Grieving Together, But Apart: How I Set Boundaries When My Father Died

·5 min read

Last June, as I decorated the hallway of my home with yellow and blue balloons for my master’s graduation, my uncle called to say that my father had passed away. He was visiting extended family in Qatar and mentioned having the stomach flu earlier that day, which worried my mother and me, but we had no idea that would be our final conversation with him.

In the same call that my uncle delivered the tragic news, he asked me to prepare the house for extended family to come and stay for a week. Six aunts and uncles and two cousins and their husbands from Toronto were planning to come to our home in Oshawa to grieve with us that same day. I couldn’t imagine being around anyone, so I asked my relatives to visit the following week. They agreed but told me I was being “too Canadian.” In the days that followed, they often complained to my mother that I’d forgotten my Iraqi-Lebanese heritage.

For people with families like mine, life events like weddings, anniversaries, and funerals are a collective experience. Grieving together is common, like the week-long mourning period, Shiva, in Judaism. Even the logistics of death are handled communally in collectivist cultures — in some Middle Eastern and South Asian cultures, family prepares the body for burial at home, a stark contrast from a mortician preparing it.

Many second-gen people from collectivist cultures can understand this experience. Death is a “crisis moment” and culture can be a protective blanket that absorbs the shock, says Gowtham Vijayakumaran (MSW), a Mississauga, Canada-based therapist and social worker. But for some, grieving in a room full of people can be the opposite of what they need. For many, myself included, culture doesn’t always feel like a protective blanket — it can feel invasive.

For some, grieving in a room full of people can be the opposite of what they need. For many, myself included, culture doesn’t always feel like a protective blanket — it can feel invasive.

I was expected to recount the details of my dad’s death, and pray and mourn with my distant relatives I’d never met before. Family I was closer with — aunts, uncles, cousins — advised me not to show anger at “God’s will” for taking my father away at 62. It felt like they were policing my sorrow. Many also found my behavior rude, which is less about me, than it is about cultural traditions and fulfilling one’s obligations, adds Vijayakumaran. “Boundaries during mourning appear disrespectful for communal cultures because everyone is in a moment of crisis, and they want to get through it together.”

Vijayakumaran works with his clients to find balance between the two cultures. One client, a 30-year-old man from a Tamil family who lost his father, worried about attending funeral ceremonies because he found it overwhelming to repeatedly answer questions about how his dad died just like I did.

Vijayakumaran asked his client what he needed, and the response was clear — space. In his case, that meant attending a traditional mourning ceremony during the day but spending time alone by the lake at night.

Though boundaries aren’t always received well, they are necessary, adds Shahaa Kakar, a Vancouver-based grief counselor. Checking in with yourself is crucial, especially for second-gen, she adds, since we are “primed” to conform as a result of the pressure to be a good daughter or son. The idea of being “good” is often seen as fulfilling other people’s wishes — parents, extending family — for how to act, mourn, what to study, or who to marry, something I have always felt.

Honest conversations can help relatives understand you aren’t rejecting them — or your culture. Kakar says to express your boundaries clearly and empathetically with statements like: “I’m finding that I need more alone time than usual,” or “I appreciate your offer to come over, but I’m not ready for that — I’ll let you know when I am.” Avoid phrases that might come across as an attack like, “I’m fine if you don’t come over.”

Other ways to create space for yourself include letting your family know that you might not always answer their calls but appreciate their concern. Sharing details of a loved one’s death can be emotionally exhausting, she adds, so consider telling people, “It’s too much to talk about right now.” You can also honor your family and culture without immersing yourself in tradition by sending flowers, cooking together, creating a family album, attending a memorial for a shorter time, or meeting family members individually, says Vijayakumaran.

For me, that meant spending time with my brother and his kids to show I cared, and texting with cousins — eventually. I also cherry-picked traditions that involved minimal family interaction: I wore black for 40 days, gave up food like sweets and meat that signify happy times, and fasted 15 days for my father’s eternal peace.

But I wish I had more support in navigating how to ask for space — I shut my family out because I didn’t know how to negotiate a middle ground. Sometimes I feel guilty for not going through with more customary mourning practices. But my father’s passing was sudden, and being overseas meant I couldn’t bury him or say my final goodbye. My only “closure” was watching his funeral over Zoom. So, I don’t regret taking space — ultimately, it allowed me to find my own path to healing.

Having a second — or third — culture can be complicated. It can also be a blessing. That’s why we launched Second Gen, a series celebrating the gifts, even the bittersweet ones, passed down from our parents, communities, and cultures.

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