How do I deal with the death of my former best friend?

Santi is dead. Writing this sentence is still hard, reading and believing it is even harder. I learned of Santi’s death just over 24 hours ago. She died at the age of 46 from a heart attack. The fact she was even younger than me when death took her, is already worth an article. 

But that is not what I want to write about now. I want to share that I am angry. I am angry at myself for not being in touch with Santi these past 10 years. I am angry I didn’t use the time when we still had it. Instead I let her slip out of my life. After having been close friends for over eight years.

Santi was special. I don’t say that about many people. She really was something else. She was very smart, very sharp and articulate. She was a woman who REALLY knew what she was talking about. She was strong and self-confident, a disciplined, hard worker who had found her calling in her profession. She used her life to make a positive impact on this world. She lived for it, in fact. She didn’t believe in bullshitting people and you could not bulllshit her.

I met Santi in Jakarta in 2005 when we were both working for UNICEF. It was my first mission and my first time in Asia. I was supposed to help with communication and press work in Banda Aceh after the tsunami. Santi was already an experienced juvenile justice expert and on her way to Banda Aceh – a tiny, slender woman about 5f5 with 30 policewomen in tow. That was Santi in the flesh. She had trained this officers in juvenile justice, and they were now supposed to establish child-friendly proceedings in the province. 

We clicked right away and became close friends, if not best friends. She was stationed in Jakarta but came to Aceh often on business. I spent many weekends at her place in the capital. We took vacations together, even after I had left the country. I am fairly certain I know things about her nobody else does, and the same goes the other way around. But we could also be super silly together and laugh our butts off, enjoy the pleasures of life. One of the greatest vacations I took was with her. I know she felt safe with me. She loved it when I put my arm around her and held her close. I, in turn, could be just myself with her. And that is rare for me. 

Nowadays, people use the term „friend“ so light-heartedly. We meet somebody, and they are our „best friend“ within minutes. We know nothing about a person but hey, we „love them soooo much!“ I have always hated that inflationary use of the word „friend“. That’s why I am very cautious calling people friends. 

Santi and I were friends. 

Then I returned to Germany, she left UNICEF but stayed in her home country Indonesia. Our lives went into different directions. Each of us had a lot going on. And that was fine. I let it go. I thought we’d have more time. 

I was always fascinated by her self-confidence. It wasn’t a show, it was real. She was one of the very few people I know who truly believed in herself. She just knew that she could achieve anything she wanted if she worked for it. And she did. At the time of her death she had been the director of PUSKAPA, Center on Child Protection and Wellbeing, at Universitas Indonesia. She held a Doctorate degree in Public Health from Columbia University. Some called her “one of the sharpest minds in Indonesia.” 

I always had very low self-esteem, and I struggled with depression. So I always felt Santi was a bit out of my league. And maybe that was part of why I didn’t push staying in touch, unconsciously.  Today I regret that I didn’t second-guess this development more. It is also not easy to stay in touch with me. I need a lot of space. It still costs me a lot of energy to call a friend, to pick up the phone, to meet up with someone. I could write letters every day, though. But that is not really helpful with most friends and in these hectic times. 

Today I regret that I didn’t fight for this friendship more. 

I know it takes two to keep a relationship going. I know that sometimes, lives go into such different directions that friendships end. That is all fine and good. And maybe that would have happened anyway, no matter how much effort I had put into us. But I honestly don’t think so. 

I am just saying: before you let this happen, ask yourself: Do you really want to let that person go? A person that added so much value to your life, that inspires you, a person that made you a better human being. I could have learned so much more from Santi. 

I am writing this not as an obituary. Others have done that. I am reflecting on her death because I want to give it some meaning. I want her to live on in what I do. 

That is how I show my respect. 

I have learned that everything happens for a reason. That every bad has some good in it, as painful as this might be. 

I believe that Santi has taken her life as far as she could. That she has finally outlived her purpose and her body. Her soul has moved on to the next level, the next challenge.  

For me, her death brought her back into my life. I am inspired by her again – to make my life even more meaningful, to use my skills and talents to make the world a better place. And to be proud of myself! Maybe that is the most important lesson she can teach me.

See, I can still learn from her and she can still make me a better person. I think she would be happy that she still has that effect on me, that impact. 

And I will work on my friendships more. I will work harder to keep the people who truly matter to me in my life. To spend quality time with them. I know we are all busy, but honestly: we also all have the time to call a friend instead of scrolling down the stupid insta feed for the umpteenth time. 

So I invite you, in the honor of my dear friend Santi: reflect on the people of your life. Who in there is your „Santi“ ? And take action!

Because, in the end, how many true friends do we really have?

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