They Don’t Teach You How to Grieve as a First-Generation, Only-Child American

COVID-19 showed me that I was never formally taught one constant emotion amongst all of humanity: grief.

“Just when I start to learn to process one traumatic event, another hits, and another, and the next—all while grieving a nation I love and a democracy my parents sacrificed to attain,” writes Michelen. (Rick Kimpel / Flickr)

If there is one word to describe the simultaneous mantra and burden of many first-generation Americans is expectation. The constant internal and external pressure of straddling two cultures is a feat that causes children to become adults—and become adults quite quickly.

Most immigrant children come from deeply ingrained patriarchal backgrounds. One is born into this without even understanding the foundation of this ideology. One minute you’re born into the family, perhaps not knowing the home-country language (as in my case with English as a second language), and you grow up with peers with cultural values developing quite differently than yours.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Hispanic communities and women have been disproportionately affected, with full impacts yet to be fully conceptualized. Inequality in the job force, inequitable distribution of wages due to increased gender gaps, inaccessibility to timely vaccination appointments, and increased financial stress and burdens of responsibilities are just beginning. Mental health emergencies are on the rise, little reprieve is on the horizon, and yet the societal pressure of “keeping it all together” is unsustainable.

As the only child, only daughter to immigrant parents coming from strong Latin and Middle Eastern cultures, I was taught many things of life in this “new” world. COVID-19 showed me that I was never formally taught one constant emotion amongst all of humanity: grief.

Despite my very nurturing and empathetic sentiment for those around me, the “keep calm, and carry on” mindset has been rampant through the years. Since every day is the first day of a multi-generational experience in the new country, expectation of pushing through was undeniable.

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Like a “good” immigrant daughter, I went into the pre-medical sciences, studied grief as part of my neuroscience and psychology studies, and aced the exams. I understood the psychological and physiological components in experiencing grief. My left-brain would carry me through life, I thought. I visualized the moments, and I even had a suitcase pre-packed and mentally planned funeral outfits. So, I was ready! Or so I thought.

However, my studies didn’t prepare me for feeling grief. I had aced my paper exams, and now I’m failing at this practical test. This year, a cousin suddenly died. Two months later, my grandmother was dead. A month after her funeral, an uncle was declining with COVID-19, was intubated and passed several weeks later. One week after that, a different uncle tested positive… then an aunt… another death… and the saga is still on-going.

Just when I start to learn to process one traumatic event, another hits, and another, and the next—all while grieving a nation I love and a democracy my parents sacrificed to attain. Yes, hope is near and a new air in our country is set in the positive windward direction.

However, communities of color still suffer from exponentially unjust inequalities in health care, and systemic disadvantages are causing more harm in the COVID-19 catastrophe. To put it simply: If you are a Latino in America during the COVID-19 pandemic, you are twice as likely to lose your life from COVID-19.

People of color, especially those from the Latin community, are dying at the highest rate due to COVID-19. As of March 2021, one in five people dying of COVID-19 in the U.S. is from the Latin community, and according to the CDC, COVID-19-associated hospitalization rates were 3.2 times higher than those from white communities. As of last month, as the country surpassed the unthinkable toll of 500,000+ American death, more than 83,000 Hispanics had died.

Systemic oppression through internal patriarchy or societal expectation adds to systemic oppression that increases women’s complication from the pandemic—in sickness and in health.

The added gender-based responsibility of the pandemic and the COVID-19 Recession will continue to cause significant psychological harm, and thus, in turn, harm on family life.

A recent study published in Traumatology explains that Latino families show increased likelihood of contracting the virus, leading to economic hardship, and in turn having significant psychological negative impacts. There are constant gaps for mental health facilities accessibility, but cultural burdens are still at the forefront of access. Even with vaccine rollout, misinformation and cultural mistrust has proven that the community is not inclined to receiving the vaccine.

Equality in employment, education and mental health needs to start at home, and first-generation women and girls may not have the power to overcome certain expectation when fighting alone. As the world impatiently acts and implements past status quo routines, returning “back to normal” should not be the goal. The passage of the 19th Amendment granted a voice for women, but there was and still continues to be a disservice for working women and especially immigrant women. The stigma of mental health support isn’t new, but the “new normal” will need to start to address the needs of this large under-served cohort.

The time to create new expectations and a new normal is now—and this change cannot be implemented retroactively. While patriarchal systems take time to change, even slow progress makes a difference for short- and long-term sustainable change.

And to my fellow female first-geners, in the words of Saudi Arabian activist, Manal Al-Shaif, “Be yourself without permission. The world will always want you to be someone else. Disappoint it.”

The guilt of challenging, disappointing and burdening one’s family is natural, but what is not natural is pushing through emotions without fully absorbing the present. Give yourself permission—that’s your expectation that you need to uphold for yourselves.

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Sophia Michelen is a women and children's rights activist, writer, photojournalist, and global health and humanitarian professional. She has experience in international policy, advocacy, research and communication, working with nonprofits, NGOs and international governments. Currently committed to children’s rights, Sophia has worked in emergency relief in the Middle East, on health-system strengthening projects for girls in East Africa, and created advocacy and communication programs for women in Latin America.