The Truth About Cultural Differences and Grief

Truthfully, most of us genuinely have no idea how to act/react when we encounter someone grieving a significant loss. We wish we knew what to say to help that person heal. The situation is uncomfortable, and it can feel impossible to know what to say or how we can help. Although we’ve heard that everyone grieves in his/her own way, it is still challenging to accept another person’s method of grieving — especially if it is different than our own.  When you add cultural miscommunication into the mix, the situation becomes even more complicated.

The famous five stages of grief model (as postulated by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross):

  • Denial: Denial is generally the very first stage of the grieving process. It is a common defense mechanism and is there to help manage the initial shock of the loss. It allows us to numb our feelings, temporarily, so we can rationalize our experience and emotions and continue to focus on what needs to be done. Eventually the numbness goes away and allows the healing process to begin
  • Bargaining: We start with our struggle of surviving the loss and try to make sense of what happened. It is not uncommon to feel numb or to pretend like this is a bad dream that we just need to snap out of.
  • Anger: As the truth of our loss sets in, we move to feelings of anger and in some ways, I would say questioning all that’s around us. Contrary to popular belief, anger is not a negative emotion. It is an emotion that sometimes provides the necessary fuel to move us forward. In this case, the fuel to move past the need we may have had for our loss. Once the frustration settles down, we find ourselves reaching for the higher power more and wondering whether we have anything to offer or trade for a little longer with our loved ones. Guilt can also fall into this category as we try to regain control of our part in this tragedy.
  • Depression:  Once we realize that we are somewhat helpless and have no control over the separation, depression sets in. Depression can be and may start as situational. It may feel like it will last forever, and unfortunately, for some, it may. Not knowing how to feel or how to express ourselves is natural at this stage. It is normal to struggle in connecting with others, and this can be frustrating for all involved — but we can learn to cope with this.
  • Acceptance: As we learn to move forward, we reach acceptance, which is the final stage of the grieving process. Acceptance does not mean that we will stop missing our loved ones. Acceptance only means that we understand where we are and that we must move forward with other loved ones in our lives.

It is important to note that grief is not a linear process.  The five stages can occur in any order, we can bounce back and forth between stages, and all five may not manifest in each experience.

Since we all follow this basic model, why do we need to talk about the cultural impact on how we grieve? Think back to a funeral in your family…close your eyes and recall the details.  There are so many different individuals involved there. Within our families, we have the nurturer making sure that everyone is fed and has enough tissues for their tears; there is the decision maker who understands that everything must be done quickly and efficiently – just to name a couple, I think you get the idea. Even though the basic roles are the same across the globe, the reason for highlighting a certain expected behavior can leave us feeling alienated.

What happens when the loss is suffered by two different cultures, and the expectation of grief actually interferes with one’s grieving process? The obvious example would be individuals who grew up in different countries coming together to mourn someone, or even if all the individuals are from the same country then there are generational cultures that impact everyone differently.  If a culture views tears as signs of weakness or perhaps expects one gender to be “strong and composed” while the other as “fragile and dramatic”, limits one’s process of grieving openly and honestly. A clear indication of judgment against someone leaves that person feeling more alienated and confused between accepting his/her own experience with grief or accept the responsibility society has placed on them due to the expectation.

As difficult as it may be, this is the time to allow space and clear communication for healing. This is the time for compassion and empathy – even if you do not agree with one’s way of expressing their loss – as well as, and especially for yourself.  For some, counseling has provided an open and accepting place to process roller coaster of emotions from a sense of loss.  As close as we may be to our family and friends, sometimes it is extremely difficult to process our feelings as our loved ones are also working through their struggle with their loss. Counseling allows one to express him/herself in an environment that promotes healing and with someone who can remain your anchor while helping you navigate this difficult process.  Counseling allows you to understand and validate your feelings as no one else can experience your emotions in the same way.


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