When Culture Shades Grieving
Cross-culture difference tips for helpers
In today’s world many of us are multi-cultural in a number of ways. You may find yourself interacting with people from different cultural backgrounds through work, church, clubs, your kids’ schools or even where you live. It would be presumptuous to conclude that all people grieve the same. All humans grieve, but how they do it can be based on teaching, religion, worldview or their own observations. Even if you disagree with their methods of grieving, the early mourning process is not the time to criticize them or to educate them to what you consider a better way. Your best plan would be to simply help them grieve well and then be open to help them if they have questions about their own perspective versus yours at a later, less emotional time.
I traveled to a very remote part of central Brazil visiting missionary outposts. While there, I witnessed two different approaches to grieving. The first one happened in the semi-civilized tribal village of the Karaja. One of the tribal elders had crossed the river in his six-foot, standup canoe to drink beer in the town bar. Late at night, on his return attempt to home, he fell in the river and drowned. I arrived on the village side of the river shortly after they pulled his body from the muddy water. I observed that no one was weeping. Many were whispering, but there was no deep emotional expression. They just did not do that there. The only emotion revealed seemed to be a worried look on the faces of a few women as they held a clinched fist to their mouths.
A few days later, back across the river in the small Brazilian town, I witnessed another death scene. There in the sun-drenched town a processional of kids dressed in white were accompanying a small coffin. I asked the missionaries to explain what I was seeing. They informed me that a child under the age of two had died and was being buried that day. No adults walked with the coffin. In fact, the child probably had no name. The town’s people believed that a baby did not have a “soul” till about age two so the baby was not considered a real person until then, when it was given a name. Since, in their minds, this infant was not a real person, no adults bothered to mourn for its loss, not even the parents.
The concept of grieving a loss due to death often can be affected by the cultural perception about death itself. This varies from country to country as well as from sub-cultures within those countries. Finlo Rohrer published an article in the BBC News Magazine (2010) entitled, “How Much Can You Mourn a Pet?” In it, he admits, “The UK has what is seen by many non-Britons as a slightly repressed attitude towards death.” Other European countries tend to have reputations for emphasizing death (i.e. the vampire stories).
THE GROUP EFFECT
Grief in a culture grows from a society and belief system that prizes and cultivates individual experience. Some languages have no equivalent to the term grief. In parts of Japan, the concept of emotions that are solely expressed on the part of an individual are not common. In those societies, individual identity is a function of social and communal harmony. A harmonized atmosphere as part of a family or community is sensed among the members. Personal grief is therefore more of a shared event.
In some traditional Chinese cultures, death presents the problem of pollution as understood in terms of their religious world view. One of the purposes of funeral rituals is to protect the men from that pollution, while on the other hand the women take the pollution on themselves. In turn, this practice results in purifying the deceased for the next life. Other than mourning, any other practices revolving around death would seem to be culture-specific. Death presents pollution or powerlessness in some cultural contexts as much as it presents separation, loss and sometimes trauma in the modern West.
THE INDIVIDUAL EFFECT
Western individuals, on the other hand, who successfully come to terms with a traumatic death, may change how they think about themselves, how they relate to others, and how they view life in general. As our world changes and becomes more of a worldwide community, so views on death evolve. Changes experienced by individuals in other cultures might be just as wide-ranging but cover spheres not experienced in the West.
When something important happens in individuals’ lives, they do not just think about it; they talk about it with others. Grief and mourning do not just happen inside a person; they happen in the interactions between people. In most cultures throughout human history, myth and ritual provide the intersubjective space in which one can construct the meaning of the deceased’s life, death and influence over the survivors’ lives. Understanding these concepts can give direction in how to talk to the bereaved. Conversations about the definition of the relationship lost can validate the lost life and aid the mourner in processing their own pain of loss.
One cross-cultural project sought to compare the rules about the emotional expression of grief. Anthropologist Unni Wikan, for example, compared the rules in Egypt and Bali, both Islamic cultures. She found that in Bali, women were strongly discouraged from crying, while in Egypt women were considered abnormal if they did not incapacitate themselves in demonstrative weeping.
Asking a grieving friend from another culture what their traditional methods are can be one way to show concern and empathy. This gives you a chance to at least acknowledge their hurts whether they are the same as yours or not.
The traditional Jewish culture found in the Old Testament of the Bible had many practices continued in many places today. Even though their existence revolved around their God, the expression of grief in the time of severe loss revealed their human experience. Weeping, a primary indication of grief, was referred to a great deal. Time (30-70 days) was set aside to mourn deeply. The physical appearance of the mourners was altered to indicate their condition. Ashes or outer garments often symbolized a grieving heart. The realization of the gift of the presence of friends and family regularly induced comfort. (The Holman Bible Dictionary, 1991)
Judaism today calls for a period of intense mourning known as shiva that lasts seven days after a loved one is buried. After shiva, most normal activities can be resumed, but it is the end of sheloshim that marks the completion of religious mourning for a spouse.
LIVING IN ANOTHER CULTURE
Cross-cultural effects on how one mourns also come in other packages besides historical traditions. Families living abroad, outside of their home country and culture can be very confused about the mourning process. Jonathan Trotter addresses this confusion in his article “Outlawed Grief, a Curse Disguised” (December 22, 2013):
Living abroad is an amazing adventure, but it comes with some baggage. And sometimes, the baggage fees are hidden, catching you by surprise, costing more than you planned. You thought you had it all weighed out, you could handle this, squeeze right under the limit.
But then it got heavy. Your new friends moved away, or your child’s new friend moved away. Far away. Like other continents away. And your kid’s broken heart breaks yours.
Someone died and you didn’t get to say that last, fully present, goodbye. Family members celebrate a birthday, or the whole family celebrates a holiday, and you’re not there because the Pacific’s really big, and you’re on the wrong side of it.
Or your child can’t remember her cousin’s name, and she doesn’t even know that’s sad.
Facing the subject of death and life beyond often brings out the definition of one’s “worldview.” Some individuals and cultures see death as final with no existence beyond. Others think that following death one is simply in a spirit world quite different than our own, which interacts with ours. Still others view life after death as a paradise existence that is very similar to our own, but unimaginablys better. Many hold to the concept that a judgment or evaluation of one’s life follows death and that either reward or condemnation awaits each person who dies. A large number of the world’s cultures and religions hold that a person immediately faces God in some way upon their death.
I have noticed that it is not uncommon for the bereaved to default to what their worldview is only to have questions about it. If they request it at this point, you can take the opportunity to help them answer and adjust their worldview where they have confusion. However, unless asked, you will be the most help to them by addressing their pain of loss.
But being aware of one’s worldview can help you choose what to say. If they believe that death is the end of existence comments like, “Your loved one is in a better place.” will be of no comfort. However, a comment such as, “Your loved one has no more pain.” may help more.
Worldview is often influenced by religion. Understanding a griever’s religious views can be a big help in your knowing what to say, or not. The beliefs of the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches, for example, hold that the state or even future of a departed soul can be affected by intercessory prayers. Comforting folks who cling to this hope for their lost friend or relative can be more effective by you emphasizing the bereaved person’s current pain and not saying things about the state of the departed.
Other religions such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventists, view the state of the deceased to be in a form of unconsciousness until some future resurrection. Many Judeo-Christians believe the departed is instantly transported to the presence of God in a “heavenly” state of paradise. In making comments to these folks about their one lost, you should be politely aware of these beliefs. Again, remember that your role is to aid them in processing their grief and not to change their religious beliefs unless they specifically ask for your opinions on the subject of life after death.
Members of Islam believe that any form of suffering, including grieving, is a result of the griever’s sins in some way. Their Prophet Muhammad declared: “By the One in whose hand is my soul (i.e. God), no believer is stricken with fatigue, exhaustion, worry, or grief, but God will forgive him for some of his sins thereby — even a thorn which pricks him.” (Musnad Ahmad, You-Tube) So, you may aid such a person with words of assurance that will help them deal with guilt that may be unjustified. Physically showing grief with the bereaved would be in order, however, Islam discourages very loud crying and wailing at funerals. During the mourning time after a death, mourners expect to have visitors. Be sure to pay a physical visit to your Muslim friend within days following their loss.
In the case of Buddhism and Hinduism, the deceased is believed to be on a path to being re-born again in another physical life. Helping such a one cope with their grief could revolve around assisting them celebrate their loved one’s life. Emphasizing the accomplishments and good traits in the form of scrapbooks and photo displays can bring inner comfort to the griever.
Genuine concern goes a long way in helping the bereaved. Sensing your authentic caring is more help to them than a long prepared speech. Polite awareness of their worldview or religious persuasion will be helpful in aiding their grief.
« Point to Ponder »
Comments that imply a judgmental nature are of no comfort to the bereaved.
(Copied from the book I DIDN’T KNOW WHAT TO SAY: Being a Better Friend to those Who Experience Loss. www.ididntknowwhattosay.com/book)