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Kenneth J. Doka, M.Div., Ph.D.

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What Culture Teaches Us About Grief

Posted: 02/28/2012 4:20 pm

For many viewers, the televised funeral of Whitney Houston was a clear reminder of the cultural differences in the ways we handle death. The open emotionality offered a sharp contrast to the stoic reactions often found in white Protestant funerals. The celebratory quality with strong themes of a homecoming offered a contrast to the staid sadness of many funerals. Gospel hymns drawing from jazz, classical, and rhythm and blues, as well as the intense interaction between congregation and clergy, offered a powerful portrait of a ritual that resonated meaningfully. Houston's funeral was truly a soulful event -- from the songs to the sadness to the promise a gladness in life-everlasting.

Duke University Professor Karla FC Holloway in her book, Passed On: African-American Mourning Stories,reaffirms both the uniqueness and importance of the funeral to the African-American culture. From its earliest days, black funerals were events -- solely controlled by the African-American community -- that expressed the cultural uniqueness of the black encounter with death in American society.

Are death and our reactions to it that culturally different? If death is a universal, shouldn't we assume that grief should be as well? After all, since every culture experiences death, should we not expect that every culture should grieve and mourn in similar ways?

Cross-cultural studies on grief have taught us that the answer to that question is far more complex than we once believed. In fact, the only universal statement we can really affirm is that each culture has developed ways to respond to loss. Beyond that, there is little common ground.

Each culture grieves different losses. How and to whom we attach ourselves varies from one culture to another. For example, in the Latino culture, godparents are often highly involved in the lives of their godchildren. Yet one would be hard-pressed to find a sympathy card directed toward either relationship. Similarly, in the African-American community, it is not unusual for non-kin to be granted honorary kin status -- often called "aunt" or "uncle." These patterns date back to enslavement when individuals separated from kin learned to form close bonds with others in order to survive. Again, there is little acknowledgment of these fictive kin outside of African American communities despite the value of these intimate networks.

On an even more basic level, cultures may limit our level of attachment with those viewed as most death-prone. In societies with high death rates for children, parents and others may psychology be less prone to invest emotions in a child until her or she has demonstrated a likelihood of surviving. I learned that lesson early. My maternal grandmother was a warm Latino woman with a great sense of and a deep love for family. When I first began in this field, working with dying children and their families, my mother mentioned that she had a sibling die when she was younger -- a family story that I had never heard. I timidly asked my grandmother about it -- cautiously fearful of reopening an old wound. My grandmother's response was simple and unemotional: "I was very lucky," she shared, "I had six children and five survived to be adults." It is a comment one would be unlikely to hear today at a meeting of Compassionate Friends -- a support group for bereaved parents -- but it reflected the reality of her life and of raising children in the early 20th century. One simply did not expect them all to survive -- five out of six was a good record.

I have no idea how my grandmother grieved the death of her son, Juan, or how her neighbors and friends grieved the all too common deaths of their children from the epidemics and accidents. Freud believed that we invested less in these death-prone segments of our population. We can look now at the ways society isolates the very old. Robert Kastenbaum, a psychologist and founding editor of Omega: Journal of Death and Dying has mused that the isolation of very elderly individuals may serve a role in insulating societies from their death.

The experience of grief varies in different cultures as well. Some cultures expect a dignified and quiet response to loss while in other societies -- mourners are expected to openly display their raw emotions. Emotions in grief, too, may vary between cultures. Some cultures expect feelings of loneliness or sadness while in other cultures, persons may respond with anger or rage. In others, grief may be displayed somatically with varied pains or aches. Paul Rosenblatt, a professor at the University of Minnesota, notes that even the vocabulary used to describe some cultures' grief reactions may have no equivalent in other languages. For example, the Ifaluk, a South Pacific people, use the word fago to express a feeling of compassion combined with sadness and love to convey their sense of grief.

The diversity of culture has reaffirmed the very individual nature of grief. Such recognition moves us further away from a once dominant search for individual stages to a new appreciation of the very individual journey of each bereaved individual.