This article includes mentions of suicide and the challenges faced when dealing with that loss. If you find this information distressing, please do not read on. You can call the National CARE hotline at 1800-202-6868 if you need assistance.
They say the journey through grief consists of five stages – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. The three main stages I experienced were Absorption, Adjustment, and Acceptance.
The ABSORPTION started the morning I found Josh lying on a sofa in the study on the ground floor of the house he grew up in. He had a plastic bag over his head tied to his neck. He was stiff and cold, while his lips were white. He was already dead when I called 999. The SCDF paramedics called after and told me to carry his body and lay it on the floor. It was the toughest thing I ever had to do in my entire life and an experience I will never forget. I knew it would be futile but I followed the instructions to resuscitate him: pressing onto his chest and counting to a hundred — unrealistically clinging on to a glimmer of the slightest hope that he would start breathing again.
When he was finally pronounced dead and they took his body away, my entire world crashed. I had to absorb all that had happened to my only child that morning: The fact that he was gone from my life! That he was not even 21 and had yet to start experiencing life. That I did not lose my only child to an accident, sickness, murder, or war; that I lost my only child to suicide. I felt like I was going through the motions as I went through the rest of the absorption stage — which spanned from the body identification process and funeral service to the cremation and urn placement at the columbarium. Yet, being unable to reconcile with these facts was the primary cause of my post-traumatic stress disorder, from which I have somehow managed (with God’s help) to heal from and let go of over a couple of months.
In my ADJUSTMENT, I arranged to meet with all his friends one by one, face to face, to find out what Josh was like when he was at school with them and during their outings. I realised I could no longer ask him “How was school?”, “How was the movie?” or “What did you have for lunch with your friends today?“ With his friends around, I could feel his presence very strongly as if he was sitting there with us and I didn’t want to let go of that.
Four and a half months after Josh was gone, I moved out, which was good. It helped that I need not have to walk past that room whenever I had to make my way to the kitchen — that room where he executed his decision to end his life that fateful early morning. The flashbacks would always come. And I would cry. I cried almost every day for many days and many months. It was the only thing I could do, as I hoped the tears could wash away the intense and excruciating pain that I felt from losing my only child to suicide. Suicide and deciding to leave this world was a choice he made. Bringing him out into this world was a choice I made. For me as his Mum, the pain is indescribable. Only mothers can fully understand the emotions that come with having to experience such a tragedy that often leaves questions in your head…
“Was I a bad mother?
What did I do wrong?”
Guilt and condemnation can quickly take over every cell in your body and make you want to end it all too.
It also dawned on me that with him gone, I had lost the only link I had to my future. A future which I had built my entire life upon when I made the decision to quit my career, to start a family, and be a homemaker at the age of 37. How can I turn back time and start all over again? Losing Josh was losing my only chance of ever becoming a grandmother — not to mention great-grandmother plus a whole generation after him. Coming to terms with all these, however, did help me to get over the adjustment stage.
Then came November 2018. I was busy unpacking and arranging things in the apartment. I had kept a room for Josh, the same room I had prepared for him when I was doing the renovation. He was still alive then and I had told the contractor specifically to add all the data points necessary for Josh’s favourite pastime — gaming. His things are all still there: his gaming computer, his headphones, the books he wrote when he was ten years old, his clothes, his pictures, his beloved Patrick from SpongeBob Square pants, and his king-sized mattress.
His pillow still lies on my bed. If you push your nose into the foam, a scent — that only his mother can detect — will emanate with a whiff so familiar that you can confidently say… that’s Josh. I deliberately kept the pillowcase unchanged and unwashed since the last time he used it. There is still the urge and the need to hold on to Josh and whatever that was left of him on earth even in this adjustment stage.
Five months into my journey through grief, Caregivers Alliance Limited, who have supported my family after Josh made his first attempt, connected me with a TV production company. Through working with them, I produced my first video titled Silent Cry – “A Mother Shares Her Only Son’s Suicide” that went out into the world on April 23rd, 2019. Now the whole world knows my son is dead, an adolescent five months short of his 21st birthday. Lost to suicide; such a waste of a fine young man.
At the time when I released the video, I didn’t think it would do me any good. I only wanted to put out a message to those suffering from depression that there is hope so please don’t give up. Don’t let go even though my son did. Please choose life and not death — even though Josh did. Please Stay. Look at me.
The video has garnered over 500 thousand views to date on social media. It was like God provided me with the confirmation that this was the direction that He wanted me to take on this journey of grief. I got my first closure on my son’s suicide by producing that video. For the first time in many months, I felt a sense of calm and peace, and I could fall asleep again at night with a little more ease.
My second closure in my journey through grief came in September 2019. I was invited by Caregivers Alliance Limited to share Josh’s story. For the first time, I shared some excerpts from Josh’s suicide note that revealed why he wanted to end his pain. I shared my experience with suicide loss with about eighty people that day. The first time is always the hardest.
But I’m thankful for that opportunity. The talk that I gave made me realise that every time I shared my experience, I was giving a voice to Josh and acting as his mouthpiece. I could do something for him as his mother again. It gave me a renewed purpose in life.
Now, I read the suicide note that Josh left me in a different light. He wrote –
“Mum, please stay strong for me. These are my last wishes for you. Don’t end your life just because I have. Please move on one day and please be happy because I am.”
In a way, I would not say that I have moved on, but that I have moved forward. Josh and I are a team now because wherever I go, and whoever I share my story with, Josh is always “alive”. He remains “alive” in my life now as he is the focal point of my work in suicide awareness and prevention. God had redirected my journey through grief to a life redefined in the role that I play as a mother and as an individual in society. I believe I have reached the ACCEPTANCE stage.
Though bereavement is unique and specific to every individual who has suffered this tragic loss, these main three stages in the journey through grief that I have gone through may be the same journey for every suicide loss survivor. For some, going through this journey may take some time. For others, it can take a long time. For yet others, it may take even longer. Yet still, there are those for whom it could take forever. But I believe it does and can get a little easier as each day goes by.
Today, when I think about Josh, I don’t think so much about his death. I have learnt to celebrate his life, which has helped me come to terms with not only my loss but with the work that I am doing now. For in my work, Josh is always in the picture and his voice speaks through me. Through this, I have learnt that healing from loss is possible and that good can come out of our loss.
In a totally unexpected way, I daresay that I am thankful for my son’s suicide note. It has become the anchor of my strength, courage, and perseverance to forge ahead with my work on this social cause. While the PleaseStay movement was born out of a season of loss and pain, Stigma2StrengthSingapore In Memory of Josh Isaac was born out of a season of purpose and hope. May this season be an everlasting one till I see him again…
For grief support,
- SOS (24-hour Hotline) at 1-767 or email email@example.com. SOS has a suicide bereavement support group for those who have lost a loved one or someone they knew to suicide.
- Grief Matters: Tel – 8181 0448
The contributor is the Co-founder of PleaseStay. Movement and the Founder of Stigma2StrengthSingapore.