Understanding the grief process, its complexities and many layers, within immigrant families is an area that is lacking in research. An immigrant suffers multiple losses in a short period of time including but not limited to their family unit, support system, home, language, and culture. In addition, many immigrants experience trauma during their journey.
Grief, in general, is a unique individual experience; even when two people experience the same loss their grief process can look very different. Some grief theories like Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ Five Stages of Grief can help in understanding the emotions that arise from loss. The five stages (Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance) are not linear and do not have a prescribed order.
During the Denial stage the mind enters a period of survival while the shock of the loss helps us to cope with a painful reality. The Anger stage is the beginning of feeling emotions again. While anger is the most familiar emotion to mange, there are deeper emotions usually requiring more skills to manage. In the Bargaining stage, there is a yearning to bring back the deceased and an overwhelming feeling of guilt filled with “if only” statements. The Depression stage is a normal and necessary response to grief and loss. Lastly, the Acceptance stage is the first step in learning to live with the absence of your loved one. This is the stage in which the mind and body work together in processing and accepting the loss. During this time grief is experienced both physically and emotionally and much self care is needed.
Although these stages are not specific to or encompass all the loss an immigrant may experience, it provides a beneficial context that can be used in understanding some of the emotions that occur during a time of grief and loss. Where these stages fall short in relation to the immigrant experience is in its finality. It is important to note that grief and loss in the immigrant experience is a continuum. For example, reuniting with loved ones, separated by great distances may bring about a sense of mixed emotions, both positive and negative. Most can fully enjoy the presence of their loved ones and can actively participate in making new memories, yet also be aware that their time together is limited, not knowing when will be the next time they will see each other. When that time comes to say, “Goodbye” once again they may be confronted with feelings of loss.
When we lose a loved one due to end of life, we experience a time of confusion and mixed emotions. Attending a funeral or wake can be a time to process those emotions and receive support from others. This may not always be an option for immigrants, who experience the death of a loved one due to barriers such as distance, financial resources, legal obstacles, or lack of support. When these barriers exist, the grief process can be placed on hold, leaving the individual stuck in a Denial stage, which may result in chronic or prolonged grief. For some, it may be staying in the denial phase until they are able to visit their country of origin and physically, mentally and emotionally process their losses.
Understanding grief and loss is unique to the individual; despite these multiple losses not all immigrants experience a complicated grief response. An area for further research that can inform our practices and understanding of this complicated process is analyzing coping mechanisms used during a time of grief and loss through the lens of an immigrant. New stages of grief and loss should be incorporated to include the multiple losses that can occur during the immigrant experience and not just loss due to death. There is much to learn about the attachment and resiliency of immigrant families.