The unspoken demons of immigration: grief and loss

Though Asian Americans have a long history of presence in the United States of America and many of them have been in the country for several generations, there is still a significant number who are immigrants or the children of immigrants. When we think of some of the challenges confronting immigrants or first generation Asian Americans, we often focus on the social and cultural adjustments that they have to struggle with.  As a result, the issues of loss and grief of the world left behind takes back seat in counseling with them. To survive in the new world, issues of acculturation seem to take precedence. For the children of immigrants or the second generation Asian Americans, bi-cultural integration takes the same precedence so that they can navigate both worlds at home and in the larger society. However, in order to move on and go on being, one has to be able to let go of the past while making meaning of the past as one integrates it into the present and future. This process is called grieving. So far, acculturation and cultural identity development addresses the issue of creating meaning of the present and future. Yet, the letting go and making sense of the past has to come first, and this often gets missed.

We do not usually think of grief and loss in the context of immigration, as these concepts are regularly associated with death and termination of relationships. However, this does not mean these issues are not present. In fact, it is very much in the foreground. One only needs to hear attentively to make the inference about many of the issues immigrants and the second generation Asian Americans faced with are actually in part complicated by loss and grief. For instance, when an immigrant struggles with learning a new way of conflict resolution with a colleague, the immigrant might be facing a dilemma of choosing between what was known and practiced in the country of origin or one’s culture and what would be effective in this country or the American culture. In order to move on and resolve the conflict, the person, of course, has to choose the latter, but that would mean for that instance, he or she will have to let go of a cultural practice and perspective that he or she has identified with. If the person is unable to let go and grief for these moments where one’s culture cannot fit into this part of one’s current life, then there will be an internal tension that is pulling at both realities of the person’s life at the same time. Though this might falsely suggest some sort of integration, since both worlds are present simultaneously, it really is not a true integration. This is because there is no resolution in this tension. A true integration is when one can switch between two worlds whenever it is called for, without fearing one is losing the other as one does this.

Being bi-cultural is different from being mono-cultural. Taking on two identities and switching between them is felt very differently than having only one identity the person can hold on to firmly with a good amount of certainty. There is comfort in the latter. It is a comfort that comes from being secure and sure about what is expected of the self and others. Bi-culturalism, on the other hand, is less certain. Things depend, in this case. Responses depend on context. Dependency can feel vulnerable at times. It can feed into indecisiveness, confusion, anxiety that rises from uncertainties, insecurity, and anger from having put in a place of having to choose. If one has not grieved over the loss of the comfort and security one has felt about the safety and certainty of the world of one’s culture, it would be difficult to embrace the uncertainty, dependency and confusion of bi-cultural integration. Bi-culturalism also has many positive qualities. It allows for adaptability, flexibility, resourcefulness, attunement, creativity, and empathy. Therefore, it is, ultimately, ideal if the person can hold both important aspects of the two cultures and learn to use them with more volition and flexibility.

It is crucial that a therapist or counselor working with first and second generation Asian Americans can work within both cultures that they are experiencing. Both realities need to be given space to be fully experienced. Then, the person can observe which aspects of each world is lost in having to make concessions to resolve the problem he or she is dealing with. The person might even experience a process similar to the grieving stages of denial, anger, negotiation, depression and acceptance as the person makes meaning of this loss, even if for only this brief moment of concession. When the person can reach acceptance, then there is more ease, less tension, and more resolution on the next step that calls for the practices used in this current American culture. This process of grief applies not only to interpersonal and cross-cultural experiences, but also to personal needs and preferences for one’s cultural practices, such as food, music, family configuration, and so forth.

As an end note, I would like to acknowledge that not all immigrants or second generation persons have difficulties with acculturation and bi-culturalism. As each individual is unique in his or her own make-up, background and situation, it could be quite possible the first and second generations have found ways to become bi-cultural quite easily. However, it has been my experience, and most research literature would probably concur, that this group still struggles significantly with cultural adjustments. In fact, cultural adjustment or cultural identity development might be conflicted even for third and later generation persons, if their families continue to have challenges around navigating both worlds.


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