Cultural Bereavement: Naming the Grief Refugees May Feel

Though Ms. Pleshkova moved to the US for better professional opportunities, she could only find work as a camp counselor and a day care worker, despite her experience as an English literature professor in Ukraine. “I was upset when I found out that the payment is not adequate,” she said. “And I did feel like I could do better. I’m suddenly at the bottom of the food chain.”

She eventually decided to put aside her passion for teaching and now works in event planning for a steakhouse in her town.

The fact that people from different cultures tend to express sadness in different ways can further complicate how those individuals seek help, said Ms. Kohli. Oftentimes, given cultural stigmas around mental health, many people might not feel comfortable asking at all.

“When my dad is stressed out, he’ll never say he’s stressed; he’ll say, ‘My feet are hurting.’ Or my mom will say, ‘I have a headache.’ She won’t say ‘I’m overwhelmed,’” Ms. Kohli said. “And that will show up in the room with a clinician as well, and there’s no rule book for a Western-trained practitioner that says, ‘Here’s the criteria for this type of grief, here’s how to medicate it, treat it and so on .’”

Ms. Kohli suggests seeking out therapists who may have a deeper understanding of different cultural expressions of grief or anxiety and depression. During the pandemic, more and more of her Brown Girl Therapy followers were reaching out to Ms. Kohli asking for references to therapists who would understand their cultural background, so she made a spreadsheet of names that she linked to from her Instagram page.

Even using and understanding the term cultural bereavement can be “powerful,” she said.

“Naming it makes the grief more manageable. If you were to go to a clinician and say, ‘I think I’m struggling with cultural bereavement,’ I would hope a good clinician will do their research and will want to explore that with you to understand how it’s impacting you,” she said.

There are also ways to cope beyond therapy. While it can look different for everyone, dealing with cultural bereavement often involves variations of two things. The first is rediscovering or relearning one’s history, culture and self, said Dr. Han, and the second is finding and building your community.

She often recommends that her Asian American patients, for example, read books by Asian American authors or watch movies that represent their different cultures so that they can see their own experiences reflected back and feel less alone in their grief. It also helps resurrect the things — the food, the language, the smells — that were perhaps pushed to the side in an attempt to assimilate.