Faith

His 15-year-old sister died after collapsing in school; but in his grief, he found unexpected comfort

Where is God when it hurts? This Christmas, Salt&Light brings you a series of stories of God's light in the darkness when it matters most.

Kenneth Joseph Tan // December 20, 2022, 3:35 pm

Death-and-grief-God-in-control

"The sting of death is real, and I still find myself recalling memories and asking if the present is my reality," says Kenneth Joseph Tan (left). His sister (right) passed away suddenly after collapsing in school. Photos courtesy of Kenneth Joseph Tan.

In less than two hours, Kenneth Joseph Tan’s family was forever changed by a phone call.

The voice on the other end told him that his sister had collapsed in school in the middle of recess, and her teachers were in the process of giving her CPR.

In the months that followed, wracked with grief at his sister’s passing and having already been clinically diagnosed with depression, Kenneth Joseph faced pain, doubt and dark days like no other.

Here is Kenneth’s story in his own words.


I’m a 19-year-old polytechnic student who led an ordinary life. I served in church, led a cell group and attended church services regularly.

But on March 23 this year, in the middle of my school break, the most unexpected curveball was flung my way. 

That morning, I was awakened by a call. My sister, aged 15, had collapsed in school in the middle of recess, and her teachers were in the process of giving her CPR. 

Curveball, incoming

My parents and I rushed down to the Emergency Department of Singapore General Hospital. By the time we arrived, however, doctors were in the midst of delivering advanced cardiac life support.

I was allowed entry to the resuscitation room, and that was where I saw my sister alive for the last time, her heart beating only because of the ventilators.

The doctors’ efforts to save her were futile, and my sister was pronounced dead in less than two hours from the time I received the call. She had no pre-existing medical conditions.

Kenneth and his sister were close. After she died, Kenneth had many sleepless nights that he spent asking God: Why?

A few months later, the final cause of death was given as “consistent with cardiac arrhythmia” (This isn’t something entirely conclusive, but rather something that it could be attributed to).

Her death brought my life to a standstill.

Difficult thoughts, dark days

I initially thought that it would not be too bad, but that really couldn’t be further from the truth.

My sister and I were very close and we used to do many things together. She was someone I could confide in; she understood how I felt. She enjoyed being with people though she was naturally more quiet and reserved.

I no longer hear a voice laughing while talking on the phone, or have someone to ask if they want bubble tea on the way home.

She had a “quiet passion” for God, which was felt by the people around her. She saw value in building God’s Kingdom; she was a person who knew that there was more to life than what we have on earth.

My sister was the one who brought me to the church I currently worship, lead and serve at, a place I now call home.

Suddenly, all of that was gone and things are different now.

When people ask if I have a sibling, rather than a straight “yes, I have a younger sister who has the same birthday as me” answer, I would have to think whether to answer “yes” and explain the situation, or to answer “no”.

Some days, I come home and I’m the only one who’s at home. The house is quiet and empty, and it feels like something is missing. The table my sister used to study at, the things she used to say before she went to bed, and the empty seat at the dinner table.

The Tan siblings enjoying a moment of quiet together. His sister was “generally more quiet”, said Kenneth.

I no longer hear a voice laughing while talking on the phone at night, or have someone to ask if they want bubble tea on the way home.

Why, God? 

I was lost in my grief. I spent many sleepless nights with questions running through my head.

Having been clinically diagnosed with depression a few months before my sister’s sudden passing, my emotional and mental wellbeing went downhill after.

At times, I felt like an important part of me was missing.

It was really hard for me to get by, and at times I felt that I was going through life without purpose, like an important part of me was missing.

I didn’t know anyone my age who had experienced a similar death of a loved one, and felt like no one could relate to how I felt.

But God placed people around me to point me back to Him. They provided me with a listening ear and allowed me to share what was on my heart and how I was feeling, and also provided words of comfort. 

I spent many days and nights contending with God, seeking Him each day and asking God to reveal more of Himself to me, to help me cling on to Him.

God meets us where we are

Such seasons make it easy for us to doubt and blame God. Being a church leader didn’t make me less susceptible to those feelings of doubt and grief.

When it seems like no one on earth understands how we feel, God is near and He understands.

It’s easy to say that God is good when we are in seasons of having plenty, but in seasons when God seems so distant – it’s a different story.

Nevertheless, even in such moments when I felt like God wasn’t there for me when I needed Him, when it seems like no one on earth understands how we feel, God is near and He understands.

As our Creator, God knows us inside out. Psalm 34:18 which reads: “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit” has brought me a lot of comfort.

This verse is now one of the promises that I hold on to.

Not done with us yet

But why does God let unexpected things happen to us?

As I weighed this question in my heart, another verse spoke to me: “He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” (Ecclesiastes 3:11)

God’s plan is perfect.

We need to look at what He has already done, and focus on what He is going to do. God is not done with us yet.

It’s easy to say that when we are doing well. But, in my experience, it took much wrestling with God and time spent crying out to Him to recognise that His ways are better. In times when we find it senseless to praise God, all the more must we choose to lift our hands in faith to recognise that God is good.

We need to look at what He has already done, and focus on what He is going to do. God is not done with us yet.

By doing this, God helped me to see that He is a God who is faithful.

Even though my sister is no longer on this earth, Her life was a living testimony of the goodness of God and her legacy for Christ lives on.

Indeed, by God’s grace, my cousin and uncle who attended the wake accepted Jesus into their lives!

Never far 

In this season, I am learning to walk by faith and not by sight.

Though some seasons are more painful than we want it to be – to the point of even experiencing the death of our loved ones – our seasons are not going to waste.

In this season, I am learning to walk by faith and not by sight.

We are being grown and pruned, to be a canvas of God’s masterpiece. In His time, He will reveal His plans for us, which are far greater than any we can have for ourselves.

One of my favourite songs, Seasons, put it this way:

Though the winter is long
Even richer the harvest it brings
Though my waiting prolongs
Even greater, Your promise for me
Like a seed, I believe that my season will come

I now understand what it means to say that God is One who comforts us (2 Corinthians 1:3).

It has taken, and is still taking, time for me to get used to living life the way it is now.

I still am in the process of grieving ­­– Death’s sting is real, and I still find myself recalling memories and asking if the present is my reality.

But I thank God that even in this process, He has helped me find comfort and strength in Him.

Even though my grief may be overwhelming, God is never far from me. He understands and is close to me.


MORE STORIES ON GOD’S LIGHT IN THE DARKNESS:

“In our heartbreak, we’ve found comfort and peace in God”: Parents whose son was swept away by waves in Australia

“I thought everything I touched would turn to gold”: He was a wildly successful businessman – until he lost everything

“The most painful part of my life was also the most joyful”: Though her kidneys failed her at 35, she saw unexpected miracles

“The miracle we wanted was her healing, but the miracle God gave was changing people’s lives”

“She is a miracle”: How God kept His promise to a mother whose baby’s skull was abnormal

About the author

Kenneth Joseph Tan

Kenneth Joseph is a 19-year-old studying HR and Psychology at a local polytechnic. He also serves as a Pastoral (Poly and Kids) Group Leader at Hope Church Singapore. In his free time, he enjoys listening to music, rock climbing and chilling at a nice café somewhere.

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