Grief Reactions in Different Cultures

A great number of Australians were born outside this country, grew up in different cultural environments, and speak a language other than English as their first language.

When someone close to us dies, we mourn this loss inwardly (we might refer to this as the inner experience of grief) but we also mourn in an outward public way (the mourning customs or rituals of our particular society). It is well known that these customs vary from country to country. One need only think of the 100 day period of mourning in some Chinese societies, or the custom, among some Aboriginal peoples, of cutting oneself across the arm or the chest, as a solemn expression of sorrow and grief. In some cultures one wears black during the period of mourning but in other cultures white is the designated colour.

It is less well known that the inner experience of grief also varies from one cultural group to another. There is a wonderful essay entitled “`From the Native’s Point of View’: On the Nature of Anthropological Understanding,” by Clifford Geertz, the great anthropologist. It appeared in his book “Local Knowledge: Further Essays in Interpretive Anthropology” (New York: Basic Books, 1983). The essay contains a beautiful and subtle description of a young Javanese man “whose wife – a woman he had in fact raised from childhood and who had been the centre of his life – has suddenly and inexplicably died.” Geertz was struck by the way this young man was “greeting everyone with a set smile and formal apologies for his wife’s absence and trying, by mystical techniques, to flatten out, as he himself put it, the hills and valleys of his emotion level plain (‘That is what you have to do,’ he said to me, ‘be smooth inside and out.’).” Geertz, who came from a culture in which the deepest feelings are highly valued – a culture in which one is expected to experience feelings fully and express them honestly – found it hard to fathom the smooth, calm reaction of the Javanese man. The main point Geertz is making is that this reaction was no less valid, even if it seemed foreign to him.

Hence, to really understand the grief suffered by a person who comes from a cultural background that differs from yours, you will need to learn from them, or their family and friends, what are the customary ways of expressing grief in that culture, and what are the usual inner feelings they might expect to go through after losing a loved one. Spiritual experts from that culture (the priest, the imam, the rabbi, the monk, the traditional healer, the elder) usually provide a valuable source of guidance in this area.

A knowledge of others’ culture not only enriches your own understanding of their emotions, but also helps guard against imposing your own assumptions upon them. For example, there is a widely accepted model in the West involving phases of grief – from denial, to despair, to acceptance, to resolution and reintegration. But in some cultures, the final stage of resolution might be considered quite inappropriate, and it would be mistaken to try to lead that person toward a resolution of their grief.

Language is another important issue. The eminent psychoanalyst, Bruno Bettelheim, made the point that some emotions are so basic—so influenced with the atmosphere of our earliest relationships—that they can only be expressed in our “mother” tongue. We cannot find the right word to express them in a language learned later in life; the feeling tone gets lost in the translation. Feelings of grief and loss are often like this. We may need the language of our childhood to even begin to speak about them; we may need someone who understands this language to even begin to share them.

Page last updated 21st July, 2017