The Five Stages of Losing

[Disclaimer: needless to say it’s not easy for me to write this and I do this mostly to help myself process than to help you understand why and what’s happening because at the end of the day I don’t owe anyone any explanation. My extended family members do not know about this yet and I will talk to them when the time is right. Please be gentle with your thoughts and comments.]

In 1969, a Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross came up with a framework postulating the pathway of those experiencing grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and (eventually) acceptance.

In 2021, the night you said you were coming home, I thought you decided that we could start over, but instead, it was what Kübler-Ross called a “shock event”: you wanted a divorce.

1. Denial

I still vividly remember your expression when you said it—you looked deeply broken-hearted while breaking my heart all at the same time. I wanted to hug you, but at that point I wasn’t sure what we were anymore that perhaps it’s best that I kept our distance. You sat on the staircase and I was on the sofa. We talked for hours all civil—there was plenty of “you know I still love you, but”. My rational brain can’t possibly comprehend what was happening. A minute ago we were a together and overnight you decided to leave.

Nah, I thought. You weren’t thinking straight. It must’ve been a very bad dream.

Barely three hours since we fell asleep, my alarm woke us up and you were still lying next to me. I wished that the moment could linger a little longer. But even then I knew it was going to actually be the last time we shared a bed. You had to leave early for a company shoot. I asked if I could drive you there and you let me. Before we leave, you sat by my side of the bed, looked me in the eye, and asked if this was the right decision, if you were gonna regret this deeply one day. And I said, as someone who genuinely cared for you: that you needed to look after yourself and do what you think is best.

I was clearly blindsided of how painful the separation would be when I said that. When you finally hugged me good bye and and got off the car, it finally dawned on me: you were really gone. And suddenly I lost all the strength I could ever felt in my body and broke into a long cry in that parking lot. A friend had to pick me up and drive my car since I was so weak (grateful for him).

It was like the waterfall we visited in Bandung that one time. I couldn’t stop crying the entire day. And it was barely a start for a lot more crying to come. Forever indebted to the kindest of friends that gave me company in all the crying—their shoulder, their sofa, their bed, and their ears, even across the oceans.

Even after—and in between—all the crying, I silently prepared rebuttals in my head. What you said made absolutely no sense. We would’ve been stronger together. We had always been fixers and this will just be another round of it: we could attend couples therapy, I could change, you could change, and we’d all be better. For a little over a week, I kept sending you the best possible forms of argument on why you should stay. I thought it’ll help you realize how wrong you were and you’d be back with me again by the next week.

But of course you saw beyond what my logic could reach. I’d always hated how you have this conviction; a clear conscience that just knows what is right. I just couldn’t see it yet.

So I went to the one person who understood you but could speak in a language that speaks to my System 2. Then suddenly it all made sense. I understood why you had to leave. Sorry for pulling you back and making you say no over and over again until I finally got it (-ish, because there will always be a tiny part of me that doesn’t).

2. Anger

I was a mess and a lot of things for a whole month by then, but one thing I never was is angry. Did I question why this thing happened to me, out of everyone? Sure. Did I wish something would change your mind? Of course. Did I hate that you had no friends that manage to convince you that we should stick together? Like hell I did. Did I hate you for letting us plan for new chapter in New Zealand and perhaps even with kids? It still cut me deeply remembering this.

But no matter how hard it was since the beginning, I kind of understood why you had to do this for yourself. Trust me kiddo, I do. I know that you never wanted to hurt me, and just wanted to save yourself. But no matter how inadvertently, I was hurt, and I was hurt bad. It was like coming out of the worst war and I had open-flesh wounds all over me. And underneath all of that, you could only find almost-permanent sorrow. I even thought about harming myself just to keep the emotional pain away.

When it came to it, however, I realized the only person I was angry at is myself. Enter:

3. Bargaining

As I drove back and forth between my and my friends’ place (because I can’t stand being home alone throughout the day), I can’t help finding out all the things I could’ve done differently: I should’ve properly treated my mental health so I wouldn’t have breakdowns that slowly led us where we are (although you would say it goes both ways); I should’ve noticed that you stopped arguing with me and letting me pick things instead (which married couples before us had warned us this many times); I thought of the many times I could’ve come back to bed and snuggle with you in the morning—can’t help but wonder if any of that would’ve led us to a different place today.

Suddenly there was this mountain of guilt that I carry with me on my shoulders. Like all of this was my fault. That I wasn’t a good enough wife.

Other times, I wanted to blame the pandemic. I’ve read statistics about how it had increased the number of divorce cases significantly, but when I learned that it was mainly due to domestic violence and/or economic difficulties, I pushed it aside and thought this would never affect us. But the pandemic tested us in an entirely different way, and we failed that test. You told me that maybe the pandemic simply accelerated what would have happened to us five years from now, and who knows if that would’ve been better or more painful?

There were a lot of “what ifs” and “if only”. Being a stereotypical control freak, I can’t help but going into rounds of options on how I could’ve affected the outcome. My peak bargaining phase was when I even drove up to your place that one dreaded Tuesday, thinking my grand gesture would’ve changed your mind.

But of course it did not.

4. Depression

Then came the long quiet. Then came the day when it actually felt better to stay at home alone than to be surrounded with friends. Like that way I could hold and process this multitude of sadness inside of me properly, without interruption or someone else’s interpretation. Or advice, or encouragement, or validation.

The very survival tools that helped me get through the past few weeks are now just extra weights. Because now I’m not a fixer anymore, just someone going through this journey by foot.

For a few more days, I woke up every morning crying. It didn’t even take any triggers. I just did. I would wake up, emptied my bladder, then back to bed suddenly feeling so weak and couldn’t get out until I stopped crying for an hour. Then later in the day I cried some more. Maybe a little more before I go to bed.

The people whose judgment I trust the most told me that this is not permanent, that it will get better. Later someone updated that to a more realistic version: there will still be ups and downs, but the downs wouldn’t be as low/bad as before. And that’s when you know you’ve become stronger; by allowing yourself to be weak.

5. Acceptance

I’m not sure if I’ve arrived at this stage per se. Some of Kübler-Ross’ most ardent opponents would disagree with this framework altogether. But for now at least, I think writing this blog has been part of my graduating from stage 4. Funnily enough, I think you’re the person who also helped me get here.

In a fortnight we would have celebrated our 5th anniversary. Who would’ve known that we had to stop before we even hit five. You told me to never blame myself. That the past five years hadn’t been a waste of time, but the most beautiful chapter that we have gone through together, that helped us grow in our own ways. My first instinct was to argue that if it was so beautiful we should try making it to 10 or 20. But now I know that you’re right.

I know for a fact that some people thought they saw this coming because we were never meant to be. How could it be, with us being so different. I’d really hate to say that they are right, because they’re not. In a lot of different, perhaps incomprehensible ways, we are also very compatible. I brought structure to your beautiful abstract colors. You hit the accelerator and I know when to hit the brakes. How can we not be meant together when our bodies fit perfectly when you spooned me? Or how we were in perfect sync while brushing teeth before bed?

Maybe it was just the wrong timing. Maybe we decided to be together for the wrong reasons, but can meet again in the future and be together for the right ones. Or maybe this separation was supposed to happen because we were supposed to be a better version of ourselves to prepare for the next person. Or who knows, be happy by ourselves. Maybe this way I could find out whether I have truly loved and accepted myself, or if I had only been doing that vicariously through your complete acceptance of me?

I guess you will never know and shouldn’t even dare to try to guess. Two things I do know:

1. Help is everywhere. I am deeply, deeply thankful for all the love that I have received this past month. While they will never instantly fill in this big, new hole (“the baby teeth I thought I needed”), I was held, and I could survive only because of it. So to every single person who has texted, called, video called to check in, let me stay or cried, listened to me, or just sit there: I love you.

2. We still have our lives ahead of us. When you told me you could never be angry at me for more than five minutes, I believed you, because it’s like that for me too. For now, I’ll let you do what you needed to do. I’ll be right here as your best friend and I know you will too.

Trust me—I know that they call it a cycle for a reason. That it’s not a linear line of progression. In fact I’ve been going back and forth a lot until now. But at the end of the day, I resort to this quote for comfort:

“If you can love someone with your whole heart, even one person, then there’s salvation in life. Even if you can’t get together with that person.” ― Haruki Murakami, 1Q84

And this one. Always this one:

Love arrives exactly when Love is supposed to and Love leaves exactly when Love must. When Love arrives, say, “Welcome. Make yourself comfortable.” If Love leaves, ask her to leave the door open behind her. Turn off the music. Listen to the quiet. Whisper, “Thank you for stopping by.”

Confession of an Impostor

A few years back I came across this term—survivor’s guilt—it’s the “mental condition of a person who believes he/she has done something wrong by surviving a traumatic event when others did not”. Probably at a very different scale and form, but I think I have been carrying a very similar feeling for a while now—that of being undeserving. I later learned that it’s probably linked to having privileges and another term: Impostor’s Syndrome.

Learning to Deal With the Impostor Syndrome - The New York Times

Not sure when or how it started. Perhaps it was when I was almost the only person in among my SD friends (who came from economically vulnerable families) to make it to Bogor’s best SMP, and it snowballed to where I am, with a dream degree and job. At almost every turn, I feel like I barely worked hard enough compared to my peers, but I always got in while they didn’t. It came with a weird survivor’s guilt too—how do I survive (sometimes thrive) when others struggle, why is the universe kind to me for no reason?

Come to think of it, I almost always had it easy. With no intentions to brag (why would an impostor brag), I listed down some evidence:

  1. On the day I competed in the first round of a national mathematics olympiad for junior high, I came unprepared, having done a sleepover at a friend’s the night before. Yet somehow I made it to the final round, and eventually won a gold medal which led me to a three-year scholarship at an international, English-speaking senior high.
  2. At senior high, I happened to be good in Turkish, went to an international language olympiad, practiced but really was just having a lot of fun, won another gold medal. That, together with another silver and bronze I got from international science project olympiads, apparently can be exchanged with an invitation to go to one of the country’s best universities. I remember feeling deeply guilty, seeing some of my friends at the dormitory studying their asses off and barely made it or did not make it at all. Why me?
  3. During undergrad time, I had so, so many windows of opportunities opened for me—organizationally, competition-wise, while maintaining a 3.8 GPA. Sure, it was stressful, but it also really wasn’t. I looked around and see some friends struggled here and there. How was I fine, barely affected with all the pressure—if anything, thrive? Still unclear.
  4. I stumbled upon my first job, which turns out to be a dream role where I could combine research with impact, and it also happens to pay really well. It was the first time they decided to hire an Indonesian-based intern, and I happened to come across the opportunity and got it, ended up being hired full time, learned a lot for almost two years, before…
  5. I got into Harvard the first time I applied. Did not even take a real course for my GRE. Got almost perfect score on my TOEFL. Sure, the preparation took a lot of time, but also it was fine. I did my best but I also did not want it so badly. There, I got the internship I wanted, approved the capstone project I wanted to do, won things, and overall did quite well.
  6. When I got back, I knew I wanted to explore the World Bank. Apparently someone forwarded my resume from a previous round of application, went through two interviews, and voila. Most people had to wait for a while before they get upgraded from a consultant to a full time position—I got that within a little over a year, for a position/title someone would normally have a lot more years of experience for.

Why does the universe love me so much and why does it bother me???

I have experienced so much joy, I have seen so much of the world, and the only feeling that now left me with is how much I wish I could have my family with me the whole time. I wish my parents were with me when I got to explore the United States. I wish Eyang could’ve visited the Louvre Museum with me. I wish my brothers could’ve seen Hogsmeade with me. After everything they’ve done for me—every single sacrifice—how am I the only one in the family who gets to enjoy all of that???

Sometimes, when a close friend of mine goes through a hard time, I deeply share their pain, but they also come with more guilt. How am I happy and well? Why can’t everyone in the world be? Shouldn’t celebration of anything be banned as long as there’s someone else sad in the corner? Can’t we do something about poverty and inequality once and for all? (Is it possible that I’m simply in denial with my own problems and struggles?)

I’m still learning to make peace with this guilt. One thing that it does is I constantly try to give back—with my time, energy, and resources. But it never feels close to being enough, while I keep feeling burnout in the process. Somebody told me it’s a Messiah complex/first daughter thing?

Anyone going through a similar thing? What’s your trick?

Here’s to Not Being Stuck in the Hallway Forever

Remember that time when the only hard choice you needed to make was between ‘Paddle Pop Pelangi‘ vs. ‘Fantasy Anggur-Jeruk‘? No matter what you ended up with, there were almost zero consequences to the people around you—except for the rare occasions when you caught the flu.

I’m fully aware that what I’m about to talk about is going to sound ungrateful and borderline arrogant. You might say that being able to have a choice at all is already a massive privilege that some people could only imagine. But man, I will be lying if I say that the past two months had not been tormenting. That is, having to pick a path that will shape my long-term career trajectory. Basically, the first steps toward the ultimate destiny of how people will remember me.

Indeed, graduating from a generalist school opened dozens of doors—including some I didn’t even know existed. But with more doors, comes a humongous question of ‘what if’. Naturally, I made lists, tables, and talked to almost everyone I trust to get their perspectives. But the trade-off between choosing one career path over the other is too complicated; my head got so shaken up it led me to multiple emotional breakdowns.

Should I try out the private sector world for a bit or should I stay in the great organization that had brought me where I am? Should I enter the public sector now even though I will have to make some compromise? Or should I make a mediocre choice that does not really make me excited but at least does not have any red flag?

After 70 tiring, winding days of indecision, I’ve finally settled on a door. There had been some casualties on my way there—but it’s the door I opted. I knew I did not want to be stuck in an endless search or got stuck in the wrong place for short-term impulses. Maybe there never will be a perfect option. Now I just have to commit to my choice and deal with any repercussions that come with it.

If you’re one of the people affected by my confusion and hesitation in the past two months: I apologize. And if you’re one of the people who spent time and energy to talk to me: thank you. Not sure what mess I would have been without you.

Now I’m just excited about starting anew.

August 2016 was the month I ditched home to learn in a land of uncertainties, but I guess August 2018 will be the month I make peace with all the uncertainties that come with being at home. Wish me luck.

P. S. To understand the analogy of doors and hallways, watch this very relevant speech about ‘infinite browsing mode on Netflix’ by Pete Davis from the Harvard Law School during our commencement ceremony last May.

The Bilingual’s Balancing Game

I was 16 when they sent me to compete in this Turkish language olympiad. At the end of our final training day, oğretmenim jokingly told me I wouldn’t be able to win unless I could dream in Turkish that night. I guess it would signal that my mind had stopped translating for me and instead started to think in the once-foreign language, designated it as the ‘primary’ one. The next morning, I woke up vaguely recalling our (short) Turkish conversation in my sleep, and a week later, I flew back from Istanbul carrying a gold medal.

I haven’t been dreaming much Turkish these days, but between Indonesian and English, I could sense that my mind has been struggling to figure out which channel it should let take over as the alpha.

I used to compartmentalize them into my ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ languages. English was simply a language for writing emails at work, for tweeting ideas, for presenting research findings, for thinking about complex frameworks that Indonesian does not have a word for. Meanwhile, my (obviously self-proclaimed) funnier personality was a lot more accessible in Indonesian—I could relax and make deadpan jokes all day long. It was not difficult for me to switch between one track to another; my environment would cue me in and like a chameleon, I would have eased my way into one track.

This line began to blur when I moved to the US and have to also use English to socialize with fellow students. Underneath all the interactions, my English brain has been stretching herself in an attempt to enter an unknown territory and transmit sentences I have never delivered in English before like, “Can’t believe winter is just around the corner!” or gossips about certain professors.

My first semester of graduate school, therefore, had been slightly more exhausting than I expected it to be. I talked to people but felt like I could not fully express myself, such that initiating friendship became futile. The struggle was so real I made myself read a spoken word poem entitled “To the Phantom Jokes that Never Got Out of My Mouth” in front of a school-wide talent show. The first sentence of that piece read, I wish people knew how funny I am in Indonesian.

(By the end of that semester I have made four close friends thanks to negotiation class’s final memo assignment and I have been much happier at school now that I have my support system, but that story deserves its own blogpost.)

I would say that I had been much better at ‘informal English’ today compared to 15 months ago—but it also means that my mind has been thinking a lot in English and I could sense that I would have a ‘reverse struggle’ going back to Indonesia. Not to mention that I had been studying all these cool new theories, frameworks, and concepts for public policy in English. Already, I could feel my brain muscle pulling itself to translate phrases like ‘administrative and political feasibility’ or ‘behavioral nudge’. While living with Wikan helps in maintaining my ‘informal Indonesian’, my English brain has become much smarter than my Indonesian brain, and I worry if she couldn’t catch up.

This winter break, I am going back to Indonesia to do field research for my final policy analysis, which would require me to talk to dozens of Indonesian officials and staff in local organizations. The way I see it, it could be the perfect training lab to help my mind’s Indonesian channel readjust before I come back to Indonesia for good in June. Wish me luck.

P. S. If you happen to be a subscriber to Frame & Sentences video essays (setengah #kode), you may notice that I had been primarily using English. Again, it’s not because I haven’t tried, but the few times that I did, it had always been a nightmare for me to try to convey the same ideas in Indonesian. (We literally have to take 5 times as many shots because I kept making mistakes.) I don’t think it’s because I don’t love my country etc., but because my mind couldn’t access the same depth of thought process in Indonesian. I am working towards changing it, but thank you for understanding. Hope the subtitles help!

Separation Blues

Being the first kid in the family, I had been used to being the one who left. The one who is being dropped off, sent off, or called in from miles away.

My first departure from home took place way back when I was barely 14—it was my first night at the boarding school. I cried myself to sleep; wanting the separation to be over the next morning. I remembered feeling devastated. The darkness made it impossible to think about anything else than the comfortable place where everyone I loved were, where I could sleep with the lights on.

I remembered missing the familiar texture of my bed. I didn’t know then, but I know now that I cried for selfish reasons.

Good for me, I figured out soon that the distance between Tangerang Selatan and Bogor was less than two hours. I figured I could took an angkot every other week. I stopped crying the day after.

When I started out college three years later, I had been smarter. I skipped the crying part right into the conclusion that Depok, too, was only an hour away from Bogor. Going home was a piece of cake.

Fast forward to the time I had to live in Singapore for a while. This occasion, I spent a good hour crying the night before my flight—probably because apparently I was still smart. I knew what living abroad entails: being on your own, making friends with strangers, but worst of all, being away from your family and closest friends—this time by a distance that is much further than mere two-hour angkot ride or one-hour commuter line trip.

My first night at the dormitory, I cried again. Facing the side wall, trying to keep my voice close to non-existent because I didn’t want my new roommate to think I was a freak.

It was not so bad because it turned out my scholarship can cover a round-trip at least every two months. That aside, I’m pretty sure I also cried for selfish reasons.

Yesterday, though—yesterday was different.


Before anything else, it’s probably relevant to highlight that Boston/Cambridge is not exactly close from Jakarta. You either have enough cash to afford a 24-hour flight, or you’re just stuck being away from each other for the rest of your program (20 months, that is).

Knowing how my hormones usually react to separations, I expected myself to wail either several days before, or at the airport scene.

And yet, there were no tears. Wikan and my entire nuclear family members and a couple of our best friends were present—which would’ve been the perfect let-go/crying scene for yours truly—but to my own surprise, we left very calmly. There were exchanges of hugs and kisses, prayers and wishes, but that’s about it.

We waved for the last time, didn’t bother to take a final look, and off we went through the immigration desk to the boarding gate.

Before the airport, there were also farewell dinners. Ones you spent with your work colleagues, best friends, good friends, and intellectual friends. At each one’s end, there were exchanges of hugs and kisses, prayers and wishes, but that’s about it.

It felt unnatural.

Was it because my subconscious perceives grad school as such a significant deal, separations seem like a sensible price? One that isn’t even worth a short, good cry? Was it because I have Wikan—my very definition of home—coming along, it doesn’t really feel like being away?

While I do consider the latter as truth, it still feels wrong not to at the very least feel sad about leaving everything behind. The familiar faces, roads, foods, scents, and rains. But there was nothing.

The answer arrived five hours later, when I broke down at the airplane.

It was midnight when the flight attendants switched the lights off. I put on my eye mask, and leaned to sleep on Wikan’s shoulderif anything, feeling a bit giddy because of the show I just watched.

In complete darkness however, without a cue, my mind floated itself home—playing a scene where my frail father struggled to pick up his mug because his muscles had now began rebelling, my kind mother juggling through responsibilities when she should’ve just stayed home and spoil herself, my grandmother stuck to her bed probably wondering how quiet our house would be when my youngest brother goes to college in a year. There was also my aunt and uncle whose only daughter just got into college—who else would they be taking care of? And just like that, I wailed.

I wailed, this time weirdly not because my family wouldn’t be there for me, but because I wouldn’t be there for them, probably in the period when they need me the most.

It suddenly hit me that without me or my cousin and younger brothers, they would be five old parents, getting even older, while taking care of one another. As much as it would make a beautiful movie story, the thought of it makes me sad.

Banda Neira’s Di Beranda triggered this realization a while back (sent it to my mother when she told me she’d been crying for how empty the house was after my wedding), but tonight it hit me much harder. Maybe because it lacks anticipation. Like a Katrina on a summer day.

Prior to writing this down (which was Wikan’s idea), I finally had the good cry. Partly because I felt sorry, but mostly because I felt sorry about not telling my parents about how sorry I felt, how I do wish I could spend more time with them, how I regret not making enough time for them when I still could.

I know for a fact that I would feel twice as devastated had Wikan not come along with me. But I wonder if that would be another selfish kind of sadness—of wanting to have him around, of not having to be apart, of never having to feel lonely again.

I wonder, if you can only start thinking about someone else when you stop being selfish—or can you do both? Do I start shifting to the other kind of separation blues because I finally have everything I need? Is this part of growing up?