Attending the wake of someone younger than me

“Please pray for R.”

Rows of “🙏🙏” flooded the family chat group by confused relatives trying to play a part. Within an hour, a solemn text and new reality hit, “R has passed away.”

I attended the wake of my 7-year-old niece near the start of this Chinese New Year. Due to the suddenness of the incident, everything happened really fast. They said it was a viral infection but no one really dared pursue further on the actual cause. Many relatives came to support R’s family at the hospital. Even now, it is still difficult to comprehend how it was possible for someone so young to leave earlier than us all.

When you think about death or funerals, chances that someone old and frail comes to your mind. R was neither old nor frail, she was… ‘unlucky’. Moments before her heart stopped, she was still actively riding her pink bicycle around the neighbourhood. It was that sudden.

The potential of a meaningful life ending makes this death an unbearable one. Despite just 7 years, R has left many in adoration of this little princess.

Holding a Wake

In the Buddhist culture, wakes/funerals are held to pay respects to the deceased and express condolences to the family. I think it’s also for the family to prolong what little time they have with their loved ones before they accept that they are no longer alive.

This decision to hold a wake instead of direct burial/cremation wasn’t hard to make for the family. But it came with many restrictions.

As R was young and not yet exposed to religion, some adjustments were done for her. Instead of mourning, the family went with chanting to lessen the noise that R has never liked. Her ceremony can’t be held longer than her elders, and so they tried to keep it short but still have one.

Her leaving would also mean that others in her family will be following the method chosen — burial or cremation. As much as they prefer the first, the second is more conservative for the older people due to burial practices in Singapore. Lastly, her immediate family will not be able to send her off on her last lap onwards cremation as 白发不能送黑发. (direct translate: white hair cannot send black hair)

It was a blessing that the family had clear-headed relatives who managed to help settle the funeral work. It involved buying packages, travelling to agencies to collect certificates and apply for permissions. On top of this, there were also Covid restrictions such as setting up the SafeEntry booth and ensuring a 30 person limit within the wake itself.

However, these restrictions did not stop the family from holding a lovely wake for her.

The Wake

Our family members gathered many Frozen and cute stickers to paste it all around her clean and white coffin — to decorate and liven it up. There were many fresh and beautiful white and purple flowers surrounding her casket. Right on top of the sturdy cover were her favourite stuffed unicorns, dolls, a stationery set, a Lego set that signified her playfulness and fun. Inside lies R who’s touched up and dressed in her beloved Elsa costume. Around the space were pink and white balloons as well as huge unicorn balloons livening up the area. A princess couch and the bike she last rode on were in place for her to enjoy one last time.

Most beautiful coffin I’ve seen

At the end of the ceremony, her family was deciding on the items that they can leave inside the casket for her cremation so that she can keep it. As they are unable to depart with her, they want her to feel as secure as she can with items that she loves and is comfortable with.

“Funerals are to honor the dead but are held for the living.”

Throughout the funeral, R’s family spent long periods talking to the casket about how long R has been ‘sleeping’, asking how is she feeling, dreaming about the activities they have dreamt of doing together. The parents bought her favourite food — she had a sweet diet of kinder joy, Prata with sugar and ice cream sundaes. They read her stories from storybooks that she always requested for. A phone plugged onto a portable charger played YouTube videos with a children’s song angled to the glass opening of her coffin. Doing gave them a chance to gift her everything she wanted before they can never. It was an act of comfort for them to leave her with as few regrets as they can.

All the time, there had to be support around the family to make sure that they can vent and express their thoughts instead of keeping them in. I witnessed the 7 stages of grief. When you are lost, you try to understand what’s happening and when you can’t process that, you try to find an outlet by throwing it to someone else.

From the third party’s point of view, there was no value in blaming because it has already happened. We can only hope to stick with them through the stages and help them come to terms with death.

Throughout the wake, the family tried to keep up the spirits by acknowledging everyone who attended. R’s father thanked all the tables for making time to come. “R is very happy that all of you are here today to be with her. She likes all of you a lot. Please help me by being happy and don’t cry. She doesn’t like it when people cry. So be happy for her, please. Thank you all ah.”

The toughest part of being a part of this wake was watching people who adored her sink in her departure. You know those relatives who were always joking around and having it tough. It hits differently when the tough becomes vulnerable. For me, watching my cousins ache was more painful than processing R’s departure. Indeed, funerals are held for the living.

Eventually, the wake comes to an end and a selected group of less than 30 of the younger generation embarks to Mandai where to send her off for cremation. Having parents send off a piece of themselves away forever is not an easy feat, and watching this process sent many of us aching for the family. They released the blue and pink helium balloons up to the sky as a form of letting go.

Be free.

Acceptance is ultimately the hardest phase because it means that you have accepted that there’s nothing else you can do for your situation anymore. Watching people responding to the wake was heart-wrenching. She was a sibling, child, grandchild, relative, friend’s daughter, student and playmate. And she could have been your any of the above.

Rest in peace, R. Thank you for your existence and for spreading cheer when you are around. Hope you leave sweet dreams for your loved ones too.

Every time I’m faced with the news of the death of a close one, I see more clarity in this unfathomable end of life. What is it about our lives that we want to be left behind? We are all going to die and those left behind will have it harder than us. And if it is hard, it means a huge impact was made. One day I’m going to close my eyes, lose myself in darkness and I’m not going to be aware of any existence anywhere anymore.

Writing this piece was for me to internalise that death can happen anytime and to anyone. We just have to live now.

Stepping into adulthood

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