Health, Relationships

When it rains, it pours: How does one survive the loss of a loved one and COVID?

By Gershon Liew , 23 July 2020

27-year-old Wiki Tay took her last breath just 6 months after a lung cancer diagnosis. After flying back from the UK for the funeral, her husband Gershon, 37, found himself in hospital fighting COVID-19. He shares his battle with grief, loss and the coronavirus.

The doctor called. He said the radiologist found something in Wiki’s lungs. They suspect it was cancer. And it had spread all over her body.

My knees went limb. I walked into the bedroom and sat at the edge of the bed. “There’s something I need to tell you,” I sobbed as I told Wiki the news.

Not missing a beat, she came over and hugged me. “It’s okay, I’m not afraid,” she said as she stroked my hair. She kissed me and kept reassuring me, “It’s okay. I’m okay.”

She teared, but it seemed like her tears were more because she saw how broken-hearted I was, than they were for her own malady.

The next morning, she woke up with throbbing pain in her back and leg (we found out later it was because of the tumours), but she went to see her patients as usual. She did not want their treatment to stop because of her own illness.

Wiki’s dream for the last nine years was to be a clinical psychologist. She could have stayed on in Singapore after her diagnosis last September, but she had hoped that she would live long enough to graduate from her doctorate programme and put her skills to good use.

And so we made our way back to the UK for her to finish her studies. Unfortunately complications set in, which took her life rather quickly. You could say she lived her last days pursuing her passion.

The love of my life went home to be with the Lord on the morning of March 5, 2020, after a short but brave fight with cancer. She was only 27.

The shocking news

Our world crashed when we were told about Wiki’s stage 4 lung cancer diagnosis.

It was a loss on multiple fronts – her career, the ability to have kids and build a home together, someone to grow old with, our future.

I had already lost my mum to cancer, but even that could not prepare me for a time when I would lose my other half.

I read Wiki’s journal for the first time recently. On the day that we received the news, her entry simply read: Today I received the diagnosis of Stage 4 cancer. Funnily, I felt fine.

That night, I remembered how we lifted our situation into the hands of God. There was a peace that came upon the room. We were scared, but at the same time we felt like we were in Jesus’ boat, sailing into a storm.

Through it all, Wiki remained an oasis of calm, no matter how bad things became. Even when the doctor revealed the results to her, she was just inquisitive about treatment plans and didn’t even cry. The doctor marvelled at her emotional capacity.

The surprising peace

In the months that followed, I asked Wiki from time to time: “Are you scared?” She always answered “no”, not even hesitating one bit. Instead, she was always worried for me.

She explained: “In the worst-case scenario, I die. I close my eyes and the next person I would see is Jesus in paradise. Those left behind, however, would have to suffer the loss of a loved one for a long time. And that is more painful.”

The only time she cried was when she thought of me, of how I would be alone and there wouldn’t be anyone to take care of me. Even on the hospital bed when the doctors gathered to tell us that there was nothing more they could do, all of us sobbed – except Wiki.

She looked at me and said “it’s okay”, reassuring me with her smile that she was bound for somewhere more eternal.

It got incredibly tough in the final months. Even things we would take for granted – eating, walking, brushing teeth and eventually, breathing – became herculean tasks for her. Each day, the pain and breathlessness grew worse.

But Wiki was cheerful until the very end. She mustered all her strength to wait 48 hours for her family to arrive from Singapore. She was her usual joyous self, even to the last minute when they left the hospital to rest at our place.

Six hours later, she passed away in her sleep next to me, as I whispered my last goodbyes and love to her. Wiki had fought the good fight, and I knew her death was now my burden to bear.

The diagnosis of COVID-19

In the days that followed, it was a cruel wait for a flight back to Singapore as I had to deal with the logistical challenges of bringing Wiki’s body home. I could not mourn her death for another 11 days. There was no wake for me to get busy with and drown out the sadness.

Thankfully, my pastors and a few good friends had dropped everything to fly to the UK to be with me. They were my only source of comfort, along with the prayers I managed to mutter on an empty bed each night.

But even when I finally made it back to Singapore, I could not properly mourn the loss of my wife. I only attended one night of the wake, as I soon fell sick. Having just returned from the UK and with the COVID-19 situation in its infancy, I did not want to put our guests at risk.

Five minutes after the cremation service, I headed to the A&E as my fever had been running for about 36 hours. Within 18 hours, I was diagnosed with COVID-19 when my swab tested positive.

How could disasters come one after another?

My symptoms worsened by the day: I had falling oxygen saturation and a persistent 40.5-degree fever. The doctor warned that I could possibly end up in the ICU if my immune system overreacted.

How could disasters come one after another? Was I in some ill-fated Korean drama? Was I a lead in one of Shakespeare’s tragedies?

I felt worse because two people who supported me through my grief got infected with COVID-19 too: my pastor, who flew to Cambridge to be with me and helped to arrange the wake, as well as my best friend, who came over to stay with me when I returned to Singapore. However, I thank God that He redeemed their situations for good.

To be honest, after seeing what Wiki went through, I felt that what I was going through paled in comparison. Her calmness in the face of death rubbed off on me. I sent my family my last words just in case.

Somehow, after about a week in the hospital, my fever subsided. By day 12, I was discharged.

The hope of reunion 

During the time I was warded, I did not have the privacy nor the strength to grieve Wiki’s death. But going back to an empty apartment, everything just fell apart on Day 1.

I missed Wiki so much. Everything around me reminded me of her. The empty bed, the half-filled cupboard, the single toothbrush… The memories were raw and painful. I wasn’t sure how I could move on without her.

The nights were long and tough, and I sobbed uncontrollably each time I thought of Wiki. There were times when I couldn’t sleep at all until day broke.

She wasn’t there when I turned to my side. She wasn’t there to greet me at the door when I came home. She wasn’t there to kiss and hug me each time I left the house.

And now I had to live with that. How could I ever be okay?

An excerpt from a Facebook post written by Gershon 5 weeks after Wiki’s death.

People have asked: “Aren’t you angry with God?” I don’t understand everything, but this I know: How could I be angry with the One who is going to hold the hands of my beloved in eternity? The God who will be taking care of Wiki from now on?

There are things I still struggle with, but all I know is Wiki is in a better place now, in the arms of Jesus and the Father in heaven. That is the only thing I am sure of.

Even in all this, there is a silver lining. Wiki is reunited with her mum. And mine.

Remembering Wiki

I wished Wiki had lived a long life, so that I could continue to learn from her spirit.

Even in her suffering, she thought of others. One of the last things Wiki did in her last days was to take a big part of her insurance payout and donate it to a boy in Africa who needed urgent surgery.

She was often thinking about how she could make a difference in other people’s lives. After her mum passed away due to cancer, I remembered one Valentine’s Day when Wiki bought lots of flowers and made arrangements with a hospital to distribute flowers to patients receiving chemotherapy.

That was our Valentine’s date. Wiki was simple and pure-hearted. She had never asked for anything expensive, anything branded, or anything out of the ordinary. But she herself was extraordinary.

As much as we mourn her loss, Wiki would have wanted us to remember her for the person that she was: positive, strong, brave, compassionate, colourful, full of zest for life and marked with a radiant smile.

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