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‘I lost my wife to cancer, days later my mum died, and then my stepdaughter was taken from me’

Family LifePost Category - Family LifeFamily Life

In a span of 6 days, Brent lost wife, Anoushka, his mother and his stepdaughter. Brent shares his story in the hope that others going through hardships can open the conversation to deal with their pain.

When my wife, Anoushka was first diagnosed with breast cancer, it was a terrifying time. A flurry of doctors’ visits and intense conversations left me knowing that this was serious and scary, and might not end the way we wanted it to. Yes, one in eight women get breast cancer in their life, but it’s rare to get a diagnosis at 39 years old.

On top of it, we had two children; L., my stepdaughter, whom I had raised since she was a toddler. She had just turned seven and was such a sweet child; innocent, beautiful, emotionally grounded, and so close to Anoushka.

I. was two; she had her Mama’s feistiness and spark and happy spirit. I was faced with the very real possibility that I would become a single father. I couldn’t imagine then raising the girls without Anoushka, and to be honest, I still can’t.

We lived in Singapore at the time, on Sentosa. For most of the day, I would try and be strong for all my girls – shielding our daughters from as much as I could and trying to be relentlessly positive for my wife, who, strong as she was, was also so scared. My only outlet seemed to be going to jog along the sea; I would expel as much energy as I could, trying to outrun what couldn’t be outrun. Yet even that had its limitations. So often, in the middle of my jog, I would find myself crying uncontrollably, dry heaving on the side of the path, as I became overwhelmed with our new reality.

The amount of pressure put on Anoushka by friends and family to choose one treatment path or another was immense. It seems everyone had an opinion, and I like to think that everyone had the best intentions. But there were people, including family, who weren’t supportive of Anoushka and her choices and her life. It seems so incredible to look back on it and wonder how, in the time she and I needed it most, there were family members who weren’t supportive. I made a vow to Anoushka that no matter what she decided to do, whatever treatment path she took, no matter how much it cost, I would stand by her no matter what. I said that to her knowing full well that she might die in a short time. But it is in moments like those that true love is revealed, and I loved her to the end of time, and she loved me back for it.

When someone in your life has a serious illness, you end up in this weird place between extreme swings of emotion (fear, sadness, anger, disbelief) and the simple banality of life; bills must be paid, children must be raised, food must be eaten. It becomes this surreal existence where you try to be happy, try to be there for your kids, but a new reality has set in, that life is not the same any more, and will likely never be again.

People say you should embrace life to its fullest no matter what your circumstances, and maybe especially so when faced with grave illness. Yet in many ways I find that trite; the reality I experienced was trying to survive day to day most of the time. Overwhelming emotions permeated our existence, we faced financial hardship, the children were slowly becoming aware that Mama wasn’t well. We were surrounded by loving friends and family, but in so many ways, we felt we were going through this alone.

And then things got worse.

I don’t remember when exactly I learned my mom had cancer. She was in the States, had gone in for a checkup, and they found advanced stage cancer. My mom and I had a complicated relationship; there was no doubt she truly loved me and tried her best, but we had our ups and downs. I hadn’t even seen her for years; our last visit together was challenging and then Covid stopped traveling altogether. I now faced another dilemma; was I able to spare the time to go and see her?

It was then that I saw what parental love truly meant; both my mom and my dad were adamant. Stay with Anoushka and the kids, they said. You need to be there, with your family, taking care of them. Writing about that act of selflessness, even years later, brings tears to my eyes.

What would be the last year of Anoushka’s life was a blur of surgeries and travel and urgency. We had moved to Bali by then and were trying to balance medical care in Singapore with a new life in Bali. I was constantly torn – was I to be in Singapore with Anoushka, or looking after the kids in Bali? We never gave up hope, but we knew that things were getting tougher instead of easier.

We found out the cancer was terminal in early September 2023. Anoushka had started to lose vision and scans revealed the worst. Tumours had spread to her brain and were starting to neurologically impair her. Strong person as she was, she underwent brain surgery just days later.

As a last-ditch effort, she tried to do some treatment at a clinic in Bangkok. It started well, but she was obviously in a lot of pain and starting to deteriorate. She could hardly sleep or move, and her energy levels were down while her moods were volatile. I hardly left her side after that and was coming to the very strong realization that her time on this earth was short.

She made it to the hospital in Singapore where she was able to say goodbye to the important people in her life. From the time she checked in, the doctors were clear that any care she would receive would be palliative. There were an increasingly and alarmingly large number of drugs given to her to try and keep her pain-free. She was having trouble breathing, and progressively couldn’t even recognize anyone.

There is no pain on earth like watching your beloved wife slowly and painfully die, without being able to do anything. I was staying with my father-in-law and trying to look after the girls, and help them as best I could. My father-in-law, a stand-up gentleman if I ever knew one, put aside so much of his own pain at losing his eldest daughter, to be there for me.

I didn’t leave Anoushka’s side for the last few days of her life. She couldn’t talk or move, but once in a while she would open her eye, squint, and search for me in the room. When she saw me, I could see she recognized me, and found solace in that. On what would be her last morning, her best friend came to sit with her while I went downstairs to get a coffee. “I’ll see you soon, my love,” I told her, as I left the room. It would be the last words I ever spoke to her, as she passed away just as I was coming back upstairs.

Those next moments and hours are a blur. I remember screaming like a wounded animal and being hysterical. I sat with the girls, and held them close, while they went through their own anguish. And somehow, I found the strength to call my dad. He was at my mom’s bedside, and she was in an eerily similar state to Anoushka; on oxygen, barely able to speak, in pain. I was able to tell her I loved her, and I know she heard me, and those were the last words I ever spoke to my mom. She died a few days later, during Anoushka’s wake.

And in the middle of this week, trying to organize my wife’s funeral and write a eulogy and simply find the strength to walk or even eat, my step-daughter was taken away to Australia, where her biological father lived. It was a devastating blow in a week of pain beyond comprehension.

anoushka-beh-brent-oddson

It’s now been five months since that week. I wish I could say the pain has gotten easier, but the truth is, it’s just gotten less frequent. My youngest daughter, now 5, is the reason I get up in the morning and go through life. The acrimonious separation of my stepdaughter was horrific and is just another challenge that awaits me every day.

I could write a book on what a wonderful person Anoushka Beh was, and still not touch the sides of the impact she had on the people around her and the universe. She was a healer by nature and a psychologist by training and practice. Many years ago, on this very online platform Sassy Mama in fact, she used to write an advice column, helping people with their own struggles.

It is in this vein that I share my story here; I’m hoping my own hardships can open the conversation for others to deal with their pain. I’ve started to do some coaching for those who are going through or have been through similar experiences. Death, sadly, is part of life. But know that tomorrow, no matter what, the sun will rise.

Please feel free to reach out to me if you need, or at least talk to someone. And always remember; you are not alone.

If you are struggling with mental health and need to reach out for immediate help, call the Samaritans of Singapore SOS 24-hour Hotline 1767 or the 24-hour CareText via WhatsApp 9151 1767.

If you or someone you know is in immediate harm, call 24-hour emergency medical services at 995 or approach your nearest A&E.

All images courtesy of the author

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