Grief reactions in different cultures

A great number or 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, through the mourning customs or rituals of our particular society.

Different Mourning Customs

Mourning customs vary from country to country, within countries, within societies, and even within religions. We need only think of the 100 day period of mourning in some Chinese societies, or the custom among some Aboriginal peoples, of cutting themselves across the arm or the chest, as a solemn expression of sorrow and grief. In some cultures, people wear black during the period of mourning but in other countries, white is the designated colour.

It is less well known that the inner experience of grief also varies from one cultural group to another.

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, 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) can often provide a valuable source of guidance in this area.

A knowledge of other people’s cultures not only enriches your own understanding of their emotions, but also helps guard against imposing your own assumptions upon them or offending someone.

The Importance Of Language

Language is another important issue when people are grieving. Sometimes emotions are so basic, so influenced by our early experiences and relationships, that they can only be expressed in the language of our childhood. We cannot find the right words to express them in a language learned later in life as the detail of how we feel gets lost in translation.

Feelings of loss and grief 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.