The grief of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people: Australia’s First Peoples

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples face grief through the range of losses that confront all people, but added to this are historical losses of country, language, family, culture and tradition.

Multiple Historical Losses For Aboriginal People

Following British settlement in Australia, Aboriginal populations were initially decimated by introduced diseases, but also by conflict with white settlers who had no understanding of Aboriginal connection with their traditional lands. Subsequent disruptions came about through the Stolen Generations.

The removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, based on the European view that they would have better opportunities to thrive, has been one of the most difficult and scandalous public policy approaches to First Nations People.1

The impact of this policy on those Aboriginal children, their families of origin and subsequent generations was the subject of an Australian Royal Commission in 1998 entitles “Bringing Them Home2.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s grief is also amplified by the inequalities that persist in our society: in economic terms, in employment and education outcomes, and in terms of their statistically shorter lifespan than non-Indigenous Australians.

Although changes have occurred to reduce these inequalities, they still exist, and are a critical focus for a nation finding its way to achieve Reconciliation.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people still die at a younger age than the rest of the Australian population, and have a higher rate of suicide than the population in general. The burden of grief for some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities can become overwhelming.

Aboriginal And Torres Strait Islander “Sorry Business”

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are culturally oriented to their immediate and extended family and the wider communities or country to which they belong. It is most often here that they are supported in their grief.

Grief resulting from the death of a family member is known as “Sorry Business” among Aboriginal people.

Aboriginal cultural protocols following death generally have two purposes:

  • sending the spirit on to the next world
  • grieving as a family and community

Many Aboriginal language and clan groups share the belief that this life is only part of a longer journey. When a person passes away, the spirit leaves the body. The spirit must be sent along its journey back to the ancestors and the land or it will stay and disturb the family.

Although there are variations to these customs, there are two significant practices that may occur following a death to assist with the journey of the spirit:

  • the name of the deceased is not mentioned for a long period of time (from several months to years) to ensure that the spirit is not held back or recalled to this world
  • a cleansing or smoking ceremony is conducted. The cleansing or smoking of the deceased person’s belongings and residence also assists with encouraging the departure of the spirit

Coping Strategies For Aboriginal And Torres Strait Islander peoples

It has been found helpful for the health and well-being of Aboriginal peoples to:

  • acknowledge the impact of their losses and unresolved grief
  • support the continuation of men’s and women’s business/ceremonies
  • support the continuation of rites of passage for young people

Challenges For non-Indigenous Australians

In working with any person who has lost a loved one as the result of death it is important to recognise differences in emotional and behavioural responses – not everyone in a comunity is the same. While there are patterns of emotional responses and behaviour in bereavement that are linked to culture, there are also differences and variations because every individual is unique. The task is to understand each person’s own individual responses. This requires openness and listening.

Challenges for non-Indigenous Australians working with bereaved Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples include:

  • being culturally responsive and appropriate in their engagement and mannerisms when working with Aboriginal people
  • challenging their own unintentional biases and unpacking white privilege
  • looking through an Aboriginal lens with no assumptions that they understand the Indigenous experience

It is important for non-Aboriginal people to be aware of local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander customs and culture, which may vary according to the land and people to whom a person belongs.

As is the case in most grief support, understanding grows through story-telling and “yarning” – finding out about the person and building trust and rapport. Grief support is based on respect for the person.

When working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who are grieving, it is important to be aware of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander support services and workers with whom Aboriginal people might find it easier to identify.

Working Towards A Better Future

All Australians, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, can work towards a future that better supports the grief of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders by:

  • developing understanding and respect for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ cultural traditions and connections to their country and kin
  • developing loss and grief counselling courses about Indigenous grief for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people
  • having healing centres that deal 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
  • working towards true reconciliation, with the full understanding that both groups, non-Indigenous and Indigenous people, experience deep grief
  • throughout all levels of the health and medical profession, teaching students about grief, and the complexities of Indigenous grief in particular
  • working alongside and with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Communities and organisations. There are, in most communities, strong links to Elders, who will often be able to find the best connections to support a person or family in grief within their own Community
  • continuing to change Australian history books to reflect the events of the past

To understand what’s happening today, we must first understand our history