Updated: Nov 13, 2019
Culture creates, influences, shapes, limits, and defines grieving, sometimes profoundly.
Understanding the complex entanglement between culture and grieving is a first step toward theorizing about grief in a culturally attuned way and in providing support to culturally diverse grieving people.
Paul C. Rosenblatt
“Mum said she absolutely does not want lilies at the funeral”, cautions my sister as we sit in the funeral director’s office.
“Why?”, I ask.
“I don’t know”, she replies, “maybe they mean something bad in the Syrian culture, or maybe dad just didn’t want them.”
I can’t believe it, my dad has passed away and I find myself taking notes on what is going on. I can’t help myself! We are a multicultural family: Syrian, Armenian, Welsh and French cultures have intermingled our entire lives. My brother now lives in the USA and has flown over for ten days. My children and I have come from Switzerland. Thankfully, my parents moved a few years’ ago from France into sheltered accommodation in the UK, a forty minute drive from my sister’s.
As our family comes together, the fact that cultural differences reach even into death strikes me most. There are personality differences of course. The introverts among us would like to grieve privately. Conversely, the extroverts find comfort in the visits and the conversations.
The visible cultural differences
How long do we wait before the funeral? Is ten days too long? Too short?
What needs to be in the order of service? Do we put a photo of both our parents or just our dad? How do we word acknowledgements? We are grateful for local friends who guide us and format it for us.
What should we wear at the funeral? Do we wear all black? Are hats a requirement?
Our mum absolutely wants us to walk into the service together. No one questions it, this is obviously important to her.
The invisible cultural differences
Apart from the very obvious cultural differences listed above, I find myself pondering the invisible part. I don’t know anything about how people mourn in the Middle-East.
How do people show grief in my mum’s culture?
She is the one that is the furthest away from the culture she was raised in. As I research specific country, cultural and faith traditions and rituals online, the information there is useful but even the rituals and traditions I read about have been diluted as my mum has moved to various countries.
Look at this interesting checklist on grief and culture intended for the bereavement practitioner.
The Dual Process Model, a trans-cultural model
As my research continues, I find out that the five stages of grief that we commonly refer to are actually under criticism for lack of empirical evidence and neglect of cultural/social context1 (amongst other things).
I come across a paper that describes the Dual Process Model, something that transcends cultures and that, to me, is the most liberating.
“Although grief is essentially a universal human reaction to loss of a significant other, cultural prescriptions impact on the way that grief is manifested. It is useful to describe cultural differences along the loss/restoration dimension” Margaret Stroebe, Henk Schut (1999) The Dual Process Model of Coping with Bereavement: Rationale and Description, Death Studies, 23:3, 197-224
Loss orientation can be defined as the dimension within which a bereaved person is concentrating on, dealing with, or processing same aspect of the loss experience itself.
Restoration-orientation shows the necessity to focus on the aspects that come about as a result of loss. Roles, identities and relationships may change. The person grieving rebuilds a new ‘normal’ that doesn’t include the person deceased.
The person who is grieving will move between the two orientations of coping. At times they will be confronted by their loss, at others they will be turned towards the future. Cultural norms will have a huge influence on how, when and how long they are in the loss or restoration orientation.
Making the most of a short time together
The three of us siblings are very aware that we will not be in the same country very long and we dive in to funeral arrangements as soon as we arrive. We know that this time together is precious. We take some time to hang out just the three of us catching up on each other’s lives.
Saturday was a tough day as we went through some of our dad’s things. We wanted to be cautious about taking something that was precious to us while the other siblings might not be in the country. It was a bit too early, and a bit too raw, but we knew we had to do it sooner rather than later.
A checklist to think about:
Which friends need to be informed? Proceed country by country
What administrative office abroad needs to contacted? Our father was still drawing a pension from France and the service offered in Britain that allows you to make one call to notify all administrations will not suffice for our family.
Who needs accommodation if they are coming from abroad?
How do we convey and conserve messages from abroad?
Are we going to set up online donations in lieu of flowers?
Are we taking pictures or streaming the funeral service online for those who cannot attend in person? Who needs to approve?
“We are all grieving, even if it is in different ways”, my brother and I conclude.
“That’s very true”, agrees my sister, “who wants a cup of tea?”
Now that’s a British tradition that is welcome right now.
If you have a family that blends more than one culture and you have known grief, please contact me and share your story.
We all grieve in our own way, Vaughan Bell, the Guardian (2012)
Understanding Grief Within a Cultural Context, Cancer.net (2018)
When your last goodbye was your last goodbye: Processing death and life abroad, Jerry Jones (2019)