How one widow with four young children used what was left of her “olive oil” to “fill the jars” of others
by Janice Tai // July 30, 2021, 5:06 pm
Widowed at age 41, Yannie Yong (centre) struggled with her grief while bringing up four children (at that time, 4, 9, 11 and 12) on her own and managing her business. Then the story of the widow's olive oil kickstarted her efforts to help other women. She was finally able to fully mourn for her husband and find closure when she surrendered the other huge losses in her life. All photos courtesy of Yannie Yong.
In 2015, businesswoman Yannie Yong was waiting at home for her husband to pick her up. They were going for a Christmas lunch. He had texted her to tell her he was on his way.
One hour later, there was no sign of him, so she set off for the party on her own, assuming he might already be there.
He was not.
Two hours later, her domestic helper called to tell her that policemen were at their home.
Her heart sank.
The drive home from the Christmas party was the worst journey of her life.
When she entered her home and saw the policemen, the unwelcome news came: Dick had been in a road accident. He did not survive.
At age 41, she was a widow – with four young daughters who had just lost their father.
With her mind in a blur and her body reeling from the shock, she went into her room to lie down.
Maybe it was just a bad nightmare, a figment of her imagination, she tried to tell herself.
But when she got up 10 minutes later, the policemen were still in her living room.
It hit her that Dick was really gone.
The police asked if she had any family members who could help her.
It was then that she felt even more lost and afraid. Both of Dick’s parents were no longer alive; her own family and relatives were scattered all over the world.
“I didn’t want to live, but I could not kill myself because of my four children. It was a really bad time. I didn’t want to be around but I had to,” Yannie, now 46, told Salt&Light.
Filling his shoes
The days that followed blurred one into another.
Her social circle was small, and she had no one to talk to.
All day, she would lie in bed crying.
She had no energy and could not bring herself to do anything.
For days, she would force herself to do just three things a day: 1) Wake up 2) Shower 3) Brush her teeth.
Many things piled up, needing her attention. Her husband had not left behind a will, so she needed to do the paperwork to start the process of handling his bank accounts.
In the past, Dick, who was a tax consultant, handled their finances as well as that of her clothing retail business.
Her husband also took care of their children’s education and the planned their leisure activities to ensure they had fun while growing up. He would also read devotions with them, teaching them that they will never lack because God is their provider.
How was she ever going to fill his shoes?
She would worry about that later.
Living in three-hour blocks
For now, she could only muster enough energy to live life in three-hour blocks, and set small goals for the day – such as opening the letter box.
What would she do tomorrow? It seemed so distant, so far away.
Well-meaning friends asked her how things were. She could not give them any meaningful answers.
“They didn’t just lose one parent then, but two, because I was ‘missing’ in their lives.”
Parents of her daughters’ classmates talked about the usual things: parties, tuition, holidays, and the gymnastic competitions their children were enrolled in.
These things, once familiar to her, now seemed so foreign and remote. Suddenly, they did not matter anymore.
To distract herself from the pain, she shopped, ate well and travelled to the US and the UK.
But each time she returned home, every nook and cranny reminded her of Dick.
So she sold the home and relocated her family to Jakarta, Indonesia.
In Indonesia, her sister and sister-in-law helped take care of her girls while Yannie looked for new business opportunities. Her daughters would have cousins to play with. It was a fresh start.
Her decision seemed logical. “But I was also lost and could have been running away,” Yannie admitted.
Her daughters were put in an international school. For three years, they only saw their mother only on weekends, as she would fly back to Singapore to oversee her business from Mondays to Fridays.
“They didn’t just lose one parent then, but two, because I was ‘missing’ in their lives,” said Yannie.
Yannie was running a chain of clothing retail stores called Rose of Sharon. At its peak in 2008, she had seven stores in Singapore and 16 staff working under her.
Friends advised her to wind up her business and focus on raising her children.
However, she was not keen to give it up. For it was her father’s last wish that she help out with the family business. It included a fashion wholesale business which had morphed into Rose of Sharon.
Too many losses
Earlier in 1996, when Yannie was studying at a university in Australia, she was called home to say goodbye to her father who was in his last days.
She flew back to Singapore, but did not manage to stay long enough to witness his ashes being scattered after his cremation as she had to return to school.
There was no time to grieve.
On her graduation shortly after that, she quickly returned to Singapore. This time, to look after her younger brother; their mother, a Malaysian, was on a Dependent’s Pass and could not remain in the country now that her husband had passed on.
“We are to give especially when we are in lack. When we do that, God is able to turn the lack into sufficiency.”
The Asian financial crisis hit in 1997, and Yannie and her sister found their family’s wholesale clothing business saddled with hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of clothes that suppliers no longer wanted to take on.
Yannie resorted to hawking her wares at carpark sales and going door-to-door, hitting up clothing shops. These were the days before online shopping.
Eventually, she realised it made better sense to open her own shop. She named it Rose of Sharon – a name that God had given her sister-in-law in a dream. It symbolises fruitfulness (Song of Solomon 2:1).
Ten years after her dad passed on, and barely a year after her husband died, Yannie was dealt another blow. Her sister-in-law, whom she was close to, died from breast cancer.
It was one loss too many.
Pick on someone stronger
Yannie, who had been an active and “comfortable” Christian for 20 years, questioned God.
“Why me? Why don’t you pick on someone stronger?” Yannie cried out.
The husband whom she had depended on had been snatched away. Now her faith in the God she had relied on was shaken.
“But God never left me,” she said.
“Even in a foreign land, he sent my senior pastor over to minister to me,” said Yannie, who was then living in Indonesia.
Her senior pastor from Trinity Christian Centre (TCC) – Rev Dominic Yeo – was visiting Jakarta as part of plans to launch a church branch in the Indonesian capital.
“His schedule was so packed, he would fly in on Friday and fly out on Saturday or Sunday. He did this for eight weeks for just a small group of 20 of us. Seeing a familiar face meant so much to me,” said Yannie.
She was touched by his commitment to minister to the one “lost sheep” and “lost coin”.
A small jar of olive oil
Another pastor that spoke life through God’s word into her spirit was Dr Naomi Dowdy. Dr Dowdy, had pastored TCC for 30 years, beginning when it was a small church the 1970s.
Yannie played Dr Dowdy’s sermon on the widow’s olive oil (2 Kings 4:1-7) on loop in her car for six months.
“The widow had nothing except a small jar of olive oil. Her husband was dead and his creditors were coming to take her two sons as slaves. Yet when Elijah told her to take her neighbours’ jars and fill them up with the little oil she had, she obeyed and the oil never stopped flowing,” said Yannie.
The story resonated deeply with Yannie for she felt that she had nothing much left to offer.
The story resonated deeply with Yannie for she felt that she had nothing much left to offer.
The sermon challenged her to keep filling the jars of others and continue giving despite her present circumstances.
“I was reminded that we are to give not merely out of abundance, but especially when we are in lack,” said Yannie.
“When we do that, God is able to care for us and turn the lack into sufficiency,” she said.
Talk and therapy
Though devastated by the double loss of her husband and sister-in-law, Yannie decided not to wallow in her own pain. She began thinking about how she could serve other vulnerable people in the community.
In 2017, she began volunteering as a befriender to three other single mothers under HCSA Dayspring’s SPIN initiative. SPIN stands for Single Parents INformed, INvolved, INcluded.
The following year, she joined mission trips to India where she ministered to women – former sex slaves – and their children at an orphanage.
Her business, Rose of Sharon, also began to partner her church’s social service arm with its fundraising efforts in Singapore.
Feeling prompted to share her story to encourage other women, she also took Dale Carnegie’s public speaking course to train herself up as a speaker.
She spoke of her own journey of grief and loss at a conference organised by the Network for Christian Women.
It was a turning point in her life.
She learnt to give a name to her grief and allowed it to sit with her, without guilt.
She realised that she had not properly grieved for the other huge losses in her past.
“I thought I was grieving for my husband, but I was actually acting out the grief of earlier unmourned losses in my life,” said Yannie.
These earlier voids in her life had been papered over in a rush.
The time when she, barely a young adult, could not say a proper goodbye to her father but buried her grief in responsibilities: helming the family business and taking care of her 11-year-old brother.
The time when she had a miscarriage in 2005 and “moved on” to have other children.
This time, she learnt to give a name to her grief and allowed it to sit with her, without guilt.
This time, she surrendered her losses to Jesus, for He too was a “man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3).
Only when she was able to do so, could she fully enter into mourning for her husband.
Turning off the mute button
The counselling also helped her become aware that she had subconsciously developed unhealthy beliefs from her experiences of loss.
“I had told myself, ‘I cannot be too happy or the rug may suddenly be pulled from under me. Yet I also cannot be too sad because I have to be strong’ to continue to function in life,” said Yannie.
This manifested itself in many aspects of her life, where she avoided extremes of expression.
For instance, her children hardly saw her being extremely joyful or upset, or expressing herself with hugs or genuine emotion.
That “sense of mutedness” also trickled into her business. There were no joyful colours in the clothes she used to sell. Instead, they were in duller, classic tones of blue, black, grey and white.
This mindset translated into her sticking to the familiarity of the tried-and-tested instead of being more creative with business decisions and ventures.
She began to acknowledge her losses and grief and give them space to sit with her, without judgement or guilt.
“I examined my responses to the losses to see if there was a better way to cope or respond to them for a more positive outcome,” said Yannie.
For her, that meant rethinking her identity – not as an orphan, not as a widow and not as a businesswoman.
“I am a child of God. And that means that whatever happens, God is sovereign. But He is also my Father who loves and embraces me. I can be free to be my vulnerable self before Him, and be authentic in opening up to Him,” she said.
Somewhere in her, a lock clicked open. And she felt liberated to offer clothes in a rainbow of colours, and to be more expressive when communicating with others, especially her children.
Clothing women with care
In 2019, Yannie moved her family back to Singapore. Relocation was tough but necessary as she needed to reintegrate her daughters back into the school system to prepare them for entry into local universities.
Then Covid-19 hit and she scrambled to accelerate the digitalisation of her business.
Her business became more than one that sought to clothe women.
Through Facebook Live, Yannie started interacting with her customers and building a community of care and support where women share their stories of overcoming challenges and celebrate the big and small joyful moments of life.
Her fashion channel became a platform to showcase the inner and outer beauty of women to build their confidence. Every week, it would host invited speakers and partners to share topics like joy, beauty, psychological care and self-care weekly with viewers.
Yannie also kept herself busy by giving talks and webinars as a female entrepreneur and a single mother of four who has weathered more than her fair share of storms in life.
Permission to cry
While sharing during a webinar last year, Yannie realised she was still trying to hold it all together as a supermum and a businesswoman.
The interviewer had listened to her story and began asking more probing questions From her composure, he may not have had a sense of the grief she still felt over the loss of her husband.
“How can you be so strong? Don’t you feel sad?” he asked repeatedly, until some viewers chided him for being insensitive.
The exchange got Yannie thinking. Was she really over her grief for her husband? Why was she not feeling anything when she thought about him? Had she found closure and healing?
“I held my breath for five years. I didn’t admit that parenting alone is tough and lonely.”
It was only six weeks later in November 2020, the month of her husband’s birthday, that she broke down and wept.
She felt the full brunt of sadness that came crashing upon her.
Instead of a suffocating heaviness, she felt free.
“That was when I truly started grieving for my husband and myself. I held my breath for five years. I didn’t admit that parenting alone is tough and lonely. I didn’t have time to think about it,” said Yannie.
“If you are experiencing loss and grief, allow yourself to be hurt. Allow yourself to tend to your own needs.
“God will turn our mourning into joy. You don’t have to hold it all together because God holds you.”