“Why would such a thing happen if I am really walking with God?”: A pastor wrestles with God after her father’s suicide
by Christine Leow // September 23, 2021, 8:21 pm
After battling cancer for eight years, Ps Chris' father took his own life when he realised that treatment would no longer work for him. Photo by Nani Chavez on Unsplash
Trigger warning: This story contains material about suicide that some may find distressing.
One March morning five years ago, Pastor Chris, 48, missed a phone call. It was 5.30am and she was fast asleep.
She would find out later that it was her father who had called.
“He doesn’t usually call so early in the morning. After that, he called my sister and told her to look after my mum.
“I think he wanted to say that to me because he tried to call me first.”
“He called my sister and told her to look after my mum.”
The early morning call was so out of character that Ps Chris’ older sister panicked.
“She asked my dad to pass the phone to mum and instructed mum, ‘You’ve got to be with him. Watch him until I come.’
“She wanted to rush over to their house. But she stayed quite a distance away and it would take a while.”
Soon after they hung up, Ps Chris’ father convinced her mother to get him breakfast at the coffeeshop.
“My mum hadn’t wanted to go because my sister had already told her not to leave him alone. But my dad got very angry when my mum said ‘no’ to him.
“She didn’t want to agitate him because he was quite weak and breathless. So, she thought: I am going to run very quickly to the coffeeshop, buy the breakfast and then come back.”
He had seemed fine in the days leading up to his suicide.
It would take her less than 10 minutes. But in that time, Ps Chris’ father would jump from their flat. He was 69.
It was Ps Chris’ mother who found his body on her way home from the errand.
“It was early, about 6.30am and the sky was still dark. My mum was in shock. A passer-by was with her. That was how she managed to call me and tell me about it.”
Although her father had been struggling with cancer for eight years, he had seemed fine in the days leading up to his suicide.
“He died on Monday. On Saturday, I had visited him with my pastor. Pastor was encouraging him and prayed for him. He was still joking and laughing with Pastor.
The family man
Ps Chris grew up in a close-knit family. Her father was the sole breadwinner; her mother was a homemaker.
To provide for the family of four and support his younger siblings, her father held down two jobs, working day and night.
“He was a responsible brother. He was number three in the family with seven siblings after him,” said Ps Chris.
To provide for the family of four and support his younger siblings, her father held down two jobs.
A man of few words, he was “full of love in his heart” and showed it often with his actions. He would drive his daughters to school every day even after having worked late the night before.
Weekends were reserved for the family.
“He would take us to Big Splash, East Coast beach, Sentosa,” recalled Ps Chris.
In 2008, when he was 61 and just about to retire, he was diagnosed with colon cancer. He was still active then, holding down the same two jobs he had when Ps Chris was a child.
“He was losing weight and there was blood in his stool. When my dad found out he had cancer, he took it badly.
“He was depressed for a month. He refused to meet people, refused to go out.”
Just as he had been a pillar for the family for so many years, his family now rallied around him.
The oncologist told the family that not much else could be done.
“We told him we would be there for him. We encouraged him. My dad is, by nature, a thinker. So we kept talking to him.”
The cancer was in an advanced stage and the doctor asked Ps Chris’ father to have a surgery as soon as possible. Three days after the diagnosis, her father had 22 lymph nodes near his colon removed. Chemotherapy followed.
“After the first cycle, he had to stop because his white blood count was very low. He switched to oral chemo.”
A year and half later, the chemotherapy still had little effect. The cancer markers did not fall.
The oncologist then told the family that not much else could be done for Ps Chris’ father. He estimated that Ps Chris’ father would have no more than a year and a half left to live.
The commando in him
Meanwhile, Ps Chris and her sister, who had brought her to church as a teenager, refused to give up. They committed to praying for their father in earnest.
“We felt a strong leading to seek treatment at a private hospital. But my father had no insurance.
“It was hard to fork out cash for the treatment because, after deducting Medisave, each treatment still cost S$5,000 and he had to go for several treatments.”
“The oncologist called him a commando because he was fighting throughout.”
Ps Chris and her sister both had limited means. She and her husband are full-time workers in church; her older sister has four children. In the end, she and her husband made a decision to sell the condominium they had bought that was still under construction to finance her father’s treatment.
The new treatment would sustain her father another six years, long past the original prognosis. He was even able to continue working as a taxi driver.
Those were also six years of walking in faith for the family.
“Each time he finished a cycle of treatment, he would have to go for a blood test and CT scan to check if the cancer markers had gone down and if the tumour had shrunk.
“The day before each check-up, we would pray that all would be alright. Sometimes, the cancer makers would go down, sometimes it would go up.
“Sometimes, he got discouraged or physically tired. It could be quite challenging seeing him.
“But my father was a fighter. The oncologist called him a commando because he was fighting throughout and not giving up easily.”
“When I support and pray with members, they could see that I could understand.”
Asked how she reconciled her faith with her father’s cancer, Ps Chris explained: “We always prayed for healing for my dad. We kept on praying till the end. I believe it is God’s nature and character, that He is a healer.
“But I am also aware that we live in a fallen world. It is not heaven yet. I am grateful for the last eight years. My father got to see my nephew, his eldest grandchild, be a teenager, which was his wish.”
Supporting her father through his illness also gave Ps Chris greater empathy for those with the same difficulties.
“When I support and pray with members, they can see that I can understand what they were going through when their own parents undergo treatments.
“It wasn’t just, ‘Let’s pray your dad or mum will be healed in Jesus’ name.’ I will ask, ‘How is dad doing?’
“I was also able to give them the right counsel.”
In 2016, Ps Chris’ father started to experience breathlessness. By then, he could also no longer walk without help. A check with the oncologist revealed that the cancer had spread to his lungs.
“That was when they said there was nothing much they could do. When the oncologist told my father, he became very disheartened.
“We knew the cancer, in a sense, was not curable. But I think he was hoping that the treatment would help.
“In those 10 days (before his suicide), he took the time to say a lot of things he wanted to say to my mum.”
“After fighting for so long to still come to this stage where nothing worked, he just felt that there was no more hope.”
Ps Chris feared that he would become depressed again. But he seemed to show no signs of it. Instead, he appeared to mellow.
“My dad could be quite bad-tempered especially when the drugs made him feel frustrated or when ulcers developed in his mouth and he couldn’t swallow.
“My mum was very patient with him throughout those eight years she cared for him. My dad was not one to express himself with a lot of words.
“But in those 10 days (before his suicide), he took the time to say a lot of things he wanted to say to my mum, like, ‘Don’t cry’ and ‘I love you’.
“He really told her how much he appreciated her and loved her, and how much he saw that she had sacrificed.”
Ten days after, Ps Chris’ father took his own life.
Wrestling with God
For six months after her father passed away, Ps Chris would wake up at exactly 5.30am, the time he had called the morning of his suicide, without the aid of an alarm clock.
“I would just go to the living room and sit on the sofa, and wrestle with God. I asked Him, ‘Why? Why did my dad have to die this way?
“Why didn’t You protect my dad? I have given my whole life to serve You. Why would a tragedy like that happen to my loved ones?’
“He finally saw that Christians are different.”
“I didn’t get an answer.”
But Ps Chris’ father had become a Christian a year before he passed away. Until then, he had been quite opposed to his daughters going to church when they were younger, and to Ps Chris working for the church.
“He finally saw that Christians are different. When he found out that I had sold my condo to pay for his treatment, he was super, super touched.
“He felt that we didn’t need to do that. We told him, ‘You are our dad. You really gave us so much. It is our turn to do this for you.’
“That was the beginning. His heart started to open to God.”
He became open to his children sharing the Gospel with him. In 2015, he became a Christian and had all the symbols of his former religion removed from his home.
“We saw that as him turning towards God.”
“I saw my dad falling from some high place. The next minute, I saw the hand of God coming up and pulling him up.”
But what troubled Ps Chris the most was the question of her father’s eternity.
“At that point in time, I felt that, if you take your own life consciously against God’s will, you’ve sinned.
“That was also why I wrestled with God. I was very unsure. Where is my dad now?”
Beyond the uncertainty was the burden of the testimony she had to bear.
“I felt very troubled because I’m a pastor. Church members will also be asking, wondering, where is Dad now? I felt I had no answer at that time.
“Suicide, back then, was something I had not come face to face with much. I had seen death but usual natural death or from sickness.”
One morning, woken again at 5.30am and tired from the constant early mornings and late nights, Ps Chris fell back to sleep. As she floated between sleep and wakefulness, she had “a dream or a vision, I’m not sure”.
“I saw my dad falling from some high place. The next minute, I saw the hand of God coming up and pulling him up.
“I was fully assured that my dad is in heaven with Jesus.”
“I just felt the voice of God saying, ‘Don’t worry, he is safe with me.’ When I woke up, I felt it was very real. I felt a breakthrough within me. I felt that was God speaking to me.”
She never woke up unbidden at 5.30am again.
Days before her interview with Salt&Light, Ps Chris had a conversation with the senior pastor who had conducted her father’s funeral service.
Her pastor told her of a vision he had seen of her father at the funeral. In the vision, he saw her father falling and being caught by God. It was exactly the same vision Ps Chris had received.
“He had shared it with my sister then but he didn’t share it with me, and my sister didn’t share it with me. So, I didn’t know anything about it.
“Then, I realised that it was a confirmation that that vision I had was from God. I was fully assured that my dad is in heaven with Jesus.”
Not alone in grief
The vision Ps Chris received in October 2016 marked the beginning of her road to recovery. But that journey has not always been a smooth one.
“Along the way, there were still struggles, there were still doubts. I needed to walk with Him.
“At the end of the day, it is really about my relationship God.
“I felt God asking me, ‘Are you willing to love Me? Are you willing to follow Me even when things didn’t work out the way that you want it to be?’”
“Grief is normal, not something to be shocked about.”
Ps Chris admitted that, in the last five years, she struggled with her faith.
“His love me for is unconditional but how about my love for Him? Is it also unconditional?
“Sometimes, our love for God can be conditional. If you don’t bless me, I am not going to follow You. I am not going to love You.
“Then, I realised that I still want to give my life to God. Not my will, but His, be done.”
Along with settling her biggest question, God also opened the way for Ps Chris to heal from her grief. Soon after her father’s death, she met counsellor and grief recovery specialist Joan Swee who founded Whispering Hope Singapore.
“She told me about the Grief Recovery Method (GRM) and the group programme she was going to start and I thought: I need to go through this.”
One of the things Ps Chris learnt from that group was the nature of grief. That knowledge gave her permission to grieve.
“God doesn’t just want to take away our grief, He wants to go through our grief journey with us.”
“One of things I learnt during GRM is that grief is normal, not something to be shocked about.
“I grew up being told, ‘Don’t cry or the deceased will not rest in peace.’ But people can’t process the grief and loss if there is nobody to talk about it.
“It takes someone who has gone through (the suicide of a loved one) to understand it. Being in the group made me feel safe and understood.
“It helped me process my guilt – why didn’t I pick up the call, I lived so near him, and my shame – I’m a pastor, why would such a thing happen to me if I am really walking in the favour of God?”
Ps Chris now believes that “God doesn’t just want to take away our grief, He wants to go through our grief journey with us”.
“I truly believe that He wants to heal us but, while going through this, He lets us come close to Him and know more about Him.
“Like what it says in Psalm 23, ‘Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.’ It’s not real death, it’s just the shadow. It is painful but God is with us, He is still here.”
She now uses her experience to comfort others.
“After this whole thing, I feel that the one thing that I have is compassion. I can feel for people.
“When they go through very tough times in their lives and can’t see a way out, I share my testimony about how I managed this whole situation and how I am still on the journey.
“I think that when I share my testimony, there is power.”
Where to get help
- SOS 24-hour hotline: 1-800-221-444
- Care Corner Counselling Centre: 6353-1180
- Care Corner Parenting Support: 6235-4705
- IMH Mental Health Helpline: 6389-2222 (24-hours)
- Care & Counselling Centre
- Email: [email protected]
- Focus on the Family Singapore
- Grace Counselling Centre
- Wesley Counselling
Call Caroline Ong for an appointment: 6837-9214. (Monday-Friday, 9am-6pm)
- Haven Counselling Centre: 6559-1528 or email: [email protected]
- Bethel Family Life & Counselling: 6741-2741 (Ps Jean Ong)
Mental Health Directory:
Whispering Hope (WhatsApp: 8668 0043)