He wore a sadness in his eyes throughout the forum, despite his candid smile, his laid back posture, and the punches of light humour when he exchanged banter with co-panelist Irene Ang (who was present as a survivor of three attempted suicides, something she has not shied away from talking about as a celebrity). I knew beforehand that the forum panel would also consist of the parent of a suicide victim, and while I knew that would make for one of the most interesting episodes of Talking Point I ever watched or participated in, I was not quite sure what to expect.
And when Steve Chia mentioned that the founder of youth outreach foundation Over the Rainbow had lost his only son to suicide seven years ago, Chow Yen-Lu corrected him, “Seven years and 3 days, actually. We’ve been observing his passing the last few days.” One could feel the weight of that knowledge bear down on the audience the rest of the night. While the ever-entertaining Irene Ang kept us light-hearted, and IMH’s Principal Clinical Psychologist Dr Ong Lue Ping’s offering of facts and figures would be greeted with nods and murmurs, each time Mr Chow spoke, the room would fall still and silent to listen intently to his slow, measured responses.
As the moderator opened the discussion to the floor, I raised my hand. Referring to the news report last Friday that mentioned what the mother of the P5 boy who committed suicide cried as she found him, I asked Mr Chow, “That statement resonated quite deeply among parents, but beyond the context of what was said, speaking from your own experience, how did you pick yourselves up from there?”
“We get asked that question a lot,” he said, leaning back and looking thoughtful. “It was difficult. But one of the first things that we did was not to blame ourselves or blame each other, number one. Otherwise we wouldn’t be here today, we would have gone down the other path.”
His calm demeanor belied a quiet pain as he replied me, and I started tearing as I listened.
He continued, “Number two, to accept what’s happened. Third, to find meaning in what’s happened, and to do something about it. So through this experience, we found first of all it’s a wake-up call for us. So we took this up as a cause. Our motto is we want to transform youth mental wellness for the 21st century. Actually, when we do this, we are also helping ourselves; We help ourselves to heal.”
Since the above-mentioned news report came out last Friday, and word even spread around the world; there was even news commentary on the BBC World Service saying how common such suicides are in developed Asian countries such s Japan, South Korea, China and Singapore. And of course, there followed a flurry of discussion online: who is really to blame? What are the authorities doing about it? How can parents prevent this? There are even posters crafted by the Ministry of Education with multi-step-step processes outlining how to encourage our children and be present for them were spread around on Facebook, in the hopes that they be used as a guide on how to prevent suicide, even though they weren’t explicitly created for that purpose.
Over and beyond these, there are also the people who survive their loved ones’ deaths. We tend to treat this category of what I consider suicide survivors as well as mere side plots, used to help the story along from a human interest angle, and, as mentioned, sometimes as a potential target to blame. But these are the people with the experiences we really need to hear of, with the lessons that we really need to learn from.
It must have been difficult for Mr Chow and his wife the last seven years, and it will continue to be difficult. But they managed to break through the barriers of their own grief and despair, to reach out and help others as a means for themselves to heal, and to give us that much-needed insight from their own experience.
As the discussion was thrown to the floor for questions, the audience seemed to betray the mindset of our pressure-cooker society: that failure is not an option. But as progressive a nation as we have become in the last 50 years, our failure to accept failure also happens to be our biggest failure. And no, I’m not just talking about parents.
When I read what the mother said next to her son, my heart broke for her, I saw a woman trying to and failing to grapple with the last memory she has of being with her son, because whatever little reason she had left in the moment told her that was why her son took his life; she was crying out the words in overwhelming, debilitating regret. And she is now facing the rest of her life in self-persecution, having to try and hold together a permanently broken heart.
Yet here we are lambasting her for saying what she said, using her words to condemn an imperfect education system that we, too, had a hand in creating, and using her dead son as an example of “a tofu generation”. And we call ourselves a civilised society. I believe we were once better than this, and that we should have been better than this. But this week, we failed.
Now, how do we accept this failure, learn from it and move on with it instead of away from it? Therein lies the lesson that these suicide survivors teach us, and if we learn it well, it’s a lesson that we don’t just teach to our children in multi-step processes, we show them how we do it.