Dealing With Grief as an Immigrant During COVID

Photo by Milada Vigerova on Unsplash

I have lived in the United States of America for six years now. I moved here for graduate school and work.

The good parts of being a tech immigrant worker living in the Bay Area are that I enjoy a high standard of living, the illusion of gender equality in the workplace, beautiful libraries, parks, bars, public systems and infrastructure that just work, and the means to do pretty much anything I want. I chose to come to this country to pursue education and a career, and am thankful for the doors the decision has opened for me and my family.

However, it is not easy, as a woman of color, to work in tech although I am fully qualified to be where I am.

Some days, I feel like I don’t belong here (in tech and in the U.S.).

Other days, like when Trump banned new work visas for foreign workers like me, I know I don’t belong here.

I am indeed an “alien”, which is the actual word that USCIS uses to categorize people like me. Homesickness, anxiety, the need to fit in, and loneliness are all parts of being an immigrant — even a privileged one like me. There are more than a quarter million other Indians in the U.S. who pretty much followed the exact same path as me and probably feel like I do. Stuck on a visa that seems enticing on paper, but one that comes with many stipulations.

For example, I cannot switch jobs easily unless my visa transfer is 100% successful (otherwise, I risk being deported). I cannot switch roles without a LOT of paperwork and uncertainty. Once my 6 years on the H1B visa are up, I have to move back to my own country since it would take me ~151 years to get a green card as an Indian person, thanks to the country-wise green card queues. This means that my husband and I can’t really think of ‘settling down’ easily — the thought that we could be kicked out of this country at any moment (all it takes it one H1B visa renewal to go awry) makes decision- making so much harder. All these anxieties aside, I acknowledge that I’m among the more privileged immigrants. I can always go back to my loving family, and to a country that is not starving/war-torn, where I can live a fairly comfortable life.

Nevertheless, immigration risks and uncertainties occupy so much of our mind space that it is no wonder that anytime Indian people get together in the U.S., our conversations invariably veer towards who got a green card, who was forced to go back to India, what it would be like to live in Canada (which is a country more open to immigrants than the U.S. is), and “how immoral is it really to marry an American just so that I can stay on in America?”.

Constantly feeling stuck between two worlds — never fully belonging in either — is a feeling that perhaps millions of immigrants are familiar with.

Even during regular workdays, I have so much anxiety. Add to that the constraints of COVID and not being able to travel back to India anytime I want and things suddenly seem a million times worse.

Now, add to that the death of loved ones.

My friends and I were drinking at my place, late one Saturday night a few months ago, when I received a Whatsapp message from my mom, which simply said:

Call me when you are up.

I called her back, dreading bad news.

Every time my parents ask me to call them back, I fear the worst.
I can’t help it. The 13.5-hour time difference makes it so much worse because I’d receive a message while I’m asleep and wouldn’t be able to respond to emergencies until the next morning.

This time, she did have bad news: my 92 year old grandfather — my dear thatha — the one who encouraged me to read every book I could get my hands on as a kid, the one who watched The Exorcist with me when I was 13, the one who first taught me all about Morse codes, the one I’d just hung out with on my last trip to India, the one who took me and my cousins to several concerts instilling in us a deep love for music, had passed away due to complications from COVID.

He died alone since nobody was allowed inside the intensive care unit due to COVID.

My dad and his brother had waited outside the hospital and slept in their cars because, by law, at least one family member needed to stay with a COVID patient. But, they couldn’t actually be by his side. Meaning that he’d have been all alone, awaiting his death in a cold, dark room.

He would have been surrounded by his loved ones (children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren) if he had fallen ill on a regular day. I would have flown out to India to be by his side.

Instead, I was far away from my suffering family, in my eerily silent San Francisco apartment feeling stuck — I was not there to help my family out when they most needed me most.

I truly felt like I didn’t belong anywhere that day. Not in my family’s collective grief over my grandfather’s death. Not in this strange country where I’m a textbook alien.

A crushing sense of loneliness threatened to get me in the weeks following my thatha’s death.

Here’s how I have been protecting myself from it. Protecting myself feels like an act of rebellion against all the people, policies and life situations that are stacked against me.

Re-reading books I enjoyed as a child

I have been reading all the Harry Potter books back to back, which is something I never thought I’d do. So unfailingly am I surrounded by books that I must and should read that I barely think about what book would bring me joy. Reading Harry Potter felt like a balm. I was back again in my childhood bedroom, reading under the sheets, late into the night.

Talking to family (even that distant aunt/cousin)

My thatha’s death has given me a reason to connect with the cousins and aunts I haven’t been in touch with for several years. While picking up the phone and talking to them was initially a hard thing to do, once we started chatting, I felt warmth and familiarity wash over me. My cousins and I shared oddly specific stories from our childhood summers. As we talked about our grandfather and his sense of humor and warmth, we felt the burden of our grief lessen.

Following a “happy routine”

I have been waking up early every morning (6:00 a.m.) to simply be. During those 2–3 hours before my first work meeting, I do whatever I please while sipping hot, black coffee. Sitting with my feelings and paying heed to them are helping me become my own confidant.

Being kind to myself — not productive

As a tech person in San Francisco, being ultra-productive, stellar at work, AND fit, healthy, while learning new skills every day just feels like the social norm.
In the days immediately following my grandfather’s death, I would walk into meetings where I’d be asked about a document/report/status.
The pace of work would feel like *chop chop chop* and my mind would go *nope nope nope*. I just couldn’t pretend like everything was okay with me. So, I switched off deliberately. I declined meetings. I allowed myself to be sad. I took time off fully knowing that if my company were to lay me off due to COVID/ lack of productivity, I’d have to pack up my life in the U.S. and fly back to India in a few months (maybe there’d be other options but one doesn’t think of them when one is living between two worlds).

For the last few months, I have been kinder to myself, forgiving myself more easily, and telling myself “Hey! It’s okay that you didn’t work for hours. It’s okay that the document you wrote wasn’t great or that you gained a few pounds.”.

I’m finally allowing myself to be human and fully sit with my grief. It feels liberating.

If you, an immigrant, are reading this — I see you. I feel your pain. Here’s a hug. Be kind to yourself.

I'm a product manager living in San Francisco with a heart that refuses to leave Chennai! I enjoy writing about product management, technology, and food.

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