedding pictures of my dreams, where both parents were smiling with me, would only be a figment of my imagination. 

When my father passed away seven years later, I then had to come to terms with the fact that neither of my parents would be able to attend my wedding. 

It broke my heart, both times. 

While losing both my parents so early in my youth has definitely affected me, I’ve also learned that such tragedies don’t necessarily take away the beauty that life has to offer.  

Here’s what happened and where I am now.

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First encounter with death

Image credit: @Nunepraewalin

I was that carefree kid who would run around the school barefoot. 

Thinking back, the first seven years of my life were the times when I felt the most free. But, after I was told that my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer and that her life was on the line, those days suddenly came to a halt.

Image credit: @Nunepraewalin

Along with the end of my worry-free days came my first big lesson: life can be fragile. Even as a child, I remember thinking that I shouldn’t have had to prepare for a loved one’s death this early on in my life.

Since I was under the age of 10, my memories of the time are a little foggy. However, little flashes show me that there were a lot of hospital visits for two years and one standout moment: being told that she had recovered. 

As a young girl who indulged in fairy tales, I believed it was a happy ending.

lost-my-parents 2Image credit: @Nunepraewalin

However, just a couple years later, I was forced to relive my nightmare. 

My mother was diagnosed with a new type of cancer, this time it was in the bones. Furthermore, the doctors told us that it was incurable and that any treatment would only prolong her life for some time. 

However, we weren’t just gonna give up on her.

We tried out several treatment options: from chemotherapy to Chinese herbal medicine to food with “special” healing abilities. Despite all that, I watched my mom’s life being sucked away by the very cells in her body. And although she finally let out a cry one day, she continuously smiled for us afterwards.

losing-my-motherImage credit: Nune Praewalin

The fight carried on for almost two years with both bitter and sweet moments. The best yet is still my father’s birthday in 2011 where my mom told him that she had never once regretted marrying him. Just seconds later, we were all crying together as a family.

Not even two weeks later, my mother succuumbed to her ailment and passed away on 5th March 2011.

For the first time ever, I felt empty. However, remembering her words to stay strong no matter what, I looked forward and “moved on” as if her words had flipped a switch. 

Bandaging a broken heart as a teenager

The funeral went by beautifully with around a hundred people who came by to say their goodbyes. But after it was over, it hit my family that we were about to step into the hardest times of our lives.

lost-my-parents-as-a-childMy father, brothers and I had to get used to a reality without my mother.
Image credit: @Nunepraewalin

After losing the only maternal figure in my family – and my best friend – I had trouble figuring out what kind of woman I’d like to be and found it hard to connect with other women.

So, when my dad and my eldest brother were fighting for days at a time, I naturally tried hard to be a mediator using countless techniques that I could come up with as a 15-year-old girl. However, I couldn’t fix it. 

Overwhelmed with everything that was happening, I often cried alone since I didn’t want to worry my father. 

Image credit: The Chosun Ilbo

I also started to struggle with work – I was a pop singer back then – and school, even skipping classes in senior year. 

It gradually became clear to me that while I was focused on mending my family and growing up too fast – I was lost. 

So, I turned to art. We all heal in different ways. Mine has always been about creative expressions via movies, books, and a 90s kid’s go-to platform, Tumblr. I also attempted to make social connections a lot – chatting with a lot of people and joining whatever activity my friends were doing.

lost-my-dadMy father was always creative with pictures and doing things to make people laugh.
Image credit: Nune Praewalin

Even though I had to discover a handful of things by myself, at the end of the day, it was still my family, particularly my dad, who held us through the storm with his warm smiles and “funny” jokes.

Somewhere between high school and university, my life regained some balance and things started looking up. 

An unexpected loss

Having just gained some sort of normalcy in my life, I was not ready to handle what would happen next. 

It was a lazy Sunday when I was woken up by a phone call that would again transform my life. My father had called me, asking me to meet him at a hospital after he had suddenly fainted. 

Image credit: @Nunepraewalin

His voice was different and I instantly knew what was about to happen – what I didn’t know was that his time would come that very evening. 

We came home after the nurse told us he had “food poisoning”, despite him displaying symptoms like numbness, constant vomiting and acting unusually flustered. 

That night, I heard the loudest “thump” I’d ever heard in my life. 

I bolted upstairs to find him on the bathroom floor. Immediately, I called the ambulance and even tried to pump his heart with my bare hands for over 20 minutes – to the point that they hurt. 

However, it was too late. 

One of the worst parts of that evening was that I was alone – both of my brothers were working abroad at the time. Still, it took a toll on all of us, especially my middle brother who had a squabble with dad before he left.

For me, my life went grey. My head was constantly running with ‘what-ifs’ and I would involuntarily cry every time I saw a family having fun in public.

And yet, despite all that has happened, I was still able to pull through.

Finding joy as a team after losing our parents 

sibling-teamOur latest family picture visiting our eldest brother in Canada
Image credit: Nune Praewalin

It was undeniably tough. After all, this was a new situation to me and my brothers, but we had each other and we took it “one day at a time as a team”. Our new motto. 

Since it wasn’t our first time with a loved one’s death, I’d say that we handled the funeral pretty well. After that we simply learned as we went: from dealing with paperwork to quickly grasping the new responsibilities that were fed to us.

One of the challenges we faced was the fact that we had to learn how to live with each other again in this new reality.

But, thanks to dad’s constant teaching, support from relatives and friends, as well as the open-mindedness my brothers and I developed throughout time, we always turned to each other. 

Whatever conflict we faced, we continued to thrive and strive for things we want for our lives together.

grieving-losing-parentsI even graduated with first-class honours – not only did I do it for my parents, I did it for myself.
Image credit: Nune Praewalin

I also continued to create art with my brother. Together, we produced dance videos and travelled overseas to compete in world dance competitions.

dance-competitionImage credit: Nune Praewalin

However, what really kept me going was the fact that my family has always been a resilient bunch. It is them who inspired me to have the spirit of a fighter. Without them, I wouldn’t be brimming with love, passion, and kindness for life still.

Where I am now

moving-on-after-lossImage credit: Nune Praewalin

The truth is death changes you, but not always for the worse. Going through these hard emotions has allowed me to be strong. The unexpected changes have also given me one of the most important qualities: adaptability. 

And like everyone who has been through a similar experience, I developed an energy that has made me more appreciative of even the simplest things in life, like seeing people smile or going about their days.

And while I may have matured fast due to early understanding and acceptance, I know I still have a lot to learn and honestly heal.

losing-my-parents 3Image credit: @Nunepraewalin

Finally, although my parents may not physically be here today, I choose to believe that they are still living through me as I work towards my dreams.

In some small way, by putting their lived experiences – and mine – on the page, I’ll be able to keep their memories alive forever.

Cover images adapted from (L-R): Nune Praewalin

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