SF Counseling Center

Phone updates and the immigrant experience

A friend and colleague told me today that she uploaded a new operating system to her phone and lost all of her data and files.  There was no warning about the risk of losing everything she had accumulated for the past year or so.   Of course, the help line asked her why she made the change without backing up her data first.  They argued that she could have researched this and realized the risk before she made the move. And, of course, some people would fault her for not backing her ‘life’ up regularly.

Arguably, her life is or could be better with the new IOS.  She now has apps and opportunities with the new IOS which were not available in the old IOS.  While it would be unbelievably crass to compare the experience of immigration with that of data loss or upgrading to a new operating system, it seems there at least a couple of reflections might be useful.

Unpredicted and Ambiguous Losses

I think it is common for immigrants not to realize what they have lost in the move, until quite some time after the migration.  Not only pictures, conversations, and personal information but the sights, sounds and daily life in the home land.  Those who choose to move or are forced to move, are no longer able to participate in the daily life of their family and friends.  One friend told me, as she was planning on getting married – that up until this point it was all an adventure – and now it was real and she was becoming an immigrant.  Researchers in the field of grief describe the losses associated with immigration as one form of ‘ambiguous loss.’  This means it is difficult to grieve because what you have lost, how you have lost it and other details are vague.  People who have unresolved grief can have problems fully being present in important relationships.  (While this does not happen to all immigrants, it is not uncommon).  This means that there are subsequent losses – in the least a degradation in the quality of life and interpersonal relationships.


My friend reflected briefly, and almost in an existential way about the irretrievable loss of photos of family.  She was clearly and rightly very upset.  In some ways, no one can know how she feels about her loss.  She is alone in this, and that adds to the experience.  For our family members who were immigrants (or for those who are immigrants), there is an aloneness in the loss that – while considerably more profound – can parallel this experience.  One can intuit or even know there might be risks, but one does not fully appreciate that fact until there has been a change, sometimes even a devastating change.

Again, I am not trying to equate the loss of one year’s worth of photos to the profound losses associated with immigration.  However, for those of us who were born here, we may never fully appreciate the personal sacrifices our families made.  This reflection is only meant to give pause for thought.


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