Grieving as an immigrant – through Good Grief by Nancy Moelk

It is tough to be a second-generation immigrant in France and now an immigrant in the US. When I was a child, I struggled because I was different. I longed for acceptance and belonging. And obviously, I could not hide my difference. As far as I remember, I was the only Asian at school (apart from my siblings). So I had to find ways to compensate not to be overlooked such as being smart, cool or funny… and hide my insecurities.

We are dysfunctional – all of us. We are messed up, and according to Nancy Moelk, the reason is that we do not grieve. We do not know how, and we do not value it. We do not want to have the “victim” mentality, but the result is defective and destructive behaviors. We complain. We are cynical or sarcastic. We are depressed. We seek control. We blame. We burst in anger. We hurt others. All of those attitudes may be signs of unprocessed grief.

“We glorify stoicism in our culture. People greatly admire Jackie Kennedy for not openly grieving the death of her husband. We consider it noble and dignified to hide our grief.” (p. 9).

“Indoctrinated by our culture, we believe that we really don’t require love… we don’t need to belong… and that grief is both avoidable and unnecessary” (pp. 14-15)

“Facing the truth about ourselves is not sin.  Denying it is. Denial says that we’re above needs and feelings” (p .15)

We often think of grieving when we lose a person, but we experience losses in many ways. For example, we experience losses when our parents divorce or when our parents or spouse work long hours. We can recognize our need for grief when we suffer because pain points to losses.

“The term grief refers to the range of emotions produced in a person after he has suffered a loss.” (p. 15)

Moelk lists four types of pain pointing to loss:

  • Physical pain –> Loss of comfort in the body: diseases, handicaps, etc.
  • Social pain –> Loss of acceptance. For example, we may experience loss if we have physical distinctions such as a different color of skin, handicaps, “ugliness” according to bullies from our childhood (big ears, short height, flat nails, etc.), speech impediments, etc. leading to mockery and rejection.
  • Emotional and psychological pain –> loss of feeling loved or safe in one-on-one relationships. For example, we might have rarely been affirmed by a demanding parent. We might have felt rejected when our parents abandoned us to an orphanage, divorced or even died. We felt betrayed by a cheating spouse or friend.
  • Spiritual pain –> loss of harmony with God. This loss is due to sin, which is the root cause of all the other pains.

Pain requires grief. The question is not if we grieve or not, but how we grieve. We can do it well (healthy grief) or deny it (impaired grief).

Healthy grief:

Shock –> Anger –> Sadness –> Bargaining –> Forgiveness / Resolution

  1. Shock: it is a self-protective mode. We hold onto our pain. We detach ourselves from the trauma.
  2. Anger: we are angry at injustice until we recognize our losses.
  3. Sadness: Sadness happens when we start to acknowledge the loss and pain. “Sadness is simply, letting it hurt. […] It is learning to deal with reality” (p. 32). This phase usually happens when we accept to be called a “victim.”
  4. Bargaining: “bargaining, is a place where our will makes a last-ditch effort to alleviate the suffering in our losses” (p. 33). We still believe we can make it up – even though we know in the back of our mind that we cannot. We move to resolution if we stop trying to compensate.
  5. Forgiving/Resolution: This is the stage where we can see the Gospel at work. We acknowledge our losses and our desperate need for God to meet our needs. We start to see how Jesus has suffered because of us, with us, and for us so that all of our needs will be fulfilled one day. When we grasp what God has done for us, then we find the ability to forgive. How do we know we have forgiven? Through our love for our enemies: when we have compassion for the offender(s).

This process is more than a list to check. It unfolds as we grieve, especially up to the bargaining stage. We loop through those stages many times, depending on how deep the wound is. I believe the move from bargaining to forgiveness and resolution requires more intentionality. It can be a lengthy process, and it is definitely a process to repeat.

“Now our forgiveness will be authentic.  It will not be easy but it will not be superficial.  It will reflect our God’s agonizing act of forgiveness” (p. 36)

Impaired grief:

Denial -> Chronic anger -> Chronic depression -> Magical thinking –> Unforgiveness / Recycle the process

  • Denial: We are in shock and deny our losses and the emotions that come with it. We are unwilling to face the truth.
  • Chronic anger & depression: We loop in anger and depression – sometimes expressed in subtle ways such as sarcasm, cynicism, self-pity, etc.
  • Magical thinking: We seek to escape. We try to find ways to recover from our losses. We are still in denial mode. This stage is where many of us are stuck and act dysfunctionally. For example:
    • we watch pornography.
    • We spent hours watching movies and playing video games.
    • We buy useless things.
    • We have eating disorders.
    • We live dreaming.
    • We over work.
    • We live by procuration through our kids.
    • We seek control.
    • We impose our will.
    • We can even become more active at church to compensate.
    • Etc.
  • Unforgiveness/Recycle the process: Failure to acknowledge losses lead not only to magical thinking, but also to unforgiveness. Forgiveness is not trivial when the offense was real. We may say we have forgiven, but we may confuse forgiveness with emotional stability. What happens is that we often stop the forgiving process when we feel at peace due to circumstances. For example, we moved away from the person who have hurt us, and with some time, we may not feel angry or depressed anymore. However, this is not forgiveness. There will be circumstances that trigger pain, anger, fear, depression, etc. and we may find ourselves looping again.

Screen Shot 2020-01-15 at 10.51.47 PM

Impaired grief is destructive not only to us, but also to others. Not grieving well (i.e., not acknowledging our need for the Gospel) reproduces evil. For example, if we grew up with parents who did not push us as children to be successful at school/careers, we may be too demanding with our own kids and therefore causing them to be bitter at us, or they may become self-righteous Pharisees if they are able to perform well. It may be even more subtle. If our parents never celebrated our birthdays or attended our musical/sports performance, we may do the reverse for our kids treating them as little “kings,” which will backfire later.

Let me pause in this book review/summary to share a personal thought: what if you do not believe in the Good News of Jesus? Is there a solution? I struggle to see how healthy grief can happen. If there is no Jesus, then there is no one to meet our needs to the fullest. The only way is “magical thinking” or, in other words, finding ways to cope with our losses. Forgiveness may not even be a goal. Feeling happy is…, but looping may be what actually happens. I may sound harsh, but if we are honest, what else is there?

There are a few obstacles to healthy grief (personal classification):

  • No sanctuary.

Healthy grief starts when we are safe to do so. A child who grows up with an abusive father cannot express his hurt. When there is no space to grieve, emotions pile up, bitterness builds up, and healing waits.

Creating space can be difficult. Words such as: “[the offender] is not like that,” “God helps those who help themselves,” “I don’t understand why …,” “it is not only you, but others too” or “get over it” deny safety for a hurt person to grieve his losses. But healing cannot happen without.

“If a child experiences a loss, however, and doesn’t have a safe place to grieve, the grieving process waits.  Sanctuary – feeling loved, safe and accepted – is essential to grieving.” (p. 21)

  • Wrong beliefs
    • Wrong belief #1: Soldiers of Christ do not need to grieve.

The image of soldiers is needed used in the Bible. There are times when we need to endure patiently and to persevere. But this illustration is limited in its application. It does not imply we cannot cry when it is hard, or we cannot be angry when it is unjust. We are sometimes a little ruthless with our use of the Bible: “the Bible tells us to forgive, so we forgive.” Sure, but we must understand there are gaps between principles and their applications. It does not happen overnight. Plus, the Bible is more comprehensive than simply saying, “forgive seventy times seven” (Matt 18:22). Other passages relate to the need for justice, such as Rom 12:19.

“Especially as Christians, we feel obliged to jump from offense to forgiveness in a single bound.  That’s the honorable thing, right?  But loss without sounding out the pain and its emotions leaves little to forgive.” (pp. 22-23)

    • Wrong belief #2: “Doing is more important than being”

Moelk wrote this following line that made me think.

“Often the sickest people in the church are the most active.” (p. 44)

I can see how it may be true. It is important to serve, but it can be used to gain or to cover something. It flows from the idea that doing will lead to being.

“Sometimes it seems that the church has unknowingly swallowed the American cultural mandate of ‘Doing is more important than being.’  Some church leaders will cruelly shout from the pulpit to their wounded flocks, ‘Get over your problems and serve God!’  The implication is that if we start acting like we’re healed, we’ll be healed!” (p. 44)

    • Wrong belief #3: There is something (other than God) that can meet my needs

We all know this under the term “idolatry,” but it acts subtly. That is why we do magical thinking. We unconsciously believe there is something that can give me full satisfaction: relationships, power, excitement, etc. But as Moelk points out:

“The problem is that God is SO GOOD.  And His perfect unconditional love is what our hearts were created for.  Anything less leaves us with loss and pain that needs to be grieved.” (p. 23)

The last section of the book is about identifying losses:

finding loss –> finding root causes –> recognizing life patterns –> cure comes from God

It is filled with examples to help readers. That’s why you should still get the book 🙂

This book has been so enlightening. I often found myself speechless when confronted by others’ or my own sufferings. I was not sure how to process it well apart from waiting for more time to pass and praying. And I am sure that is what many Christians do as well. We wait until we feel better, and that’s it… but the truth is that we bury our pain, and never truly forgive.

This book helped me to grieve as an immigrant and second-generation immigrant. This immigrant condition does not explain all of my struggles (obviously, other factors such as parents, physical appearance, speech impediment, etc. had important roles). Still, it has shaped a lot of it. To conclude my book review, I decided to lay down how it has looked like for me. (Please read column by column)

Impaired Grief Healthy Grief
Pain

Most of the pain I have experienced as part of the second generation of immigrants, and now an immigrant can be categorized as social pain. Most of it is related to the idea of belonging and being valuable. Value is necessarily defined by others. We have no intrinsic value. When you do not belong, you feel less valuable. You are overlooked by default. You get less opportunities. You feel you are the last option. You feel undesired. And you may be put down.

I have experienced it from the white majority, from other minorities, and from the second generation of immigrants in the US. It was particularly difficult for me in the US coming from a “second-gen” background. I felt demoted coming in the US.

Shock & Denial

I was in shock when I moved to the US. I sought to protect myself by telling people, “I am French” – implying I am not from Asia => I am a westerner. I pretended everything was fine. Maybe it was my imagination playing tricks on me. I tried to deny my losses (value and opportunities) by telling people I have a degree from a great college in France, or a seminary degree in the US – implying I am not uneducated. I was trying to force others to see my value. I put a mask on. I was so good at it. That’s what I have learned to do since my childhood anyway. It led to chronic anger and depression, with repercussions on others.

Chronic Anger

I was constantly angry at people. I was especially angry at other minorities and the second generation for looking down on me, bullying me and somehow for reminding me unconsciously that I did not belong. I was angry for being treated as the last option. I was angry at myself for being worthless and not being able to speak English well. I was angry at the second-generation Hmong immigrants for calling me “whitewashed” because I did not have much knowledge of the Hmong culture and language. I was angry at the first generation of Hmong immigrants for expecting me to speak Hmong. I was angry at the white majority for mocking my accent. I could go on forever.

Chronic anger led to dysfunction: not being teachable, desire to prove myself, explosions of anger once in a while, etc.

Anger

Once I felt I was safe to accept my condition, I experienced what Moelk explains in her book. I found myself burning with extreme anger. Years of pain led to uncontrollable rage. I was raging in search of vengeance.

But I also expressed anger in different ways. I had a few “compulsive” purchases. I watched a violent revenge movie and strangely felt a bit of satisfaction.

Chronic Depression

I was depressed. I refused to believe I was – though my wife told me so. And I read a book on counseling. I was clearly displaying signs of depression: low self-esteem, self-destructive attitudes, passive-aggressive attitude, complaining, self-pitying and victimization, etc.

 Sadness

Then I started to move to sadness. I believe it came when I was willing to call myself a “victim” – not out of self-pity, but to name the evil that was done. I found myself burning with anger for one hour, and the next, I was in tears.

When this cycle stopped, I had a few times when I burst tears without any specific reason. I was slowly embracing reality. I started to accept my status of immigrant & “forever foreigner.” I had to accept the rejection. I had to accept that some people regret to engage with me in small talk because of my accent. I had to accept that some bend toward me to understand me. I know it is not their fault, but I have to live with that. I had to accept the fact that getting a job is more complicated. Some opportunities are not there because of my broken English.

I accept all those losses, and I grieve them.

Magical Thinking

I thought I could endure all those issues because I was a “good” Christian. I thought I could be a light to the world by being an example in suffering well – which meant denying it and putting a nice smile on my face.

 

Bargaining

Sometimes I find myself bargaining: the “Maybe I can do it” attitude. Maybe I can define smaller boundaries to my kingdom so that I can be king. Maybe I can write more blog posts. Maybe I can study harder. Maybe I can do this or that.

But in the end, I know it is powerless to fix me. What I need is a Good News that tells me that I cannot do it, but I am still valuable and loved.

Unforgiveness/Recycle the Process

I tried to forgive. I did not know what it looked like. I thought it was over when I felt better… but it was just sweeping everything under the rug. I had no idea how to do it. And worse, I was looping in this vicious circle of denial, anger, depression, magical thinking, and pseudo-forgiveness.

Forgiveness/Resolution

I see how I am guilty of idolatry. I sought to find value in what I can do – and others reinforced it (whether positively or negatively) because it was what they also valued (** we are all dysfunctional **). I repent of that and remind myself of the Gospel.

Oh, how I need to hear the Gospel! Again and again and again. I need Jesus. I cannot do it on my own. I need to remember I am valuable because God considers me valuable as His son. I am well loved, no matter what I am able to do or how I look like.

Now what I do may look the same, but my motives are changing. I do not need to fight to have value. My value is defined by God. I learn to be teachable because being taught does not mean being worthless. Now I do not need to make a name for myself (though I certainly do not want to waste my life) because my desire is to make Jesus the name above else’s. Because of the Gospel, we find the power to change.

It is also through the Gospel that I have a place among God’s beloved people, His Church. This is where local churches have a role to play. Will churches overcome differences? It is a longer topic for another post, but the idea is that local churches are communities where the people of God can truly be families (implying sense of belonging and safety) centered on the Gospel bringing glory to God through worship and mission.

Then I can forgive.

Then I can understand and love others… especially those who have offended me.

I am able to sympathize with this second generation of immigrants in the US. I understand I can be a trigger of their own insecurities because they still struggle with their own identity, especially those who seem confident. I know it… because I have done the same when I was back in France. I ran away from an international student from Thailand who sought for help when I was in college. I was telling her “I am not like you.” My prayer for the second generation is that they start to see their insecurities (sense of belonging and worth), grieve their losses and start to embrace the Good News of Jesus Christ as well. I believe the reason why I have struggled so much as an immigrant is because I have not grieved my losses as second gen.

I am trying not to categorize people (race, ethnicity, personalities, etc.). I am thankful for my caucasian friends who have been a tremendous source of love and joy. I am thankful for the second generation of immigrants who have shown support and welcomed me as one of theirs.

Then I can minister to them. Not I, but through Christ. I can point them to Christ for their own losses.

Of course, I still find myself looping once in a while in fruitless remembering. Some circumstances still trigger anger in me. But I know the solution comes from grieving to remember how much I need the Gospel for myself.

But – Hey, do not feel bad for me. Feel bad for your losses. You are dysfunctional as well. But the good news is that we do not have to stay that way. There is healing and redemption in grieving well:

“The reason we are to give thanks no matter what happens is that God is with us and will be able to turn every loss around into an opportunity to connect with Him more deeply. The grieving process is how this transaction takes place.” (p. 20)

 

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