I used to be married.
To a beautiful woman named Ying. She was generous and loving, and a true gift from God. I loved her passionately, with all my being. And I know that our God loved her even more than I could ever possibly do.
Now, Ying is HOME. And she is totally at peace and enjoys her happiness; beatitude with Jesus, Momma Mary, and all her favourite Saints; especially John Paul II, Mother Teresa and most of all, Jerome, our youngest son.
How does one survive losing the love of your life?
Following Ying’s death, I took a 3-month sabbatical from work and took the opportunity to travel and to sit with the grief through my daily activities, discovering myself anew as the feelings ebb and flow. The once self-assured and stable emotions gave way to feelings so raw and fragile that at times, I thought I was losing my mind. I found myself wandering to places, and even talking to Ying like she was still there in my life. I am alone and I felt alone. In addition to dealing with feelings of loss, I also needed to put my life back together. Since I was 17, I was no longer Bernard, but Bernard and Ying.
To find myself again, I seriously sought out a Cistercian monastery in Yarra Valley, but it was closed to foreigners and retreats due to Covid-19. I had to run my own self-directed retreat, nonetheless. I went away to Melbourne and spoke to a Spiritual Director to discern perhaps, a late ordained vocation. I thought that would be a sensible progression for one who loves to study, especially theology to become both a doctor (as I am a medical doctor by profession) and a priest, serving in a 3rd world country.
But God had other plans and I was advised that all I knew was marriage and family. What may not be known to many was the incessant struggle in trying to move on from the Bernard and Ying “unity in duality” amongst many of those dearest and closest to me to one where I was only Bernard.
1st May 2020 was the first year when I didn’t have my marriage partner. Yet, greetings and congratulatory wishes for our 34th wedding anniversary poured in. They stung and hurt. While I understood that the memories of Ying and I were much cherished, the iconised “Bernard and Ying” bound by ties of habit and sentimentality made it harder for me to move forward, to redefine myself and try to chart a new path ahead. Even at home, my children saw a change in me. Dad without Mom is not the same man. And I gladly picked up my heaviest cross - losing 50% of my identity.
As difficult as it was, I must learn to get back on track and live life abundantly, but with love always.
Bereavement is tough
Death is imminent – what happens when natural life shifts into supernatural existence? Do I believe in life after death as a preeminent article of our Creed as Catholics? A joyful reunion with God if our practice of faith is lived out, or fear of the unknown otherwise?
And how can I ever get through despair through the loss of a love so dear? Only through a convicted faith I am told.
Then the question of having a vocation after marriage…are you kidding? Some of us might wonder: Is there any life still worth living?
Finally, the biggest question looms large yet necessary. How do I love again? Do I even need to?
4 Regrets I never want to have on my dying bed
“Remember man you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
Bronnie Ware, an Australian palliative care nurse, wrote a book called The Top 5 Regrets of the Dying. I have added my own comments to 4 of them.
1. I had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
Most people I know had not honoured even half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made. Health brings a freedom very few realize, until it is too little, too late.
I realised in my 4th decade that I had to stop pleasing others. The only other person who I had afforded major input and advice was my other half, Ying, my other half simply because she and I were one.
Do we know who we really are? Our lives are lived creating who others want us to be when it really should be more about finding who we are as God’s creation and nurturing that with God’s grace through good friendships, prayer, and the Sacraments.
2. I really haven’t worked so hard all my life.
So said my home tutor at Junior College! Almost every patient facing terminal illness regretted having over-worked throughout their lives. They tell me this when they wished to speak with me “heart to heart” beyond medical management, which by now the options were sorely limited. Most deeply regretted spending too much time on the treadmill of never-ending work.
And for some women, particularly how they toiled and sacrificed for their children’s needs (one great example was helping their children prep for the PSLE) without any ROI [Return on Investment], only to realise that their kids would pay it forward to their kids, which is actually correct self-sacrificing love.
Pope Francis has invited parents to “waste time” with our kids. Take time for leisure – activities that don’t have some utilitarian value or end in mind but are simply good in themselves. We miss the beauty of the people and places around us when work consumes us.
3. I often had the courage to express my feelings as I cherish communication.
Many people suppress their feelings to keep peace with others.
“Let’s not talk about this, let’s just go for a good dinner” is commonly experienced for we dare not rock the boat. But remember now that Jesus is in the boat and despite the impending storms, there is a calm within. Don’t settle for a mediocre existence only to never become who you were truly capable of becoming. Many developed psychosomatic illnesses related to the unresolved bitterness and resentment till the end of their lives.
Do we allow others to share themselves deeply and truly with us – their real feelings? Do we share our authentic selves with others? Do we give God our real feelings and thoughts in prayer or do we hold something back of ourselves?
4. I had always been optimistic and lived with a competitive edge.
Being the youngest of 5 children, I was always loved and protected and a truckload of advice for life’s challenges was never in short supply. And so I felt convicted that I could achieve much despite recurring setbacks and failures. Those obstacles I quickly noted were stepping stones to re-learning and success some day, if I never gave up.
Many do not realize until the end that happiness is a choice. They had stayed stuck in old patterns and habits which were secure and comforting. But change is the only constant they say.
And the only person I can change is myself! Fear of change had them pretending to others, and to themselves, that they were content, when deep within, they longed to laugh, play and have silliness in their life again.
Flannery O’Connor said once that we resist grace because grace changes us and change hurts. Give yourself the permission to acknowledge that you may not be happy. It’s okay to say it! But, once we bring it into the light we must begin to do something about it.
Dance with the thought of death often enough. I have been, in my life and in my work. Too often. And I am thankful for this dance for in my experiences, it has revitalised my life and my relationships.
The way forward…an awakening through love!
It still amazes me when I meet someone post pandemic and they recall that I am alone again naturally, they ask, “How are you, Bernard?”. And when I say, and authentically, “I’m very well!”, their response is a silent smile but their words and expressions betray their honest thoughts. It’s almost as if they’re raring to ask: “How could you be very well after all you’ve been through?”
Death is clearly imminent yet because of my faith and conviction of life everlasting, there is always life after death and grieving.
Death where is your sting? To live is Christ, to die is gain! are two very Pauline scriptural quotes that Saint Paul himself in his heavenly realm will testify to us when we have finished this race on terra firma.
And so I do seek out a vocation even now.
I have a 4-generation family and home that I am involved firmly in. My role as a son, father and grandfather is a privilege and a blessing.
My role in ministry at the Couple Empowerment Programme (CEP) continues fervently as the program continues to be scheduled in parishes, till 2024! Touching and healing marriages and families is the most satisfactory ministry Ying and I have found ourselves in and we realised looking back since we first began CEP in 2003 that this ministry is, as Familiaris Consortio (Pope John Paul II, 1984) outlined, so very relevant in our society, our Church and in the world today.
Finally, I can love again, in a manner that is in sync with a man who has lived his marital vows faithfully for 33 years and known of my best friend for 42. For I have discovered through God's grace, the joy and fulfilment that comes with finding a suitable helpmate once more, someone through whom I have discovered healing from a lost love through death and she likewise who has found healing through authentic loving. To be able to share and experience a sense of unity that affords security, identity and companionship for ”it is not good that man shall be alone” (cf Genesis 2:18).
And she is a wonderful person who I likewise dare to say, has learnt to love again and with a courage to be vulnerable once more. For when you have tasted authentic loving, there is a hunger for more.
I have learnt from Pope Saint John Paul II in Redemptor Hominis (10) that “man cannot live without love…his life becomes incomprehensible without love.” And so I continue to live the rest of the way forward; my life and directions have never changed from the man I was since 18. I am clear about my priorities in life in rightful order – God, spouse, children, ministry and finally, work.
The question I pose each day to myself, is this; in my life and all that I do each day; prayer, family time, recreation, ministry and work – are they all in harmony with the authentic good, which Jesus says is the greatest commandment – to love?
I stay focussed each day on the “transcendental good, the true and the beautiful”.
“Id quod visum placet” - that which is seen pleases... - Saint Thomas Aquinas
May our lives be a witness to the grace of God’s love flowing for us from His wounded side that gives us each day, each moment, a life of joy and peace. May it draw us more deeply into the hope of the Resurrection!
Contributed by Bernard Thio..
Bernard, together with his wife Ying, is one of the co-founders of the Couple Empowerment Programme (CEP). CEP is a Post-Marriage Catechesis and formation programme seeking to build Christ-centred families, starting with the heart of the family - the married couple. For more information, visit their webpage here: http://cep-sg.org/