In August 2013, on the day of 19-year- old Stella Loo's Chinese A-level oral examination, her father collapsed after a three-year battle with liver cancer.
A week later, Mr John Loo, a freelance lifeskills coach, died in hospital at the age of 55 on the day of her Chinese listening comprehension exam.
Stella, one of about 14,000 people who got their A-level results last week on Monday, recalls how the death of her father and best friend "derailed" her life.
The Anglo-Chinese Junior College student found solace in her tight-knit family, their Catholic faith and domestic routines.
"When you don't know what's going on, at least there's dinner with the family every night. And every Sunday, we go to church and then have a meal together," says Stella, who is now an intern at an architecture firm.
"It gives you the sense that something is still the right side up."
She lives in a five-room Housing Board flat in Ang Mo Kio with her mother Sally, 49, a housewife; elder sister Sarah, 24, a manager at Spring Singapore; and elder brother James, 22, an officer in the Singapore Armed Forces who is studying at Singapore Management University.
Mrs Loo decided not to work after her husband's death.
"I made sure that Stella would still have a warm meal and wouldn't come back to an empty house. To give her stability and emotional support, we tried to do all the things we used to do," she says, adding that the family gets by with Sarah and James contributing to the household's finances.
Stella says: "At first, I said, 'Mama, you should go out to work.' Honestly speaking, I'm really happy she stayed home. I needed my mum to be there for me."
She scored one A, one B and two Cs for her A levels, which was "much better" than in her preliminary exams, and says her grades should be good enough for university, where she hopes to study architecture. She says her father would have been proud of her.
How did you prepare for your
A levels when you were bereaved?
Stella: I had to be level-headed and make sure I stayed very focused. I had to make the family feel together as we experienced the loss together. It helped in my preparation for the A levels, during which I forced myself to separate the grieving process from my studies.
Mrs Loo: When the children were growing up, we spent most of our time together as a family. Daddy was always very close to them. The kids had to grow up after his death.
What is your parenting style like?
Mrs Loo: We were both very hands-on and consultative parents. When the children were much younger, I was more of the disciplinarian because I was a stay-at- home mum. I threatened them a lot, but I just used words. We reasoned with them a lot. We always explaned why they were being punished.
Stella: Now Mama is like a friend to us. She has an Instagram account and we share pictures. She had Facebook before we did.
What was Stella's upbringing like?
Mrs Loo: We are so used to being a one- income family. There were no family holidays, not even to Malaysia. We had movie outings and walked to the library together. We tried to be innovative and have fun. We flew a kite in the flat. Stella: I always found it very simple. As long as you know what's wrong and what's right, everything's very simple. We appreciated the small things because we led a simple lifestyle. From the age of three to seven, I had acute asthma and every week, Mama would take me to the doctor. It would be our special one-on-one time. Growing up, I also had a very strong sense of justice.
Mrs Loo: Even in Primary 1 or 2, she would stand up for classmates who were being bullied.
How did you discipline Stella when she was a child?
Mrs Loo: I used the naughty corner in pre-school and when the worst came to the worst, it would be a smack on the palm. I also used the three-finger treatment. For example, they could not make noise at church and if they did, I would first raise one finger, then two, then three.
Stella: When you reached three fingers, you'd get a frown. My mother made sure we knew why we were doing something wrong. I would feel disappointed in myself in those instances.
What are your views on caning?
Mrs Loo: From the time they were young, we had a cane as a deterrent. It was smacked against the table many times, but never actually used. We would rather use reasoning.
Stella: The sound of that was scary enough. The cane is so obsolete, there's always another way besides using force.
If the parent-child roles were reversed, what would you do differently?
Mrs Loo: I wouldn't change anything. I just want her to be as cheerful and driven as she is now. Stella: Nothing. Though maybe I would baby my parents more to remind them they're my little children.
I'm very proud of my family and my parents' legacy of being positive. My dad's death brought us even closer together. We would always smile at one another. The three of us siblings wanted to become a strong foundation of support for Mama.
Everyone sacrifices for the family. My sister and brother support the family. During my A levels, they took turns to buy me ice cream, my guilty pleasure.
This article was first published on March 8, 2015.
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