This is an excerpt from the book Loss Adjustment (Ethos Books, 2019). Written by Linda Collins, a copy editor with The Straits Times, it is a memoir of coping with the loss of her daughter Victoria McLeod by suicide.
In the West, a wake usually follows after the funeral. People gather for dainty sandwiches and cups of tea, and perhaps a tot of whisky. Condolences are offered to the bereaved. People hug, exchange brief memories, perhaps shed tears. And then they get into their cars and drive off.
But we are in Singapore, and a Chinese-style wake—with Christian elements—has been organised for the duration of three days before the funeral. Malcolm and I are so bereft with grief that work colleagues, the majority of whom are Chinese, have kindly stepped in to help organise things.
Victoria is in an open coffin, as is the local custom, with photographs and memorabilia at the front of it. Mourners will keep her body company night and day until the funeral service and cremation. Malcolm’s friend, veteran photographer Francis Ong, begins discreetly orchestrating the running of the room in which Vic will lie for the duration.
Mourners, for their part—and the Singaporeans are all old hands at this grief business—have already started arriving and sit in cafe-style chairs at circular tables. It could be a shophouse eatery, except the room is festooned with flowers and there is the matter of the coffin and its body. This does not deter the mourners from eating. Over the next three days they will eat and drink and crack melon seeds between their teeth, and cry with us and laugh with us at memories of sad and happy times. They see it as perfectly normal for me to sit beside Victoria’s body for hours on end, telling her how much I love her and all the things I meant to inform her of but never got around to.
Days pass. I sit, hair dishevelled, face bare of make-up but streaked with tears. I don’t care what I have got on, what shoes I’m wearing. Once or twice, when I am lifted gently by the arms to come and meet well-wishers, I see the look of shock at my raw, unmade-up appearance flash across their faces. One particularly visually conscious media colleague even sends a message that is relayed to me: “Tell Linda to at least do her hair for the funeral.”
The more traditional Taoists among the Chinese might approve my dishevelment; their rituals include having the immediate family wear sackcloth. Then again, elders are not expected to show respect to younger ones—in ancient times a child would have been buried in silence, without the palaver we are going through.
So that is who I am now, I think: a woman made mad, frumpy and unfashionably middle-aged by trauma and grief. However, I am mostly glad that they can see my suffering. For I need to know through their eyes that I am suffering. I can’t see it, myself. I am too numb for that sort of awareness.
Who comes to say goodbye to my daughter, who has the courage or love or sense of decorum to participate in this rite of passage? Mostly it is colleagues, Singaporeans who rise to the occasion.
They know Malcolm and me through work, and the occasional social gathering, yet their comfort at the wake is that of intimate fellowship. Their understanding of grief is profound and respectful.
Reporter Serene Goh, mother of a young child, stands near the coffin as a hush falls on the room, and sings from her heart a hymn for the grieving, “It is Well with My Soul”.
Pat Daniel, then editor-in-chief of the English, Malay and Tamil media arm of my employer, Singapore Press Holdings, fills the little room with the bulk of his presence, then fills it again with a rendition of “Amazing Grace”.
His gravelly tenor is surprising in its sweet strength. It unites us, giving voice to the emotion we want to express, helping us to release our tears.
Mourners of all religions come. Muslim colleagues—whose own rites would not include a viewing time before the funeral, as Islamic law decrees the body should be buried as soon as possible after death—come to this room with its Christian cross on a wall.
One of them, Malcolm’s friend, Ishak, tells him to be strong. Be strong—it is also a saying used by New Zealand Maori who will urge, kia kaha. My husband repeats to himself, Be strong, as if trying it on for size. Yet he is finding it impossible to be strong. He realises that Ishak’s advice is that of a believer, one who sees a point to all this suffering. A superior being has willed it, and there is life after death. Malcolm admires that certainty, that belief. But he does not share it.
Singaporean neighbours come, and others who know me slightly through a newspaper column I used to write, and who have read of our daughter’s passing in a large In Memoriam notice we have placed in The Straits Times.
Finally, some Westerners come: neighbours I haven’t spoken to for years, mothers whose children played with Victoria when she was younger. They are shocked by the set-up, I can tell—the swirl of Asian mourners, the donations from mourners entered into a ledger book at the entrance, the small room crowded with round tables and chairs, the open coffin, the dominance of Victoria’s broken body as a focal point, the photos of her on prominent display; the sight of us alternately kissing Vic, then shaking visitors’ hands; and the faint cloying smell of dying flowers from another room and of joss sticks lit by who knows, a visiting Buddhist showing their respects?
But these women have their own pragmatism, they put aside any Western misgivings to embrace me, cry with me, and even talk quietly to Victoria in her coffin.
No one from Victoria’s school visits, that we are aware of. No teacher, principal, nor even any of her friends. We are bewildered. We keep hoping someone will appear.
Days pass at our apartment, too. We go back and forth from the funeral home at various points of each day, to return home and draw breath. This lingering goodbye is perfect. The only way I am able to keep going, is to know that soon I will be back with Victoria, sitting with her in the funeral home, still having her physically in my life.
Our apartment has never been so full of food and people. Straits Times colleagues mill around, constantly checking their phones or eating food, or going out to get it, or bringing it back. Some attend to the door, letting people in and out. Some tend to the cats, putting food in the bowls, and patting and stroking Mittens, the friendlier of the two. Siong and Yoga (whom Fiona mistakenly calls Yoda, like the Star Wars character) come with more food.
Amid this constant physical presence of fellow human beings, we gaze inward, trying to absorb what has happened with our lives and why the person we love the most is not here.
The wake is an inspired miracle amid the maelstrom. Victoria is dead but her body is still here, lying in a white coffin in the funeral parlour, and this is far better than not having her at all. The wake puts off losing her physical presence forever, after which it is possible that my life will be defined by its absence. Mum/daughter; no daughter.
I fear becoming a riff off a Henry Moore mother-child sculpture. There will be a hole in the centre that grew out of me. On Good Friday, the cremation. And then I won’t have an object that is part of me yet separate from me, anymore. There’ll just be that hole, a void.
If we had flown Victoria to New Zealand, she would have been at a funeral home, with private viewings in an atmosphere of stilted, muffled unquiet. I would have had little opportunity to sit with the body and pour out my lament.
The Singaporeans would not have been there with their reassuring ease in the ritual of mourning. My family might have come bristling with disrespect, and rent the air with accusations and blame. Some mourners would have been embarrassed by my tears. They and others would have wanted the whole thing done and dusted quickly. The funeral director or an assistant might well have been the ones dressing the body.
I would have not realised the normality of death so quickly, and more importantly at this point, the absolute necessity to go briefly mad with grief, to cover yourself—metaphorically—in the dowdy burlap of mourning.
Two days later, Malcolm and I enter a small side room off the lift lobby of the Singapore Casket Company. It’s on a different floor to the one for the three-day wake. Unlike that room, this one has windows. Sun streams in. A burly man of Tamil descent, wearing overalls, stands next to a plastic bag on a table. Seeing us, he looks startled. The funeral parlour does not get many Westerners taking up one of its traditional Chinese-style funeral and cremation packages.
However, he squares his shoulders and beckons us with dignity. He nods to a box next to the plastic bag. The colour of the box is the audacious orange of a Hermes wrapping, as if it contained some overpriced frippery. However, it contains the marble urn we ordered yesterday for $162.
Francis helped us select it. “Go for middle-range. Too expensive is a waste of money,” he had advised, his migrant-descendant frugality an offering of love. We, innocents at this business, and with family in another country, had been grateful.
The cremation package we chose included the category, “ash collection”. The man in overalls is a worker from the cremation centre where the funeral was held. We realise this now, observing his practised proficiency.
He removes the urn from the box and places it next to the plastic bag, which he opens. I notice that the bag sits with a certain formality on a raised plate with fiddly silver legs. The formality and the fiddly legs remind me of doilies on Grandma Sheila’s chintz sofa. We are handed metal tongs. Why would you need tongs for ashes?
A rustle as the bag is opened, and then a rattle. I prepare for a choking swirl, or perhaps, a floating essence that rises to dance in the sunlight. Instead, there are chunks of bones.
We should have ticked “Grinding” in the cremation package list.
For Malcolm, it is yet another cruelty. He falls into a chair. He buries his head. He is angry. His daughter has been mutilated. Fine dust, he could accept. Not this. He is saying, “No, no, no.”
The cremation worker glances awkwardly from angry man to smiling woman. Yes, I am smiling. Because these remains are so clearly Her.
I reach into the bag to examine this gift. The man opens it wider for me to access. He smiles tentatively, reverently. I pull out the bones of a complete index finger. The day before, dressing her for her last journey, I had placed the huge, turquoise-style ring on it. The cheap keepsake my 17-year-old so adored has protected the finger from the fierceness of the fire.
From my purse I pull out a yellow gold ring. I bought it for her when she was a toddler, for good luck. Something told me to bring it today. I gently slip it over those three small, curved fine bones that even now, form a point.
My husband is white-faced with anger as he sees me delve into the bones with my own fingers, caressing the curves and twists. A knot of spinal column. A tiny bit of a pelvis that will never bear children. The remains of toe bones. The nails had been painted corpse blue. Now I know why Victoria chose that colour at the beauty parlour the previous week.
Today, all pieces of her are purest white, tinged with the pink of the tropical sunsets that she loved. Yet, after the blast heat, they could be the fossil remains of an ancient creature, not the bones of someone alive just six days ago.
Our keeper of the plastic bag wields his own tongs, sorting the bones and placing them inside the urn. He places some aside that, at the end of his procedure, he puts on top.
I gasp. They are from her skull. There is her brow bone. All mothers know the contours of their child’s forehead. They place their hands on it to soothe a fever, banish a bad dream. Even when she was older, a teenager, I would slip into her room when she was asleep, kiss that brow and whisper, “Mummy loves you.”
I touch this curve of a mother’s heart, my heart. Malcolm stands, leans on me. The cremation worker puts the urn in the orange box, fastens atop it a matching cardboard lid, lifts the heavy load and hands it to us.
“Your daughter,” he says.
The book sells for $22.47 after GST.
It is available online at www.ethosbooks.com.sg and at BooksActually, Booktique – Where Writers Shop, City Book Room, Littered With Books, Kinokuniya, Times Bookstores, Wardah Books and Huggs-Epigram Coffee Bookshop.
If you suspect a friend could be suffering, here are a few things you can do: Listen closely to their feelings and try not to give solutions. Instead gently advise them to get help early, and be supportive. Check in on them when possible, to see how they are coping.
These helplines are available in Singapore:
- Mental Health Helpline: 6389 2222
- Singapore Association for Mental Health: 1800-283-7019
- Samaritans of Singapore (SOS): 1800-221-4444
- Silver Ribbon: 63861928, 67424190, 63853714
These stories on mental health could make a difference in your life.
Images: ST Illustration / Cel Gulapa, Unsplash