The United States marked a tragic milestone, 1 million COVID deaths. While the country is embracing its reopening and can’t wait to move forward, so many families have changed forever since their loved one died. My family is one of them.
My mom passed away from COVID-19 during the height of the pandemic, when the country was about to widely distribute vaccines to everyone eligible. In just a few months more, she would have been vaccinated, she would have fought the virus, and she would have been with us, laughing, joking, yelling, crying, and living.
The loss was too sudden. My three sisters and I did not know how to grieve. One of us put all their anger and sadness into cleaning the whole house. Another went off to double their hours at work to avoid the conversations. The other one believed money would buy her the happiness she could not feel or find. I spent time being angry at everyone who crossed my path.
“It’s okay to be sad and cry,” they say. I cried, but a part of me was reminded that crying was too raw, too personal, too vulnerable, so I chose not to cry in front of other people.
Coming from a Filipino family, showing signs of emotional distress have always been an unspoken sign of weakness. We have been told since childhood that the less feelings we are able to show, the more mature we are and the higher success rate we will achieve. Filipino families have always been known to be family-oriented, welcoming, and comforting to those who entered our households. We would open our arms to those who needed our help outside our doors but contradict ourselves by dismissing the cries for help within our own family walls. It wasn’t a bad thing – it was just what we were taught.
Our parents and grandparents have taught and shown us the importance of brain power. “Self-care” and “mental well-being” always sounded ideal, but these words were non-existent with the way we were brought up. There was no need to worry about self-care. There was no need to worry about mental well-being.
Despite the need of assimilation to the Western ideologies, my mom prioritized school over a mild headache or a need for a sick day. Even before she passed and when the rise of Asian hate and violence grew, she would tell us that being afraid was not an excuse to miss work or miss a school assignment. We did not need to care about what happened out in the world or what we were feeling inside; these were all temporary that my mom – and my older family members – raised us to believe will pass after a certain time.
Now, as the fear of losing loved ones to a virus is still present, adding the fact of being Asian, xenophobia, or racism and hatred and violence are prevalent for our community. The need for safety, security, and well-being is at an all-time high. However, we are still unsure of how to take care of ourselves and our elders.
Asians and Asian Americans have been taught that mental health is not real. Asians have been generalized to be successful and abide by high expectations without much effort. On social media, Asians and Asian Americans alike are placed on a pedestal of being smart, nice, and hardworking.
How do you do it?, they would ask.
You don’t have time to be sad, we would say.
Being sad means you’re weak, we would reiterate.
Being depressed or having mental health problems is just an excuse to be lazy, our mouths would speak with the voices of our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents.
Yet, between the fact that “the mental health impact of the COVID-19 pandemic can persist and be long lasting for several years after the pandemic” and the continued acts of violence and hatred against Asians and Asian Americans, it is my crying call to see a push for the normalization of mental health and mental well-being within the Asian American households.
Asian American’s hyphenated identity glues together the interdependent and dependent self, between the voice of older generations’ that says, “I can show my child the right thing to do, and then help her do it the right way”, and the voice from the west, that a person “should first choose what she wants to do, and then do it her own way.”
Hearing both, how do we fight a virus, its recovery, and the danger and fear of Anti-Asian hate, and still feel strong enough to take care of ourselves? How do we not feel like a burden? How do we express our need for understanding from those we love when they don’t understand why we need it?
Just as our past generations have drilled within us the need to strive for knowledge, I seek education to possibly answer those questions. I learned that I am not alone in this as nearly 15% of the AAPI population reported having mental illness in the past year. Our socio-cultural context “perpetuates the stereotype that Asians don’t need assistance.” I learned that taking care of our mental health is not an excuse to be lazy or a hidden family burden. My interdependent self also reminds me to be patient with our elders. Only when we are healthy – both physically and mentally – can we be protective of ourselves as well as our family, can we possibly lead those who have asked us to become more educated, to believe in us, and to believe in our ability to decide for ourselves.
My mom passed away and I did not know the proper way to grieve. None of us did. That doesn’t mean I won’t cry for her today, tomorrow, and every time I miss her. Sometimes I find myself during different times of the day, sitting, thinking, feeling, and overwhelmed with emotions on how much I miss her. I know that’s the most vulnerable time for me, but I’m not holding back any more. Because during those times, I am no longer a hyphenated person. I am not labeled as anything. I am just human.