Getting to know my grief

How my racial identity influenced my mourning process

Michelle is still getting to know her own grief after the loss of her father.
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My dad died when I was 16 years old. It happened on a Sunday. On Monday, my mom had to convince me to go to the funeral home to say goodbye to his body before it was cremated. This was because I wanted to stay home and finish reading Hamlet so I wouldn’t fall behind in English class. I went back to school that Friday.

When I returned to school, my guidance counsellor Mr. Runnalls referred me to a social worker. My first appointment with her led to me sitting in a room plastered with motivational posters, sobbing uncontrollably. The very nice counsellor had asked me “Were you and your dad close?” and I didn’t have an answer for her. I quickly switched topics to how I was worried about keeping up with school. In that moment, I didn’t know if I was crying more out of grief or anxiety over my grades. 

I spent my last two years of high school struggling with depression and anxiety because of the loss. Grade 12 in particular came with the added stress of applying to university. I wanted to pursue a program in science, but my marks in calculus and chemistry were abysmal. Watching my marks decline, I started going to my guidance counsellor every other day. At first, this was for academic resources, but when he had none to offer, I started going just because I didn’t know where else to go.

Mr. Runnalls tried his best, but his uncanny ability to find a bright side in everything is what made him both a great academic support and a horrible emotional counsellor. I felt invisible every time I had a mental breakdown over my plummeting grades, and he would smile to my face and say that everything would be okay. Moreover, I would express that I was afraid I wouldn’t get into any schools and his answer was always something along the lines of “Grade 12 is stressful for everyone. Tons of people are feeling exactly what you’re feeling.”

I beg to differ, Mr. Runnalls. In retrospect, my academic anxiety was not a universal experience, but distinctly related to my cultural identity.

In retrospect, my academic anxiety was not a universal experience, but distinctly related to my cultural identity. 

When I tried to communicate the emotions I was going through during that time, I could never confront the grief I felt for my father. Instead, I was overwhelmed by anxiety about school. The more my grades dropped, the less I felt like myself. I wondered why I wasn’t doing the “normal thing” and talking about how much I missed my dad when I sat down with a counsellor.

My cultural identity growing up was an amalgam of my parents’ high expectations for their second-generation Canadian children and Asian stereotypes.   

My parents didn’t force me to take piano lessons (I chose to do a year of lessons before I got bored), they never pressured me to do a million extracurriculars, and they never implied that the only career I could pursue was medicine. My dad never weighed in on what I should do, and my mom suggested careers ranging from pharmacology to fashion design.

My parents didn’t care what career I pursued as long as I had the financial stability they came to Canada to find. Although my parents afforded me the freedom to pursue whatever career I wanted, the pathway to financial stability in their eyes was perfect academics.

I felt like my parents were proudest of me when I brought home an immaculate report card. My parents screamed the loudest at me the time I brought home a geography assignment I failed. One time, I had a glee club rehearsal that went late the night before a history test. When I got home and my mother asked why I was making coffee so late, I snapped and told her I didn’t want to talk about it. She saw me working at my desk later, crying, and she said: “I’ve never seen you work so hard.” 

These instances were amplified by Asian stereotypes—stereotypes so pervasive in Western culture that I can’t pinpoint exactly when or where I internalized them. The myth that the love of Asian parents is conditional upon academic success further added to the pressure I felt to get good grades. Furthermore, I characterized my parents through those stereotypes alone.

My dad especially was a man of few words, and preferred the company of his chickens to that of people. I didn’t know much about him, and other than a nod of approval at my report cards, he never expressed outward pride at my accomplishments.

I didn’t know much about [my father], and other than a nod of approval at my report cards, he never expressed outward pride at my accomplishments. 

Although he never gave any indication that he wanted me to become a doctor, I remember my mom saying he would proud if I did. Asian stereotypes acted as evidence to back this claim. Now that I’m in my fourth year studying English literature, I still wonder if he would be proud.

Similarly, I defined myself based on the stereotype that Asian students are hard-working academics. 

My whole identity was tethered to grades. Through marks, I could quantify my self-worth.

After my dad died, I struggled with my mental health—I would have uncontrollable screaming tantrums, I had trouble sleeping, and I could barely muster the motivation to get to school every day. These understandable byproducts of grief degraded both my academic performance and my overall sense of self-worth.

I wrote in my diary, “I hate myself, because I’m not smart anymore.” If I wasn’t smart, I was nothing.

Grief catalyzed my cultural identity dilemma, to a point where I wasn’t able to process the loss of my father. I couldn’t comprehend why loss affected me until I knew myself beyond the Asian caricature I thought I was. How could I miss my dad until I knew exactly who I was to grieve him?

My healing process was further complicated because the way my parents presented love was incongruous with the love I saw in the homes of my white friends, or in movies. From my perspective, dads were supposed to have a cheesy sense of humour and be overprotective in a “stay away from my daughter” kind of way. Moms were supposed to be warm and nurturing: the first person you go to for advice. My parents didn’t say “I love you” and weren’t big on hugs, but I recognize now that they expressed love differently.

Parts of me still resent the pressure my parents put on academics, but it came from a place of love. They wanted me and my siblings to have a sense of security that they didn’t have growing up. What they didn’t say out loud, they expressed when my mother switched shifts at work to come to my dance recital, or when my dad drove me to the Chapters half an hour away almost every weekend just because I asked.

I can appreciate these acts of love now, but I couldn’t when I was 17. Being raised in a Western culture, I expected support in more obvious forms of love. I expected my family to suddenly come together closer than ever. But that wasn’t my family’s normal disposition, and it wasn’t mine.

I was raised under the impression that I had to be perfect: to take my parents’ sacrifice starting a new life in Canada, and turn it into greater success. I felt like I couldn’t fail, and like asking for help was a symptom of impending failure.

I felt like I couldn’t fail, and like asking for help was a symptom of impending failure.

I told myself I was fine, thinking I could ‘walk-off’ the loss of my father, because I didn’t know how to ask for or accept support. My older cousin reached out a few months after my dad’s death, messaging that I could talk to her if I was comfortable. I wasn’t. I never responded.

It took me a full year to sit down with a counsellor to begin to talk about how my father’s loss affected me. It took me about three years to talk about my dad’s passing with my family, and it’s still a difficult topic to navigate. Five years later, and I still haven’t sat down with a therapist to talk about my father’s death in detail.

In my experience, grief doesn’t end with acceptance. I’m still getting to know my own grief. Every year, I gain more perspective on the loss, and its intersection with my cultural identity is just one of them. Grief is a long, painful process but I’m thankful for all I’ve learned. Loss forced me to confront and detangle my internal racial biases. I gained a greater understanding of my cultural identity, and I know who I am enough to grieve my father.

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