I was widowed at 35, and I want to help others who have lost

By Clara How, Nov 28, 2019

The process of grief and its cause is unique to the individual. Regardless of the shape and form it takes, grieving is always an incredibly painful process. For Joan Swee, providing comfort to the grieving has become a calling. 

Widowed at 35, she drew strength from the support and love of the people around her, and decided to pay it back in kind. She became the co-founder of the WiCare Support Group, a non-profit organisation that connects widows and fatherless children to provide mutual support and encouragement. 

Now 60, Joan is the co-founder of Whispering Hope, an organisation that seeks to equip people who are mourning a loss with the tools to handle grief. Her mission: to comfort those with the comfort that she has been given. 

This story contains mentions of depression and suicide.

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To me, grief is about a broken heart — whether it’s the death of a loved one, a divorce, a loss of trust because of betrayal, a financial or health loss. Things are not the same as before. Grief is a process of acknowledging the pain of loss, giving it a voice, and then letting the regrets and dreams go so we can live the life we choose beyond the loss.

With my husband, Henry Chia, in the late 1980s.

With my husband, Henry Chia, in the late 1980s.

I was widowed in 1994, when my husband passed away from cancer. I was 35, and my two sons were only six and eight years old. They were heartbroken by the loss of their daddy. We had been living in Hong Kong for 10 years, because my husband was posted there for business. After the second relapse, he slipped into a coma for three weeks, and did not recover. He was to turn 36 that year.

We had been married for almost 13 years, and were good friends before we courted. I didn’t just lose a husband — I lost a soul mate.

After his death, we returned to Singapore. Everything was a shock. As a family, we experienced multiple losses: I lost my husband, the boys lost their father, we lost our home, friends and community in Hong Kong. It felt like I was living in an upside down world. For six years, I was financially supported by my husband’s inheritance and my in-laws, and devoted my time to adjusting my sons to life without their father, in a different country. It was only in 1999 that I returned to work as a corporate trainer. 

Because we had no home when we first came back, we initially lived with my brother-in-law’s family on weekdays, and my sons’ godparents on the weekends. Every Sunday, my friends would come to visit. They knew my husband, because we all grew up together. The men would take my sons out to play football, and the women would sit with me on the sofa, hold my hand and cry with me. 

For the first six months, I remembered my pillow was wet with tears. During this time, I sought professional counselling to work through the grief and found spiritual support from my pastors and church group. I missed my husband a lot, but I wanted to recover for my children. Because there was no Internet then, I was grabbing all the books I could find to help myself and my sons.

Children don’t understand, they just ask, “Why did God take my daddy away?”

My 8-year-old son was so full of anger. He has dyslexia and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, and he couldn’t cope with his studies. The rigour of the Singapore education system was a shock. He would come home and tear up his workbooks because they would be filled with red crosses, and sometimes plates would fly. Eventually, I managed to get permission to register him at an international school where there was an integrated education system, offering an in-house psychologist and therapist for his learning difficulties.

Celebrating my son’s birthday in 1991.

Celebrating my son’s birthday in 1991.

Socially, there’s still a stigma when someone hears that you are a widow. You’re fragile and they see that, but people don’t know what to say to you. For a year and a half, I did not know another widow. It was a struggle, because all my loved ones are married and I couldn’t expect them to understand. So I kept my grieving to myself. I would drive to a park near Holland Road alone and release all my pent-up emotions. I also joined a country club, where I could go without being recognised. I used the gym three times a week to work off all the negative tension.

Sometimes I napped in the car, sometimes I cried, sometimes I would scream and shout because my sons were in so much pain.

At a bible study programme, I ran into another lady who told me that she knew someone who had a widows support group. My antennae went up, and I passed her my contact. The two weeks it took for her to contact me felt like an eternity, but eventually, she did. 

It turned out that she didn’t have a formal group per se, it was more of a small group of widows who met every six months to chat over ice kachang. But they had spoken about more regular meet-ups, and for someone to organise them. I said I would do it: I was a trainer by occupation, and I knew how to plan things.

On our first meeting in May 1996, 40 widows and 12 children attended. All of them had heard of this group through word of mouth. All of them said it was necessary to have a formalised support group like this in Singapore.

From then on, we had gatherings every two months, and we sent mailers to get the word out. Eventually we registered as a non-profit organisation, WiCare Support Group, in 1998. It has since grown, with an office in Bishan, Junction 8, led by its Board of volunteers and staff. 

A year after my husband died, the church in Hong Kong organised a mission to India. I signed up, because going on a mission trip was something that my husband had said we should do together. The leading pastor on the trip suggested that I share my story with the women. He told me, “Joan, there are many widows in India. As a young widow, you will be able to encourage them.” As I prepared to share, I was a ball of tears. But when I stood up in front of all these women, I was composed. After the session, many came up and told me that I was so young but so strong, and they felt like they had hope.

That was when I knew I had a calling. I believe that God was asking me to comfort others with the comfort that I was given. I’ve been comforted by God and by loved ones, and I can go out and comfort others as well.

With village children at a trip to Myanmar last year.

With village children at a trip to Myanmar last year.

When I first started working, I was working in human resources, and eventually I became a corporate trainer. It felt like a natural progression for me to enter counselling. So while working and volunteering, I studied my Masters of Social Science in counselling. 

For 20 years, I served on the board of WiCare, and as an in-house counsellor. What I do now is under a company that I co-founded in 2016, called Whispering Hope. We help people who have gone through losses in life, and guide them through processing their grief.

Death is a permanent loss, but there are other losses like divorce, retrenchment, illness or miscarriage. Where do these people go to grieve?

When I was counselling widows and children at WiCare, I came across clients who weren’t able to work through their losses, and felt emotionally stuck. They might have lost their husbands years ago, but they speak of their loss like it was yesterday. I was looking for other forms of therapy to augment what I already know, and came across a certification for the Grief Recovery Method (GRM), which has over 40 years of practice in the United States. 

The programme was held in Perth, and over a four-day structure, went through the emotional and mental thoughts of a person who is grieving. I found the programme so beneficial that I wanted to bring it back with me to Singapore, which was how Whispering Hope began.

Facilitating a GRM Group Programme.

Facilitating a GRM Group Programme.

In October 2016, we began to offer the GRM Group Programme, where participants choose one major loss and there are weekly reading and reflective assignments to direct the griever to process losses and grief. During the Programme, individuals are divided into pairs or trios to listen to one another, one at a time, without interruption, analysis or judgment. 

One of the tools that we learnt was to identify the wrong beliefs of grief. For example, one myth that people have about grief is to “Give it time.” But if you fell and cut yourself, you wouldn’t just let it bleed and count on time to heal the wound by itself. You would wash away the blood, apply antiseptic, and a plaster. The same theory applies to a broken heart. 

Another myth is that losses can be replaced. Within six months of my husband’s passing, well-intentioned people told me that I was young and can still remarry. I hadn’t gotten over his death yet, and hearing such words only caused more pain.

A common misconception about grieving is that there are five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance), but this is a misquotation of Dr Elisabeth Kubler Ross, who was credited for the concept. Dr Ross’ work on these five stages applies to those who are terminally ill and coming to terms with their mortality, and does not apply to all losses. 

For example, when someone has experienced a loss, you will hear them acknowledge this with: “My grandfather/best friend/colleague has died.” Most grievers are not in denial. Some may be angry (say, at the doctor, or the driver that caused a death), but this anger is an emotion caused by grief, and not a stage of grief.

Grief is not linear: a griever can yo-yo back and forth between different emotions (shock, anger, fear, despair, and even relief) until they come to a place of emotional settlement.

The difference between counselling and the GRM is that for the former, the counsellor follows the agenda set by the client. But I find that it doesn’t help everyone, because most of the counselling techniques don’t motivate or nudge someone along to make decisions about actions to take ownership towards their recovery. Whereas the grief recovery method uses materials and techniques that teaches the client to reflect and process their loss. 

I found the grief recovery method so powerful because when I went for the training, I took with me a loss that I had not fully processed, which was the suicide of my sister. She passed away in May 2013.

Upon her death, I felt so helpless. I’m a counsellor, and I did not see it coming. I kept asking myself, what could I have done to prevent this? I blamed myself: I should have taken on the role of a counsellor, and not just been a sister to her. Looking back, I had bits and pieces of information and I knew that she was under a lot of stress, but I didn’t have the whole picture of what was happening. 

After her death, I didn’t think about self care. I focused on the wellbeing of my parents, my sister’s husband and their children. Even though I had experienced the loss of my husband, I had time to slowly release him and say goodbye. The suddenness of my sister’s death was shocking. 

So I worked on my feelings during the GRM in Perth, and found that I was able to get out of my headspace and express the anger and disappointments that I had. It was very relieving. 

I tell my clients that we cannot hold ourselves responsible for what we do not know. If I had known exactly what my sister was going through, I would have done things differently. But you can’t know everything. So what you do know, you try your best. And that’s all anyone can expect of you.

Over the years, I have also lost my brother, and my father. Using the tools that were given to me during the GRM, I have reached a place where I know I have done all I can. We call this emotional completion, where you deal with all the regrets, and you don’t blame yourself anymore. 

It doesn’t mean that you don’t grieve once you’ve reached emotional completion. As humans, we store our memories and emotions in our mind, so after any loss, there might be triggers. There are moments where I miss my husband when I see an old couple happily walking hand in hand, or I hear his favourite song. Am I grieving then? Yes, for those short moments. But the important thing is that the pain is not at the intensity it was during those initial months of loss. 

It is absolutely normal for a griever to feel tender and sensitive on special days like Christmas, anniversaries and birthdays. On these days, it would be helpful to have a plan for the upcoming special day. We are all wired differently, and there is no fixed formula, but whatever the emotion, the griever would need to acknowledge how they feel and go through it.

Kite flying with my sons, who were two and four years old.

Kite flying with my sons, who were two and four years old.

We cannot change what has happened, but I tell myself, how can we help people heal so they can feel better?

Sometimes I have clients who ask me if I’ve dealt with suicides. I tell them, “I cannot understand how you feel, but I do understand a little because of my sister.” I don’t overwhelm them with details, because it’s not about my story, so I disclose only a little so they know that I was broken too. That’s where we connect, and we find a way to heal together. It’s the same for widows.

I may be working with someone who has also lost a husband, but there is no comparison. Every relationship is unique and every griever can express how he or she really feels and thinks.

If a close friend or relative has suffered a loss, the advice that I can give is that it’s really about listening. Don’t give them advice, even if it’s well-intentioned. Listen and validate their feelings, and say things like, “I don’t fully understand, but it must be tough.” It’s a human tendency to want to advise, but the person just needs a shoulder to cry on and someone to listen to them. 

For extremely difficult cases, such as a mother who has lost a child, I have to steel my heart and be composed. Before the session, I read, pray and think of all the possible emotions that a griever may have to go through. I prepare myself to listen. After the session, I commit the person to God, and I turn on some music. I tell myself that I don’t have all the answers.

In terms of self care, as counsellors we do talk to other counsellors and our clinical supervisor, and make sure we do things that we like. When the going gets tough, I spend some quiet time in Botanic Gardens or West Coast Park, praying and reading the Bible. I socialise with friends and take holidays with different groups of people. I do Pilates twice a week and go for brisk walks. I am active in church.

Sharing an apple at Tai Tam Country Park, Hong Kong.

Sharing an apple at Tai Tam Country Park, Hong Kong.

Both my sons, who are now 31 and 33 years of age, are single and we live together in a shared home. As children, the family surrounded them with lots of hugs, and we took their questions as they came with each developmental age. When my younger son was completing his Film Making degree, he decided to submit a project in memory of his father. He interviewed me about how I felt finding out about his father’s cancer. My children have come a long way and have a good circle of friends for support, and I am very proud of them. 

In our home, we have framed photos of family members, and continue to talk about my husband with relatives and friends when they visit. We held a 10th death anniversary gathering at the request of my brothers-in-law, where a group of my husband’s friends shared a personal story of him as a friend, boss, businessman, leader, etc. It was a thanksgiving celebration of a life well-lived. We still have a hard copies of their sharing in a folder for remembrance. 

Aside from Whispering Hope, I continue to give free public talks, or talks at platforms open to me (whether it’s community groups, associations or churches) as a counsellor and a certified Grief Recovery Specialist. Whoever calls me, I will not say no. It’s my hope to nurture a more compassionate, caring community in Singapore. 

Giving a talk on understanding losses and grief at a gathering on church seniors.

Giving a talk on understanding losses and grief at a gathering on church seniors.

I believe that what I’m doing now is a true calling and purpose for me. Everything has been converging towards this: being a youth leader, being a trainer and having a natural compassion. Of course, I would want to change the fact that my husband has died, but it has also been something that has brought me to this convergence. I believe that the people I work with can sense that I genuinely care for them. I feel settled that this is what I’m meant to do.

Writer’s Note: 

Joan recommends reading: “My Daddy Died and It’s All God’s Fault” by Sue Holden (Word Publishing Group, 1991), written from the perspective of a nine-year-old boy whose father died of cancer. 

For more information on Whispering Hope, visit www.whisperinghope.sg and www.griefrecoverymethod.com.

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