Why This Therapist Swears By K-Dramas For Grief Processing

Jeanie Y. Chang was a standout student growing up in Wilmington, DE. Not solely because of her grades, but because she was one of four Asian kids in her entire K-12 private school, including her sister. "We just stood out in a crowd of white," Chang recalls of her childhood in the '80s.

Her family moved to the US from Seoul, Korea, after she was born, and Chang spent the majority of her formative years either trying to defend or downplay her Korean heritage, constantly answering questions about the foods she would bring to lunch, her hair color, and where she was from. "When you're 10 years old and having to defend that South Korea was a country, you feel very sheepish," Chang says. She recalls coming home from school many days asking her parents, "Why weren't we born American?"

"The grief that I felt was that I didn't really get to enjoy my childhood being proud of who I am."

These kinds of questions led to strong feelings of identity loss and grief as an adult. "The grief that I felt was that I didn't really get to enjoy my childhood being proud of who I am," Chang says.

"If anything, I was ashamed of my culture," she continues. And that's something that stuck with her well into her 20s and 30s; even today, Chang feels regret about not having been able to fully accept her entire self.

Now, as a licensed marriage and family therapist and certified clinical trauma professional, Chang helps others process grief and identity loss as a result of immigration, death, divorce, and more. A staple in Chang's practice? K-dramas. It was in watching this genre of television that Chang has been able to process her own grief around a childhood not rooted in Korean pride but cultural shame instead.

For others who've gone through a similar experience or are processing identity loss through immigration, Chang often recommends "Mr. Sunshine," a 2018, 24-episode drama where the male protagonist struggles with his identity when he returns to Korea after fleeing to the US during Japanese occupation to fight as an American soldier. "You see him decades later come back as a captain of the American army, or the US Army, and without sharing too much, he evolves into accepting and loving his own culture. That's exactly my story," Chang says.

But the best part about K-dramas is they offer outlets for many types of grief, Chang says. For many of her clients — who primarily fall within the Asian and Black community, where grief processing and mental health is often stigmatized — K-dramas offer a source of relief. "They know that [in] their own cultures it's not spoken about . . . but then they see in a K-drama, they see the family members expressing [grief], and I think that display or representation of stories is really helpful," Chang says.

Other favorite K-drama recommendations include "Move to Heaven," "Thirty-Nine," and "Crash Landing on You," the latter of which went global during the 2020 pandemic. As Chang explains, "That story was not about grief. It was about a rich girl falling in love with a North Korean soldier. But there was a lot of grief in there. And the grief really resonated with folks even though it's a small part of the storyline."

Indeed, as one client told Chang after watching the series: "It reminded me of the fact that I didn't even mourn the loss of my mom — I had to be strong." That's another benefit of grief processing through K-dramas: you never know which emotions will be uncovered. They serve as an outlet where what appears to be a simple romance can trigger an unexpected wave of tears and emotions you may have otherwise suppressed.

"But once that comes out, you're able to navigate it, you're able to understand you're not scared of a basic emotion," Chang says. And from there, you can become more open to uncovering deeper emotions associated with grief, like anxiety, depression, or denial — either with a trusted friend or with a mental health professional if needed, she adds.

"Pain needs to be released," Chang says. And she couldn't think of a more welcoming space to do so than with a classic K-drama.

Alexis Jones is the senior health and fitness editor at PS. Her passions and areas of expertise include women's health and fitness, mental health, racial and ethnic disparities in healthcare, and chronic conditions. Prior to joining PS, she was the senior editor at Health magazine. Her other bylines can be found at Women's Health, Prevention, Marie Claire, and more.