Grief Topic

Grief Reactions Associated with Indigenous Grief

One must be aware that grief is a human experience, therefore many Aboriginal people experience similar emotions when in grief, at any level, as any other race of people. The difference lies not in their human emotions but what they have lost since 1788 which has contributed to their psychological, social and economical status today.

Many books have been written on the impact of loss and grieving for non-indigenous people by non-indigenous people. These losses, in retrospect have become detrimental to the social, emotional, mental, physical and spiritual well being of indigenous people and their cultural beliefs, concepts, understandings and practices for approximately two centuries.

What is loss for indigenous peoples?

For indigenous people, losses have four categories. The first two categories are historical and contemporary losses and the other two are recognised and unrecognised losses.

Recognised historical losses include loss of an entire culture or part of it. For example, for many indigenous people, particularly in the southern half of the country, these losses have included:

  • many spoken languages
  • deaths and dying by massacres
  • sicknesses
  • land
  • traditional medicines
  • traditional foods
  • many ceremonies, particularly grieving ceremonies.

Recognised contemporary losses include the impact of the many national policies inflicted upon the indigenous people, for example:

  • the removal of aboriginal children from their families
  • the assimilation policy.

Unrecognised emotional losses are hidden amongst the recognised losses. Just to name a few these are: loss of one’s sense of identity – through the removal of many children from their families, loss of the sense of power, loss of trust, confidence, and self esteem, due to the abuse inflicted on the children and adults as a result of these two major policies. The abuse has been physical, emotional, mental and sexual. A physical loss may lead to emotional losses, and these may create mental health problems later in life.

What is grief in indigenous terms?

It is thought that traditional culture had a belief that major loss created ‘live energy’ within the body, like electricity, that could kill, except more slowly. Grief can be trapped and circulate in the body, if it is not expressed constructively such as by sacred ceremonies. For many indigenous people, this ‘live energy’ has been circulating for two centuries. This live energy has very possibly created the many diseases within the indigenous communities that never existed before within the culture.

In many parts of traditional and contemporary indigenous culture, death is not the end of life, but is the last ceremony in this present life: then the soul is reborn. Thus all living people are reincarnations of the dead. This belief in reincarnation provides a direct link back to their ancestors of the Dreamtime. With the coming of colonisation and Christianity this became one part of the desecration of our culture!!

Strategies for indigenous people

It has been found helpful for the health and well being of our people to:

  • create awareness about the impact of losses and the unresolved grief on people
  • create and develop grieving ceremonies suited to today
  • recreate women’s business/ceremonies
  • recreate men’s business/ceremonies
  • recreate rites of passage (young people)

Strategies for non-indigenous people

Non-indigenous people may assist by:

  • continuing to change their history books
  • developing loss and grief counselling courses for indigenous and non-indigenous people
  • having healing centres dealing with indigenous health issues from a holistic perspective
  • developing loss and grief programs and workshops, as a part of the curriculum, within our primary and secondary schools
  • assisting towards a true reconciliation, with the full understanding that both groups, non-indigenous and indigenous people, have deep grief
  • throughout all levels of the medical profession, teaching students about the complexities of indigenous and non-indigenous grief


In 1788, the time of the invasion of Aboriginal Australians, many other cultures of the world had developed their religious beliefs dealing with loss and grieving.

So too, had the Aboriginal people developed their own beliefs, concepts and practices for dealing with their losses and grieving! Their grieving was processed, predominantly through the use of their language, sacred ceremonies and the strong connection to the Land and their Spiritual Ancestors.

It can only be assumed that the colonisers did not recognise the significance of Aboriginal culture, as not only have indigenous peoples suffered major losses, but they have also suffered the loss of the practices and rituals which enable them to deal with these losses.

Page last updated 17th April, 2008