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Adulting 101: After my best friend’s death, I’ve learnt to respect the power of grief and stay gentle with myself

SINGAPORE — When my best friend died in mid-2017, a day after she turned 24, I was a month away from starting my first full-time job upon graduating from university.

Adulting 101: After my best friend’s death, I’ve learnt to respect the power of grief and stay gentle with myself

TODAY journalist Louisa Tang holding a photo of herself and her best friend.

Adulthood is an invigorating stage of life as young people join the workforce, take on more responsibilities and set their sights on the future. But its many facets — from managing finances and buying a home to achieving work-life balance — can be overwhelming.

In this series, TODAY’s journalists help young Singaporeans navigate this stage of their lives and learn something themselves in the process.

 

SINGAPORE — When my best friend died in mid-2017, a day after she turned 24, I was a month away from starting my first full-time job upon graduating from university.

Losing somebody so precious and in such a sudden way at a young age meant that I had little experience with grief, let alone how to handle it when my adult responsibilities were just beginning to take shape.

I was keen to perform well at work, thinking about getting married and learning how to be fully independent.

All these and the added pressure of keeping it together while mourning her was almost too much. 

Grief is a multifaceted thing, a natural response to loss.

The process is different for everyone, and it will never really go away.

You feel guilty, in denial; you wish you could control the sadness like you could control water from a tap.

I previously wrote about the depression I battled after her untimely death. It took me months to seek help and even more time to get better. 

I also wrote about being in a much healthier mental state a year and a half after she died.

While it holds true, after that, things in my life started progressing at a quick pace — the biggest one being my marriage in late 2019, along with my decision to begin covering the court and crime beat on a full-time basis that same year.

With the grief still somewhat raw, I initially struggled with handling it and these new responsibilities.

There was also fresh sorrow that she would not be there to see me tie the knot — something we always talked about.

THERE IS NO RIGHT OR WRONG WAY TO GRIEVE

Right from the start, the one thing I had to grapple with was “moving on” without her.

For a while, I didn’t cope with it, feeling like I would never be able to accept the loss. It was the first real tragedy I ever suffered and I had no guidance on how to deal with my grief.

While I had received professional help for my depression, in hindsight, I could have gone to a specialised grief counsellor who could help with this aspect of loss.

Some people around me, especially millennials my age, didn’t really know what to say or how to help either, since many of them have similarly not experienced grief on this level.

In writing this, I spoke to a psychologist, Ms Punitha Gunasegaran from Talk Your Heart Out, who said that going for counselling sessions can help in working through intense emotions and taking apart any mistaken beliefs about grief — for example, that there is a right or wrong way to grieve or there is a predetermined time period for grief.

She listed four small steps that those in grief could take: 

1.   Turn to friends and family members. Tell them what you really need, be it a shoulder to cry on or needing help with making funeral arrangements. An important aspect would be to not isolate yourself.

2.   Take care of your physical health as it can help you to better cope emotionally as well.

3.   Express your emotions. It’s perfectly normal and okay to be sad and cry. Or to be angry and yell in frustration. Or to laugh and smile in recalling positive memories.

4.   Be kind to yourself. Take things one day at a time. There may be exhaustion, decision fatigue and loneliness. Even making simple choices can be tough. Do pace yourself as to what you can do.

It takes time to work through emotions, so TODAY journalist Louisa Tang learnt to give herself plenty of room to grieve over the death of her friend. Photo: Ili Nadhirah Mansor/TODAY

Personally, distractions in the form of work or other pursuits helped me only to a certain extent.

I had to allow myself time to remember her and be sad, and also be willing to tell the people around me about how I was feeling.

For example, I would take a step back if I felt that wedding planning or chasing an assignment at work was getting overwhelming — especially around her birthday or Deepavali, which used to be “special” times we spent together.

I would turn to a cherished hobby or even just talk to others about my thoughts and struggles.

My best friend’s sister and two close friends, who were also relatively new to the workforce when she died, formed a close-knit support group of sorts and I was part of the circle.

We share our adulting problems and meet often in person, which has been really important to us in learning to cope with her death.

One of these friends said that he has learned it’s all right not to know where he’s heading. “You don’t have to move fast from point A to point B but just as long as you keep moving, it’s all right,” he said.

Even having a furry companion may help. After my husband and I adopted two cats last year and a third earlier this year, they have brought so much joy in our lives. 

TODAY journalist Louisa Tang at home with her pet cats. Photo: Ili Nadhirah Mansor/TODAY

When I was alone at home one evening and suffered a crying jag, they sat beside me and made me laugh by sticking their noses in my face. It may sound trivial but that truly helped.

Grief can come in many different forms as well. There is no “typical” form of it.

Losing a pet or ending a relationship, for example, can also be painful and should never be negated.

As a court reporter, I have read victim impact statements from those who suffer sexual abuse, for example. That carries its own form of grief.

It’s important to remember that as we grow older, loss will be our reality as our loved ones also age.

My last living grandparent, as well as my aunt who was also my godmother, died last year. The sorrow came back in waves, albeit in a different way.

HOW OTHERS MAY HELP

Most people who grieve are often inundated with offers from people who extend their sympathies and support in the first few months but long after that, they will continue to need support.

After my best friend died, her older sister began reaching out to people who similarly lost loved ones. She also formed a Facebook group where they can support each other, which now has more than 100 members. They talk about their feelings and share advice on how to handle life.

She told me that one of their biggest pains was not just dealing with their loss, but dealing with relatives and friends who were insensitive to their feelings.

For instance, a woman asked my late friend’s mother, point blank, which of her daughters had died. It shocked them and made them realise how others may not know how to handle this.

Just practising basic etiquette is important, my friend’s sister said.

It’s totally all right to not know the right things to say. Just being there or saying you’re sorry can be incredibly helpful.

Something else I learnt during the grieving process was that it is usually awkward for people who want to comfort you. Don’t let this deter you from reaching out — many of them just want to help.

Ultimately, the grief will never end but I have finally accepted that my best friend’s gone. Not thinking about her every day doesn’t mean I will lose my memories of her either.

A departed loved one stays in some way even when you are going through the important moments of your life. Photo: Ili Nadhirah Mansor/TODAY

Sometime after I began dating my then-boyfriend (now husband), I promised her that if we ever tied the knot, she and our other close friend could plan the wedding. She would be a bridesmaid and godmother to our children, if we ever decided to have them.

When she died, all these plans fell on the wayside.

I put them out of my mind as the months went by, but was completely surprised when her sister took “her” to my wedding — in the form of her favourite Dumbo plush toy.

My husband had asked her family to take something of hers to the wedding, knowing I was torn up about not having her there. This gesture really helped me to see that she would forever be in my heart.

I also put up keepsakes of her when we moved into our new marital home — most prominently, a photo of the last lunch we had for her birthday before she passed on. 

Visual reminders of good times spent together with loved ones. Photo: Ili Nadhirah Mansor/TODAY

I don’t think I can ever truly “move on” and there is really no need to reach this so-called end goal, but I’ve definitely learnt to live with the grief and even find some positivity out of it.

And whenever I come across something that reminds me of her, like songs on the radio by Shakira (one of her favourite artistes), I’ll smile instead of tearing up.

WHERE YOU MAY GET HELP

  • Talk Your Heart Out: https://talkyourheartout.com/ 

  • Samaritans of Singapore: 1800-221-4444 (24 hours)

  • Singapore Association of Mental Health: 1800-283-7019 (Mon-Fri, 9am-6pm)

  • Emergency Helpline (Institute of Mental Health): 6389 2222 (24 hours)

  • Care Corner Counselling Centre (Mandarin): 1800-353-5800 (10am-10pm)

  • Tinkle Friend: 1800-274-4788 (Mon-Fri, 9.30am-5pm)
     

ABOUT THE WRITER

Louisa Tang is a journalist at TODAY, where she covers the court and crime beat.

Related topics

Adulting 101 grief death depression counselling mental health

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