All photos courtesy of Ruth Soh
“What comes to mind when you hear the word ‘life’?” This was the question Elliot Soh opened his final message with, a hard-hitting reflection on life, suffering and joy that went viral after he passed away on September 28, 2019.
But how does one navigate the loss of a loved one, as beautiful and comforting as his final words may have been? Ruth Soh, Elliot’s older sister, opens up about her grief and memories of her beloved brother.
What was your relationship with your brother like growing up?
Elliot was born when I was 4, and my other brother, Ernest, was 2. My mum left her job as a chemistry teacher to be a full-time stay-at-home mum and gave us the most wonderful childhood ever.
We played and also fought a lot, and the fights bonded us even closer as we cried together when we were disciplined for our mischiefs.
Ernest and I would bully Elliot sometimes, and once, he was so seriously injured he had to be sent for stitches for a deep cut above his eye – all for some empty tissue paper rolls. Looking back now, they were quite useless.
Elliot was very naughty in primary school – one time a teacher stapled the ends of his T-shirt because he kept putting both hands inside his shirt. We used to recount such memories and laugh over them.
How did you and Elliot come to know Jesus?
We went to church as a family from young and my mum led each of us in the Sinner’s Prayer when we were in Primary 1. We made our own decisions about faith as we grew up. As Elliot started maturing, his walk with God continued to encourage and amaze me.
In 2016, Elliot and I went to London together to join our other brother Ernest, who was already studying medicine. When I later returned to Singapore after completing my Master’s, Elliot would still send me texts of reflections on Bible passages, as well as things that challenged him in cell group.
Sometimes, there were even nudges from him reminding me that I should be more intentional in evangelism and steadfast in my walk with Jesus. He had really grown and it was evident in his speech and actions.
Can you share what happened over these last few months?
It all happened when we were in France during our Christmas family holiday in 2018. He was suddenly out of breath and after going to three hospitals, the doctors finally discovered that he had haemothorax (where blood fills the space outside the lung) and two litres of blood had to be drained out.
We were meant to have our Christmas Eve dinner together, but he never came back home that Christmas. He was later diagnosed in early 2019 with stage 4 high-grade spindle cell sarcoma back in the UK after biopsies were carried out.
It was quite traumatic for him and us then, as we were trying to grasp the reality of what was unfolding. Who knew such a strong boy like Elliot – who was a fit naval diver and someone who would often go to the gym and on hikes and adventures – would have complications like that?
What were your thoughts and experiences during the last moments with your brother?
I managed to take leave to head over to London a few times during the course of Elliot’s last nine months. My family took turns looking after him, while Ernest was always there for every single chemotherapy session he had.
His church and school friends would visit and bring him his favourite foods (he was a foodie and he used to cook for his friends). His church friends would come to pray and encourage him too.
He was in and out of the hospital, but the longest period was this last month (from August 29 to September 28, which was the day he passed away). Close to his passing, I was in London to look after him in the hospital.
Elliot was scheduled to have an operation to remove the tumour behind his lungs but it was postponed indefinitely due to complications, and I needed to fly back for work after that. It was so hard to leave him, and I promised that I would see him again and asked him to hang on.
Days later, he texted me to say that his coughs and breathlessness were getting worse. I booked a flight to London, making it a few days before his passing. I’m so glad I didn’t miss it.
On the Saturday morning of his final day, my parents and I rushed to the hospital at 6am after Ernest, who had been staying over, told us that Elliot was getting a bit more confused and that his oxygen saturation was dropping.
A few times he opened his eyes really wide and said some things that sounded like “accept, accept” and later on “share, share”. But we knew Elliot’s heart even if we couldn’t hear him clearly. Even till his last breath, he had one mission, and he was focused. To make Christ known. He gave it his all.
What were your own initial views on suffering before you knew of your brother’s cancer?
I have never really been hospitalised for any serious illnesses before or faced major setbacks in life to consider them huge sufferings; so in my head there lay textbook answers on suffering that I picked up from Sunday School, sermons and other material.
Some examples would be Romans 8:28 and Romans 5:3-5. But while I knew of these verses and what they meant, they were never really tested seriously.
“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28)
“Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.” (Romans 5:3-5)
Until the first major blow, which came in 2012 when my mum found out she had thyroid cancer. I didn’t know what to do. We all just kept praying.
Being selfish and not wanting to lose my mother, I prayed more for healing at that time, but I also sort of acknowledged that it was God’s will even if she wasn’t healed, even though I really wanted her to be healed. Hebrews 4:14-16 was a huge encouragement then.
“Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathise with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” (Hebrews 4:14-16)
Long story short, we were really thankful that God healed her. Looking back now, that ordeal might have helped prepare us for Elliot’s illness. Though he wasn’t healed physically, we recognised that healing and reconciliation with God in a spiritual sense was much more important.
God had a greater purpose above this – to use Elliot as a servant and vessel for his Gospel message and an encouragement to others that there is hope, peace and joy in suffering because of what Jesus had achieved on the Cross.
How did your brother’s message change or impact your views of life, suffering and joy?
Where do I even start?
Elliot proved that it is possible to really hang on to these beliefs and promises in hard times. These textbook answers of suffering really came to life – real truths we should cling onto as words from the living God, to live the best life we can on this earth and to prepare for eternity with our Creator. To expand God’s kingdom so that His glory and grace can be made known to more.
What I took away from Elliot’s reflections was to take on a Gospel mindset. I’ve learnt that it’s selfish if we withhold this truth from non-believers. I saw his passion and life’s desire to make the Gospel known no matter how hard, even if it meant being rejected by friends.
He would try to evangelise to his friends who came to visit him by telling them more about his perspective on suffering and why it wasn’t bad. He really made use of his situation and turned it around. Satan must be fuming. His suffering in chemo encouraged him to share the Gospel with non-believers.
Jesus fills the void we feel and leads us to look away from earthly accumulation. As Elliot said: “I have lived a lot of my life already, I have travelled so much, eaten a lot of good food, acquired many useful skills, had many great relationships, but none of that can satisfy this void in my heart other than knowing God and knowing that my relationship with Him is restored.”
How has God been speaking to you through this period of time?
It still grieves me a lot to write this and tears are welling up. But God has been reminding me to look at His bigger purpose. I need to let go of my grief and be so thankful that God actually chose my baby brother Elliot to make Him known.
It’s such an honour and a privilege to have had him in my life for close to 26 years. It’s not a loss. I have full confidence that I will see him again one day in eternity, where we will all be reunited with God through Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross.
The new creation will have no more tears, pain or sin. Everything will be perfect, especially our relationship with God, whom we were made for. God has been encouraging our family with these truths and also people around us; even strangers have been sending words of truth and comfort. The Body of Christ can be seen working in love and unity, even in earthly sorrow.
When I shared his testimony, many people messaged us. When we shared that with Elliot a day or two before he passed, he said something like, “Huh? Oh no, why are they praising me for being so brave? They didn’t get the message? All glory should go to God instead of me.”
I have learnt humility from him as well. That all things should be done for God’s glory and not man’s praise, no matter how brave we are. We are dependent fully on His grace.
I can’t wait to see my brother again and would be happy even if I had a bit of his mentality through suffering and life in general. His response really reflected his walk with God, and I hope ours will be as strong and faithful as his.
THINK + TALK
- Have you lost someone close to you before?
- How do you see God moving in grief?
- What ways can you use this as an opportunity to share the gospel?