It has been five years since their beloved daughter, Kristie Teo, passed away from osteosarcoma—bone cancer. No matter how busy Harry Teo may be with his job as an engineer, or Janie as a childcare teacher, they count the days till they can see her again.
Kristie was 12 years old when she secured a place in Singapore Sports School. The future looked exciting for the PSLE student. However, an ache in her hip that would not go away resulted in a trip to the hospital where she underwent an x-ray and was diagnosed with osteosarcoma.
Her leg was amputated at the hip in a desperate bid to eradicate the cancer cells completely. It was the death knell for her sports ambitions, but survival was the greatest priority. The family’s church, Faith Community Baptist Church, prayed along with them throughout their ordeal.
However, the amputation and subsequent chemotherapy could not stem the cancer’s aggressive spread. Just over two years later, after a brave fight with anger, pain and fear, Kristie passed away at the age of 14 with her parents and brother at her side.
Nobody had the answers about why God chose not to heal Kristie, but the Teos’ faith in Christ was a vital anchor throughout the two years of roller-coasting between hope and confusion, between despair and acceptance.
In fact, faith became their lifeline after her passing. Because they believe Christ’s atonement on the cross for their sins meant that they are reconciled with God, it also meant that they can look forward to a time when they can reunite with their daughter on the other side of eternity.
What Grieving Looks Like
How long does one grieve a child’s passing? Many people, on meeting a parent who has lost a child, might mouth platitudes like “Time heals all wounds”.
Harry, who is going through it now, says that this is a fallacy.
“I want to tell anybody who faces a bereaved parent—please don’t tell them that time will ease the pain. It doesn’t,” he says. “Whether it is losing a stillborn baby, or even if parent and child have spent 10, 20, or 30 quality years together, as long as a child passes away before the parent, the father and mother will always, always, grieve for their child.”
Having missed Kristie for five years now, the Teos share their insights about the grief they have gone through.
“I want to tell anybody who faces a bereaved parent—please don’t tell them that time will ease the pain. It doesn’t.”
“Many of us know that bereaved people go through processes of grief. Some literature even identifies specific stages, like denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance,” Janie says. “But what is less known is that we all grieve at our own pace. And it does not progress in a linear way. Sometimes, we can return to a previous stage, and so we can go back and forth.”
Also, grieving lasts for a very long time, both say. And sometimes, there is no end in sight.
How We Handle Grief
The Teos have also found that men and women react to the loss of a child very differently. As a result, they have learnt to give each other space to grieve. While they support each other, such as attending support groups for bereaved parents, they also spend time apart and with their own friends who journey with them in their pain.
“We cope differently,” Janie explains, “In the period after the funeral, I went to the park to talk to God. Harry is more quiet. He doesn’t seek out people to share his feelings to. As for me, I wept with a few close Christian friends.”
She adds: “There’s my sharing partner, Kooi Hoon—she kept up with me on alternate weeks to pray. Although she hadn’t been through this kind of loss before, she gave me a listening ear and encouragement. Another friend is Arina—she had lost her son to muscular dystrophy a few months after we lost Kristie, so we identify with each other. Sometimes we don’t even talk, we just cry together.”
Even as Janie recalls this dark season, her tears well up again and her voice chokes.
Harry nods in agreement. “My wife and I don’t talk too much about our shared grief. If we do discuss, it is to listen to each other. In fact, the solution may not be to share with one’s spouse. Crying releases healing, but men may find it more difficult to cry, so I just have to find my own way.”
Harry’s outlet is running. He likes to take long training runs. He also takes part in marathons to raise funds for cancer patients. During these long solitary journeys, he wrestles with God, knowing there is nobody to see or judge when tears run down his face.
“One time, I asked Him if He understood what I went through in losing my child. Even as the question passed my lips—‘Have You lost Your child before?’—the revelation came to me. Of course He understands!”
“I ask God lots of questions during my runs,” he says. “Sometimes I get answers, sometimes I don’t. One tough question was, ‘Why didn’t You heal Kristie?’ The answer I received is that God has already healed everyone. He took our sins upon himself and the forgiveness of our sins is our healing. Kristie has gone to a place where there is no more pain and no more fear.”
During these runs, Harry also confesses his frank feelings of sorrow and anger to God.
“One time, I asked Him if He understood what I went through in losing my child,” he recalls. “Even as the question passed my lips—‘Have You lost Your child before?’—the revelation came to me. Of course He understands! Because He witnessed His son being nailed to the cross. That was my immediate connection with God—we’ve both experienced the pain of losing a child.”
Harry, Janie, Kristie and Kelden
Receiving Help from Others
What has also helped the couple are people who have come alongside them in their grief.
Kristie was cared for by the Children’s Cancer Foundation when she was undergoing treatment. After her passing, the organisation did not forget her parents.
The Teos were invited to join “Love Continues”, a bereavement support group which organises meetings every month. There, parents share their experiences with others who have been through similar losses and forge new friendships. The group also arranges therapy sessions through music, writing, and art, as well as teaching sessions about grief.
“The authors of a book recommended writing a goodbye letter to our departed child . . . Finally, one day when I was at the park with my notebook and stationery as usual, God prompted me not to put off the letter anymore. I let myself go and cried as I wrote. I wrote and wrote.”
“Harry opened up during art therapy, and that allowed me to understand certain things about what was going on inside him,” Janie shares about her husband.
Friends also introduced them to a book, Grieving the Loss of Someone You Love: Daily Meditations to Help You Through the Grieving Process, by Raymond Mitsch and Lynn Brookside. Sharing her thoughts with Kooi Hoon as she read the book, says Janie, helped tremendously.
“I identified myself in the book,” she recounts. “One chapter was about saying ‘Goodbye’. The authors recommended writing a goodbye letter to our departed child. I knew I needed to do it, but I just could not. Finally, one day when I was at the park with my notebook and stationery as usual, God prompted me not to put off the letter anymore. I let myself go and cried as I wrote. I wrote and wrote.”
Bad Days Still Happen
While their grief is perhaps not as intense as it was in the first year after Kristie’s passing, the couple are by no means over their pain. Today, crying can still be triggered by the most random things—a teenage girl with long hair, pink hairbands, furry teddy bears. These are all reminders of the beautiful daughter they had lost.
“Harry is most triggered by movies with weddings in them,” Janie says, “He knows that he will never have the chance to walk his daughter down the aisle. When we happen on such scenes, I see his face change and he becomes very withdrawn.”
Festive occasions like Christmas, Chinese New Year, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and birthdays are also a painful reminder. These were all occasions which the family had celebrated together without fail in the past, so they carried a lot of memories.
But sadness does not deter Harry, Janie, and Kelden from maintaining their family traditions. Every year, they still celebrate Kristie’s birthday as well as her death anniversary.
Kelden, Janie,Harry and Kristie
Still on Mission
Kristie’s death was a huge crisis for the Teos, but they know it should not mean the end of their own lives.
“To draw a parallel to a race, life is like an ultramarathon, and we’re still running,” Harry points out. He also draws inspiration from the saying, “We don’t cry for the dead, but for the living who are left behind.”
The couple still have a mission—their son, Kelden, now 22. Kelden was in Secondary 3 when his sister was diagnosed, and had to tackle his ‘O’ level exams just when Kristie was undergoing surgery and her harrowing chemotherapy sessions.
“Kelden was very supportive throughout his sister’s illness,” Janie recalls. “He was with us all the way. He still goes out with us, stays home for us, and checks with us whenever he makes arrangements with his friends. But he has stopped going to church.”
She adds: “During the past years, Harry and I were trying to cope with our own grief and it was hard for us to address how difficult all these must be for him—a young boy watching his sister suffer and die, while at the same time trying to cope with his studies and be strong for the family. It is already so tough for us adults, how much more for a young man like him.
“We don’t cry for the dead, but for the living who are left behind.”
“Each time I cry, it’s not just for my daughter. It’s for my son as well. We can chat about many topics but he doesn’t share much about his grief, so I don’t know what’s going through his mind. I once asked him if he was angry with God. He replied, ‘Yes’, but refused to say more. I tried to put my thoughts into letters to him. But so far, he hasn’t read the three letters I wrote. He said he’s too frightened.”
Harry adds: “What we go through as parents are different from his experiences as a sibling. We can only pray for him. And be patient and open for the time he feels ready to talk. We also recognise that he needs space to grieve as well.”
Kelden, Janie and Harry
The Next Spiritual Lap
Even though the Teos’ fervent petitions for Kristie’s recovery were not answered, Harry and Janie still cling steadfastly to their faith. They attend church every weekend and serve as cell leaders.
“It’s our foundation,” Harry explains. “I trusted Christ with my life many years ago because I had a personal encounter with Him. So even though, later in life, I lost a child, it doesn’t change my understanding that God loves me.”
He adds: “In fact, having Christ through this crisis also meant that I have one person who will listen to all my outpouring. It’s hard to find somebody that I am comfortable to share with, so God is that person.”
Harry also makes clear he will not judge believers who become disappointed with God when they lose a loved one.
“I will not say that people who drop out of church are wrong, given their pain,” he says. “Going to church is not the solution to overcome grief. Having said that, staying in a community of godly friends is important for the healing process.”
“I will never know why He chose not to miraculously heal Kristie. However, I have to stop with all the questions and trust in His sovereignty. The only time I will get answers is the day I meet Him.”
Losing their daughter after all the fervent prayers by the family and their church, however, has changed and added to their understanding of Scripture. Janie finds her convictions about the Bible challenged whenever she comes across verses about physical healing.
“Church friends can ask me to pray for almost anything; but when it comes to healing, I confess that I pray more from a heart of obedience than faith,” she admits. “I do repent and I ask God to help me not to box Him up. I will never know why He chose not to miraculously heal Kristie. However, I have to stop with all the questions and trust in His sovereignty. The only time I will get answers is the day I meet Him.”
For Harry, 1 Thessalonians 5:16–18 has taken on increased significance: “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”
Harry interprets this as the will of God and, so, although it is not easy for him to rejoice, this is a command he works towards.
“Now when I read verses about promises of healing and prosperity like Jeremiah 29:11, I view them differently,” he says, “They may not refer to wealth and health in the here and now. But God’s promises definitely include spiritual prosperity—a place with Christ in eternity.”
Harry’s and Janie’s Insights
Having nursed and lost Kristie, Harry and Janie share some ideas on how parents can make the best use of time with a terminally-sick child, and cope with their child’s passing:
Spend time together and build memories. Make a celebration out of everything, says Harry. “I like this motto—‘We add life to days, not days to life’,” he adds. “Depending on your child’s health or treatment schedules, work in enjoyable activities like going for a holiday.”
Spend time with God together. “I treasured the times I read the Word of God and prayed with Kristie,” says Janie. “These sessions gave us a lot of strength.”
Stay connected with the family of believers. Don’t isolate your child or yourself.
Be truthful with God about your feelings. “If you’re angry or disappointed, don’t try to hide your emotions from God,” says Janie. “You can’t anyway. Only by being truthful can you move on in your healing process.”
Acknowledge your feelings. Anger and sorrow are natural, notes Harry. “Just like joy and contentment, anger and sadness are emotions created by God,” he observes. “As long as we act correctly, it’s not wrong to be angry.”
Give yourself time to mourn. After Kristie’s passing, Harry advised Janie not to rush back to work, which gave her time to spend time with God. “Don’t sweep your emotions under the carpet or put a time limit to grief,” says Janie. “Take as much time as you need to mourn.”
Don’t blame each other for what could or should have been. Don’t dictate what your spouse should do to recover, as each person has a different way of handling grief and recovery.
Seek help if you need it. Classes on bereavement can help, as does the company of caring friends. Says Harry: “Although friends may not fully understand because they didn’t share your loss, they can extend a listening ear.”
Remember that it’s okay to cry. Harry is not shy to admit that he has broken the stereotype that “men don’t cry”. He says: “Find your own ways and own times to cry.”