Dealing and coping with loss
Shaun was my cousin. He was also a son, a nephew, and a friend to those around him.
Like many of us, he was a young and active student studying at the National University of Singapore, (NUS) pursuing a degree in psychology since 2018.
“I wanted to try to give back to society, by putting what I study into something meaningful.”
Back in January 2019, what started off as bloating in Shaun’s stomach turned into a diagnosis of angiomyolipoma, a condition that arises from internal bleeding due to the bursting of a benign tumour in his kidney.
After a minor surgery to stop the bleeding of the tumour, he started to see improvements in his condition, and was ready to return back to his normal life.
However, things took a turn for the worst in July, when the bump in his abdomen grew bigger.
After several in-depth tests and a biopsy, he was diagnosed with sarcoma cancer, the cancer of the soft tissues. He was only 21.
Shaun went through multiple rounds of chemotherapy, experienced hair loss, developed ulcers, and had a constant metallic taste in his mouth.
Shaun showed a strong determination to fight on, despite the odds being against him. Whenever the family checked up on him, he would give his “typical Shaun” reply, “I’m ok ah,” even if he was feeling uncomfortable.
We would still go on family outings, holidays, and celebrated special occasions while watching each other grow up.
Cousins playing laser tag
Chinese New Year annual gathering, 2018
Wanting to instil hope in other cancer patients, he joined the National Cancer Centre Singapore, where he volunteered and planned outreach programmes for young cancer patients.
Shaun fought a good battle for four years. Unfortunately, he passed on last June. He was 25.
Understanding Grief and Loss
No parent is ever prepared for their child’s death. It’s one of the worst and most unimaginable things for any parent to ever experience. As my aunt and uncle’s only son, Shaun’s departure from life brought an unspeakable heaviness to their hearts.
“Shaun was definitely positive throughout and never showed signs of giving up. He is my hero boy.”
My aunt, uncle, Shaun, and their dog Yogurt celebrating Shaun’s 24th birthday
In the last few months before Shaun’s death, my aunt would stay in the hospital by his side, constantly monitoring him along with juggling work. It was definitely an emotional sight seeing her caress his face, interlock their hands, and give light pecks on his forehead. During his last days, even though he was unable to speak, he would squeeze my aunt’s hand to acknowledge what she said.
There were many times she wanted to burst into tears, but had to fight them back in order to stay strong for Shaun.
Throughout this period, she constantly questioned why Shaun had to go through such an ordeal and why he couldn’t win the battle he was fighting for so long.
“I still stood strong in his presence, continuing to remain there for him whenever he needed me.”
Following the loss, she expressed that “not being able to hear him calling “mummy” when he gets up and comes home” was definitely the hardest part of it all.
My aunt would send daily messages she wished she could verbalise to Shaun to my mother. It would include a summary of her day, where she’d address Shaun as if she were speaking to him.
Sending messages to one you’ve lost, knowing you won’t get a reply is such a painful feeling.
Finding Meaning in Life
Naturally, dealing with loss comes with overwhelming emotions of sadness and despair, making daily tasks like getting out of bed seem impossible. Although my aunt felt that way while grieving, she did not allow it to stop her. She wanted to live her life for herself and Shaun.
“I just wanted to lie there forever, but I knew Shaun wouldn’t want to see me in that state.”
Since then, my aunt and uncle started engaging in new activities, such as learning a new skill, spending time with our families, taking care of their dog Yogurt, and trying out new sports every weekend.
We would often walk our dogs together at the park, soaking in the sun and breathing in the freshness of surrounding nature.
Yogurt and Elmo on a walk
Taking up cooking classes has also been one of her ways of coping. Cooking up a dish always leaves her with a sense of satisfaction.
Recently, we made pizza from scratch and it looked as good as it tasted!
Shaun’s best friends would also join us for family gatherings and outings. They would often bring up their best memories with Shaun.
Celebrating my aunt’s birthday with Shaun's best friends
“I’m very grateful for the love that’s been shown to me, it makes things easier.”
The pain still hits her every now and then, but she reminds herself to be as strong as Shaun was when he was battling cancer.
When she heads to work on the weekdays, she tells me she would try her best not to let her emotions take over her. This helps her focus better and complete her tasks professionally. Colleagues who are aware of her situation have been strong pillars of support.
Revisiting pictures of Shaun and the family would never fail to bring smiles to her face.
“My boy, he smiled even when he was dealing with so much.”
Seeing that smile of his warms her heart and is a source of motivation for her to keep going.
“Shaun is certainly my best boy, no temper and always willing to help others, never throwing tantrums.”
My aunt left Shaun’s room as it used to be, keeping the position of his furniture, his clothes, and even kept his medication.
Clinging on to the tangible items evokes the memories that she holds close to her heart.
The most memorable memory she had with Shaun was when he was just about two years old.
“In the mornings when I left for work, he would always want me to bring him down to my car, put him on my lap, and allow him to hold the steering wheel to drive him around.”
“Then in the evening, we would go on strolls in the basement car park going through all the different types of cars parked there.”
Every Sunday was their family time, and every night, the both of them would lie on the sofa, watch Modern Family, and look through the men’s catalogue on ASOS.
Shaun would always beg my aunt to give him permission to purchase the items in his cart, and she’d jokingly ask for a gift in return.
From talking about anything under the sun, to watching the characters in Modern Family grow up over the eleven seasons, any time spent with Shaun was an enjoyable one.
Their mother-son bond was so strong that one of my aunt’s friends mentioned that she hopes she’ll share a relationship as close as theirs with her son.
“It’s not a matter of getting over the loss, it’s more of working around it. I still cry every single day, but I know in my heart that Shaun is rid of suffering and is happier now.”
Every now and then, I’d think of Shaun. A sudden realisation will then hit me, that life is so fragile.
Growing up, as the oldest cousin in our family, he would teach us life lessons and make sure we didn’t make the same mistakes as he did.
To me, Shaun was the cousin I looked up to. Since young, his passion for psychology and helping those in need influenced me to take up the subject at NUS, for I shared the same sentiments as he did.
Since statistics takes up a chunk of the subject and I’m not the best at it, I’d always bring up my worries and he’d always encourage and reassure me that he’ll help me through it. When I applied for NUS back in 2021, I remember telling him that we would see each other on campus.
The grief is impossible to eradicate, but my aunt has a positive outlook on life. She’d always tell me that Shaun is here and his spirit never left us. He has definitely left an impact on us all.
“His strong spirit and will to fight is a lesson for us all to keep going and treasure life. Do things you’ve always wanted to do. Make the most out of your life.”
“It’s okay not to be okay. Grieve, let yourself feel what you’re feeling.”