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When Christmas will never be the same again

While most of us are caught up with all the baking, decorating, shopping and feasting this season, some families out there and in our midst struggle to face the yuletide season without a dear one they have lost. Pause for a moment as we bring you a story of the Thio family, who lost Jerome, their 17-year old son, recently. This story of unbreakable bonds and an infinite love that transcends time and space appears in the latest edition of Famfare in Catholic News. Here, the family share in their own words their experience as they grapple with the absence of their beloved son and ‘baby’ brother this Christmas.

Anything but a regular kid
Ying (Jerome’s mother): Jerome was my most adorable baby. He was obliging even as a baby. He would open his eyes and smile at strangers even though he was already falling asleep. The teachers and principal of Maris Stella kindergarten would come out and greet him and we were always fascinated by that attention that he received.  He was a big boy but was a gentle giant. I once overheard a playmate exclaim: “you so big but you don’t bully”. Indeed that was what made him a good child-minder at Couple Empowerment Programme (a programme for couples which Ying started with husband Bernard, at their parish).

 

Bernard (Jerome’s father): Jerome had always considered me his hero. Of all the six children I have, Jerome was my greatest supporter. He had respect for all my opinions and was always ready to spend any time he had with me. He had my back.

 

thio-jerome-on-holiday-2014

 

Joel (one of Jerome’s three brothers): Jerome loved everyone he chanced upon unconditionally. He helped others without counting the cost, never asked for anything in return, or looked upon his disability as a limitation to do so. He turned his disability into a strength through his service to everyone around him, giving others hope and determination to strive for greater things in life.

He proved himself to be an exemplary Josephian through his contribution to his rugby team and class despite his limitations. He also pushed himself to keep up with his CJC mates during his one year there, climbing up staircases, cycling for kilometres during social events, and never backing down nor accepting defeat. More recently, I couldn’t be more proud of my little pharmacist who scored a distinction in a pharmacy course he took online, and even considered further broadening his horizons in investments during his final days. Although he was the youngest, he has taught me so many things through his short time here on Earth, and I’m sure he’s touched the lives of all those he’s met. We all can’t wait to see you again, buddy.

 

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The kids were devastated when their charge was taken away so suddenly
Ying: We raised our family of sixkids with the help of two sets of in-laws under the same roof. The kids are very close and the joy and laughter in our close-knit family was infectious. That closeness made the five older ones very protective of Jerome especially when he fell gravely ill in July 2015. The girls saw to his every need when he was sick and cheered him up by bringing him around in his wheelchair. His older brother, Justin was there every night to help precariously carry Jerome up three flights of stairs before we installed the stair lift. Jerome weighed 92kg with water retention and so it was not an easy feat. But the children somehow managed to turn these seemingly sober activities into fun and laughter. Oldest brother Jonathan and his wife, also named Marie, in spite of being newly-marrieds who have just started a family (they are the parents of the Thios’ little silver lining, Nathaniel) rallied (and still rally) around the family; they were tremendous in their support throughout the ordeal in the last year. Such solidarity was heartening and Jerome had said more than once that his condition stabilised because of the love he received. The kids were devastated when their charge was taken away so suddenly on 12 September.

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A Father’s Pieta
Bernard: I called Jerome that evening bout 7.30pm and he didn’t answer. That was unusual. I returned home soon after and asked how Jerome was. His grandmother responded that he was tired and that he had just gone to the bathroom. And so I proceeded to the bathroom and called out, “Romey (one of Jerome’s pet names), you ok?” There was no answer. I called out again and there was silence. And because that was unlike Jerome to be silent, my medical formed mind knew that he was unconscious. I opened the bathroom door and my heart sank when I saw him on the floor of the bathroom, silent and unmoving. I rushed at him and felt his warmth and knew it was only just that he had collapsed.

I shouted for assistance and Michelle came in first. We carried him to her bedroom, covered him and started to do CPR immediately. I told Michelle to call for Ying and to call for the ambulance while continuing my best to resuscitate him. At that moment alone with my son, I cried. I begged my God, the giver of all life to, just as He did to the widow of Nain or Lazarus, bring back my son.

Even as I blew into his lungs, I cherished each time my lips were on his, as I lovingly kissed my boy. As a hero would to the one he saves. But I knew there and then, that his heart would not beat once more. It was doing its best the last 14 months when we had Jerome back from certain demise and had that wonderful year of spending Christmas with the whole family, even venturing on a trip nearby for ease of travel to Marriott in Phuket which he loved so often as a little kid. We had such great recovery for such an ailing heart wrecked by cardiomyopathy, I actually saw medical science debunked and realised we had a miracle on our hands.

But the heart was truly fatigued, working overtime as always for a young lad who had such a zest for life and living each day as if it was his last. And so I knew.

I even asked Ying when she came to his side, wailing and bargaining with our God to spare her son, to blow into Jerome’s lungs, not because I was tired or that she knew effectively how to perform CPR, but to kiss her littlest boy. Each time she breathed into him, I would continue chest compressions and each time she kissed him, I murmured a prayer to thank God for allowing Jerome’s “my best momma ever” mother to kiss her child so tenderly.

As a father, I wanted desperately to have my son back. As a doctor I knew the time had come for his life to cease. I have witnessed this passing of a life so many times as I had worked in emergency for five years, each time feeling the pain of losing a patient and asking God, “Why now?”,  “But he’s so young!”,” Why am I a doctor and not saving lives?”.

Only this time it was my own son at my hands. The hero in me died. I had failed to save my son.

 

It was the kind of drama one watches on TV; only this time, it was my baby
Ying: I had just reached home and was attending to my grandson, Nate. When I was alerted, I sprang upstairs and saw that Jerome was lying motionless. It was surreal. It was the kind of drama that one watches on TV; only this time, it was my baby. I screamed for God to bring him back ‘Don’t take my son!’ ‘Bring him back!’ He was conspicuously silent. I helped to give Jerome CPR along with Bernard and Justin after I called the ambulance. I sat in the ambulance as it raced to Mt Alvernia. I often wondered how Mama Mary could bear watching her child suffer and die. Well, at that point, I watched my son as his life ended.  I could sense the professionals held no hope of bringing him back – but I still hoped against hope.

When they brought us into the A&E to say our last goodbye, my heart broke. I kissed my son’s forehead, cheeks, eyes and lips dozens of time for he was my beloved son even as he was laid out in death on a hospital gurney. It was as if a huge crater had been created in my heart when our baby had left.  We had to Facetime our No. 3, Joel, who is studying in Tasmania and who is closest to Jerome.  I was beside myself with worry as to how Joel would cope but there was no time to think because I knew Joey would not want it any other way.  We did not expect Jerome to die and we know Jerome didn’t either.

We did not get a chance to say goodbye and that hurt a lot.  I was beating myself up for not spending more time with him and for failing to return earlier that day.

 

I texted him saying, “Don’t you dare go, you haven’t said goodbye to me yet.”
Joel: I never knew a mere call from Facetime would be the platform to which I would receive the most life-changing news: I was driving back home from a late night studying in school when my phone rung, and despite my usual reflex of ignoring calls while busy, something made me stop by the roadside to pick up the call. I felt Dad probably wanted to say an early goodnight with all his kids by his side, both overseas and locally, as he usually did. Instead, I answered the phone to a voice that seemed burdened with sorrow, misery, weakness, and every other horrible word you could pull out from the thesaurus. “Jerome collapsed, Joel”. Those were the only three words I could remember from the entire Facetime session with my family that night.

My heart sank. My nearest and dearest brother, the boy that gave me the incentive to pursue my studies overseas as a medical professional for, was potentially gone. I sat motionless in that carpark spot up on Domain Hill I had used every day for the last year (clueless to this very spot becoming one of my most memorable locations in Tasmania after this happened) praying the hardest in my life for me to see his smiling face once more, and wishing he’d just wake up and say “sorry to make you worry Jokor (Joel KorKor or big brother Joel), but I’m okay now”.  I texted him, saying “Don’t you dare go, you haven’t said goodbye to me yet”, in hope of that text status showing “Read”, but it didn’t happen.

thio-joel-and-jerome

Then the second call from my family came, and Mom asked me if I was ready to say my final goodbye to Slimmy. (Jerome). I remember crying, screaming, and wailing in my car all alone on Domain hill that night for the longest time. People say that one would never understand the pain of loss of a loved one until it has been experienced. I will tell that person that one would never understand the immense pain that is felt when the loss of a loved one is unexpected and experienced over a mere phonecall alone.

 

There was no anger; just a yearning for some understanding in His plan
Michelle (the younger of Jerome’s two older sisters): Every prayer I made was not for a miracle, but for my acceptance in God’s greater plan. In some sense, I think my heart had been prepared for his passing because of the suddenness of his diagnosis back in July 2015. I remember Jerome had most innocently asked me, “Mi Jie (big sister Michelle), do you mean you thought I was going to die?” to which I replied rather awkwardly that I did – I guess God had been preparing us for his passing. There was no anger; just a yearning for some understanding in His plan.

Acceptance for me came through witnessing the testimonies and tributes of Jerome’s friends and wider community who saw my baby brother as a man who was life-giving, spiritually mature and who believed in salvation. To ‘move on’ from someone’s passing usually connotes ‘leaving someone behind’ – something I was terrified and felt guilty of doing as an older sister – and thus those testimonies offered great comfort as I realised that death is not the end because Jerome will live on in the hearts of all those he has touched.

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Excerpts from Bernard and Ying’s Eulogies
Ying (a lawyer): When God took my baby away on Monday night, I told him that even lawyers give reasonable notice. But with all the prayers and all the support, I heard and understood why God had to take Jerome; and He has left us with a silver lining. And today I stand before you, as the mother of an amazing young man, to tell you that there is a Heaven; and that I intend, with my family, to work very hard at scrubbing our souls clean so that we can get there… because we want to see our baby”.

Bernard: God is the giver of all good things. He blessed us with so many wonderful children. Jerome has been a gift. We’ve already lost one and his name is Philip. Philip already has a place up above. This gift Jerome has been a tremendous joy. As a father, I delighted in him – like the baptism of Christ in the Jordan – in whom my soul delights. As a doctor, I was very stressed out because of his Becker’s since his childhood and cardiomyopathy in the last one year. And now I can be a father again, fully, and relish and delight in my son.

 

LIFE POST-JEROME

Every moment, someone is slipping under his/her grief. There are so many ‘triggers’
Ying: There is a finality about death of a loved one that leaves one helpless and impotent. The trouble with having nine people (five kids, two parents and two grandparents) mourning at the same time is that every moment, someone is slipping under his/her grief. There are so many ‘triggers’.  We found ourselves huddling together as a family every day after work consoling each other, sharing memories, painful moments, and watching videos of Jerome and the family. We would share dreams and messages about Jerome. For instance, I felt Jerome’s presence one night and I heard him say ‘best mama ever’ – it was what I sorely needed to hear and I put it down to God’s mercy that we continued to receive so many ‘consolations’, including the stunning revelation that Jerome has met Philip, the child that I had miscarried in 1991.  

 

We have truly experienced the communion of saints
Ying: This revelation has given the kids tremendous relief even as they grieve for they now know that Philip (whom I had hitherto thought of as a foetus, has grown up in heaven) is looking after their baby brother, Jerome.  We have truly experienced the communion of saints. Bernard and I found consolation in the fact that we encounter Jerome during daily Mass.

The pain will always be there, I will miss him all my life.  But the fact is that when Slim (another of Jerome’s pet name) passed on, the sense of profound loss has mysteriously brought Bernard and me in close encounter with God.  He is more real than ever before – and I now understand when they say ‘God is close to the broken hearted’.  God heals – that can only explain why the laughter and joy is slowly returning to our home. It had been hard to concentrate and we have sensibly slowed down to take stock. But going forward, we have resolved to undertake our tasks with even more passion and look forward to returning home to hug Slim ever so tightly.

I could have said “I have served you Lord, for so many years, and have held the hands of others as they passed into death in mercy, why didn’t you allow me that opportunity when it came to my own son?  How could you? Do you even exist?” But I did not. My love and loyalty for God will never allow me to say that. His kindness and mercy has been tremendous. Besides I know that my understanding is imperfect.  We continued to praise God and to bless his holy name and put this down to grace. In return, He has consoled us and blessed us with so much.

No parent should have to watch a child die – but we are privileged to go through what Almighty God himself experienced. Jerome always wanted to marry and have kids. It was his one dream to be like us, his mum and dad. On the day of his funeral we were inspired that his send-off will be a wedding – in anticipation of his eschatological union with Christ.

 

Pulling together; processing the pain
Bernard: The following week Ying and I needed to necessarily take that time out to sort ourselves with our inchoate feelings … to refocus and review our lives post Jerome. We went on a week break to spend that precious reviewing of our lives together. Just the two of us. We flew off to a sun-sand-sea resort which has always refreshed us the last 29 years of marriage and 38 years of intimate friendship.

We dined, had our massages, walks on the beach and restored our sleep debt. There was a morning I walked out early and felt this great need to hear form my son. It’s been too long not hearing him call me “Dad! Where are you?”

I called out in my pained heart with inchoate feelings, “Jerome, where are you? Can I hear you just once more?” But there was silence, as I had experienced that evening when he left us. He left me. Personally I wanted him back just for a moment.

Desolate and tearful, I walked out to sea. I stopped about 400 m from shore and paused. I cried out to Jerome that he left without a goodbye and would he be so kind as to give me a sign that he is out there somewhere … please? I know I shouldn’t ask but I’m just a father in love and in great need of reassurance.

In my 55 years on planet Earth, I have never as a tree lover, a naturalist and botanist at heart, seen a school of silver fishes swim towards me and circle around my body swiftly and in such large numbers. And I am trained to think rationally and scientifically and to turn to facts and reasons for anything and everything. It amazed me to watch this spectacle before my eyes.

There must have been 200-300 of them. Suddenly, they were flying and darting out of the surface around me. “God, what am I seeing?” I thought. As I put out my hands, they came gently and nibbled on my fingers, much like the Koi in the pond back home when I hand feed them.

And then I realised … and said, “Thank you Romey”.

I quickly returned to Ying and shared my extraordinary – no – supernatural experience; and she saw me smile for the first time in over a week. I was happy to be me once more!

 

We hold on together…
Ying: Grieving can pull spouses apart and we have to be conscious of how we are different in our coping mechanisms. Bernard gives me space to mourn by emotional outbursts and tears. He tells me he understands and does not pressurise me to stop even though he is obviously in pain and my outbursts makes it worse. These have reduced with the passage of time. He, on the other hand, gets more impatient and irritable at time. I do not retaliate as I know he is in pain.  Our Love’s grown deep through the years and although this is a big storm, we hold on together, although without an exaggerated sense of being in control when we are not.

 
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This is God’s promise that I will meet my baby brother once again.
Michelle: For me, trusting and being fully vulnerable to one another helps; I don’t allow myself to be fully vulnerable to anyone aside from my family members. In doing so, I share my thoughts and grief fully, without apprehension. To me, this is the best form of catharsis. The Love of God for me comes each time I attend mass and when I recite the creed. Fr JP told us that even though we may be physically separated in different continents, we are all connected in the Eucharist through this ‘communion’. Therefore every time I receive the Eucharist, I know that I am in communion with Mims. During the creed, I affirm my belief in the ‘communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and life everlasting’ and to me, this is God’s promise that I will meet my baby brother once again.

 

Let the feelings of loss come, but hold on tight to your loved ones and God
Joel: The pain comes, not immediately, but overtime as the overcompensation of doing more activities starts to tire you, and the unattended feelings of loss start to surface. It strikes you hard when triggers like recent photographs or activities you did together are experienced.

I often find myself staring into space when I relive activities Jerome and I used to do together. I find myself talking to an empty bed or soft toy we used to share, or even placing my hand on the seat next to me in the car he used to follow me around in.

My advice is to let it happen, let the feelings of loss come, but hold on tight to your loved ones and God for support in these times. It will be a bumpy ride, but all is possible with faith and love.

I still talk to the empty bed and soft toy, stare blindly into space when I come across East Coast Park’s prawning pond, but now I feel him always there with me wherever I am. Apart from the pain being lessened with time and experiences, it gives me strength to get on with each new day.

 

The Silver Lining – Our latest baby
Bernard: Jerome was at Nathaniel’s baptism. He was Nate’s godfather. The last of our children continues in the first of our grandchildren… I am sure there will be more. Thirty six, to be certain. Every cloud has a silver lining… what a joy to see our silver lining, another baby to look after. Jerome has handed the baton to Nate, for his work is finished and he has returned to His Father. We await the grand reunion at the feast of all feasts as I rush to meet my son, now brother, at the Eschaton.

And the child has become the father of the man!

thio-by-nate

Struck by the tenderness of God
Ying: I said something about God being silent… Two days later I remembered that I had been in Knock on 8 June and had gone for confession at the place of pilgrimage. The priest said my grandson Nate will be my silver lining. Nate was born that day, two weeks ahead of schedule. I didn’t understand – until 14 September that God was not silent on 12 September. He had already spoken through the priest at Knock three months earlier in June! There is no cloud without a silver lining! Jerome’s death was the cloud. I was so struck by the tenderness of God.

No parent should have to watch a child die but we are privileged to go through what Almighty God himself experienced. Jerome always wanted to marry and have kids.  It was his one dream to be like us, his mum and dad. On the day of his funeral we were inspired that his send-off will be a wedding – in anticipation of his eschatological union with Christ.

 

A first Christmas without Slim/Romey/Mims…
Michelle: Honestly, it never occurred to me that Christmas would be any different. I’ll be flying home in two weeks and while I know we will still be mourning, I doubt that our view of Christmas (as the season where we gather as a family to show love and gratitude towards each other) will change. In this festive season, we celebrate life and this includes the ‘life everlasting’ which my baby brother now gets to enjoy.

Advent is a timely reminder to prepare one’s hearts for the arrival of the baby Jesus and we do this through cleansing our souls and engaging more deeply with God through prayer. While advent commonly focuses on birth, it is not divorced from the concept of death as this preparation is akin to preparing oneself for the kingdom. This ties in with mama’s eulogy in how the family will strive to ‘cleanse our souls’ to reunite with Mims in paradise. Thanks to Mims, Advent has a more profound meaning for me.

 

Joel: Christmas always starts in August-September for the Thios, with us singing along with Jerome to Michael Buble’s Christmas songs in the car and the Christmas Carols Dad puts on in the hall. We’d be selecting trees by November, decorating it as a family, and getting ready for our Christmas shopping for the entire household.

None of this has been compromised, but the biggest difference this year is that Christmas Carols lack those signature off-key notes he used to sing with gusto, the Christmas tree lacks that crooked top star and misplaced glitter balls from those careless hands of his, and we have one less present under the tree for our most special baby of the family.

Christmas will always be celebrated in the Thio household with big, bright smiles, but now too with tears for both our loss and in faith that heaven has gained an angel.

 

Ying: We miss him sorely but we must celebrate.  We have planned holidays and get-togethers, for we know that whenever we gather in love and joy as a family, Jerome and Philip are one with our joy and laughter. I am heartened that I don’t only have three sons and two daughters left – I have five sons and two daughters. The great reunion is not only at the Great Feast but here and now – heaven meets earth in family.

The biggest gift from Jerome? Well, his passing has gifted me a greater desire for heaven and an intimacy with God that I have not known before.

 

The Spirit is alive and joyful as his body was at his prime
Bernard: As I look back at the changes in the Thio household in the last two months, I am finally realising that my medical insight into his passing is now in sync with my fatherly wish that Jerome is well once more; the spirit is alive and joyful as his body was at his prime.

Jerome spent 18 years living every moment joyfully. I have seen many who have lived 80 years with so little to be living for during the last 62 years.

I have been taught now by my hero, Jerome, to follow likewise and live the rest of my time here on earth, with passion and zealousness, as he blogged: to smile at just about everyone, and make this world, this country, this Church community, this family, a better and more joyful place.

For a smile in return will always be rewarded.

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Photos: Thio family

Archdiocesan Commission for the Family

Archdiocesan Commission for the Family