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 groups, 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
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 Geerz, 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.” Geerz 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.’).”
Geerz, 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 Geerz is making is that this reaction was no less valid,
even if it seemed foreign to him.
Hence, you can only understand the grief suffered by a person who comes from a
cultural background that differs from yours, if you 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
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 17th April, 2008