How a friend's death at 26 changed me

I like being prepared in life. When you fail enough examinations in school as I did - I had to retake my A levels - you learn the hard way why "fail to prepare, prepare to fail" is an oft-repeated adage.

This aversion to being caught off guard probably explained why I felt especially sucker punched when my friend Serene suddenly died of a lung infection in February last year. Like me, she would've turned 28 this June.

We went to the same primary and secondary school, and belonged to the same clique of friends. But in the years since then, I drifted apart from Serene and the group.

The short version is that I found new friends. But Serene never once held it against me. Whenever I ran into her while jogging in our neighbourhood, I would be greeted by a loud "Hi" and her trademark cherubic smile.

Death is the only certainty in life, but still it surprises. Hours after news broke of Serene's death, I found myself sitting alone, shell- shocked.

Thing is, I had always told myself that I would volunteer once I was comfortable with the demands of my job, but it was really just a way of procrastinating. Giving back to society has always been important to me, and I'm a little ashamed that it took me this long to do so.

I tried in vain to think of something - a happy memory, our last exchange, a way to help her family, something, anything - but nothing came to mind.

Eventually, I managed to recall that the last time we met was at a school reunion in 2015. She told me to take home some of the leftover food because she remembered I was from a large family of six.

Perhaps Serene's death hit hard because she was, quite simply, one of the nicest people I have known.

She was always smiling, always obliging, always ready to spread joy. She would leave notes on your table when you were feeling down, or, back when we were younger, listen to me whine (about friends and teachers) on the phone. I still remember her home number.

She was pretty, smart, and a filial only child who became the family's sole breadwinner. A Spring Singapore scholarship recipient, she had served her bond and was about to start a new job at a bank.

It has taken me a while to accept that a friend of almost 20 years, in the prime of her life, and one who seemingly had everything going for her, is suddenly gone.


But she has left quite a legacy. At her funeral wake, a friend shared that he had several alcohol-related health scares and would cut down on binge drinking. Another remarked that it took a funeral for him to reconnect with old friends and wondered if he should take the initiative to reach out more.

A common thread that ran through our thoughts: a desire to do something, because Serene's death, if anything, was a stark reminder that we may run out of time when we least expect it.

As I listened to the eulogies at her funeral service, a few things became clear even as my vision began blurring with tears.

First, I was going to weed out unhealthy habits for good. At the wake, I was two months into my latest attempt to quit smoking, a habit I had picked up when I was 20.

I had tried to quit on a number of occasions but always found reasons to light up: stress, heartbreak or peer pressure. I always knew I should quit but deep down I feared facing life without a coping mechanism, one that had become routine for seven years.

But since the wake, I have not smoked a single cigarette.

I also signed up to be a volunteer, something I had been meaning to do for a long time. Thing is, I had always told myself that I would volunteer once I was comfortable with the demands of my job, but it was really just a way of procrastinating. Giving back to society has always been important to me, and I'm a little ashamed that it took me this long to do so.

Finally, and as cliched as it sounds, I want to be more of a positive presence to the people around me - much like Serene was.

This really doesn't mean embarking on a "thank you" marathon through the office. To me, it simply means being kind and honest in every endeavour.

Stephen Schwarzman, CEO and co-founder of one of the world's largest private equity firms, the Blackstone Group, once said: "To be hired at our place and work with us, you have to be nice. I don't like people who are not nice. To make a culture of very smart, fast-moving people, you can't have political monkey business going on."

I'd like to think that being nice helps create a healthy, cohesive and appreciative atmosphere, whether at home or in the office.

Of course, Jeff Bezos and Steve Jobs, astoundingly successful at Amazon and Apple respectively, were hardly angels to their employees. But it could also be said that they succeeded in spite of, and not because of, who they were.

After all, it's one thing to pursue a goal single-mindedly and another to do so while also making the effort to care about the well-being of the people around you.

Maybe the best way to remember Serene is not through a sweet memory or a deep conversation with her. Maybe the best way to remember her is to ensure that what she represented - that of embracing life with sheer enthusiasm - lives on through us.

•#opinionoftheday is a new column for younger writers in the newsroom to write about issues that matter to them and their peers.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 26, 2017, with the headline 'How a friend's death at 26 changed me'. Print Edition | Subscribe