Death and Culture: How it Impacts our Healing

If you’re a Canadian, you likely heard about the recent deaths of seven children from the same family in a house fire in Nova Scotia. For those unaware of the story, the father is in a coma from his injuries. All of the children in the family died. The mom was the only one physically unharmed. While her mental and emotional state is anyone’s guess, as a bereaved mom myself, I can only imagine she must be experiencing pain and trauma to such a degree, it is beyond anyone’s comprehension, except for perhaps those who have experienced something similar.

As a background, the family had recently immigrated from Syria and were settling into their new life in Canada. Then, this tragedy. Which has left everyone speechless and shaking their heads. The provincial and federal governments are to be applauded for taking swift action to bring this grieving mom’s extended family to Canada to support her. Which got me thinking how important their actions were in demonstrating how critical family and cultural influences are to the grieving and healing process.

This story, as painful as it is, also got me thinking about death and grieving around the world and how various cultural practices with regard to loss and grief in general, impact our healing positively or negatively. As a mom of a daughter who died by suicide, I certainly have not felt overly supported through the years. We still have a long way to go in western culture to help grievers feel fully supported throughout all of their grief, whether this is complicated grief due to sudden and traumatic loss, where the process to heal is long and difficult, or grief that is less difficult to relate to and not quite as long-lasting. The number and types of support systems needed are simply not available. At least not in Canada. While these may vary in different countries throughout the western world, the attitude in general that we grieve alone and move on is prevalent. We make no attempt to openly share our experiences because 1) we feel we aren’t supposed to and 2) no one really wants to hear about our loss and pain anyway.

Funeral cremation on the Ganges River, India. Image by Simon on Pixabay

Without question, pain and joy bind us as humans. While its acceptable and easy for all of us to share joyful experiences, being able to openly share our stories of loss and pain and openly grieve death together – because we recognize death as a culturally shared experience (like it or not) – would feel incredible. It would help us all heal much faster than we can trying to cope with loss in painfully isolated circumstances.

Cultures that honour death and grieving together as a community have a couple of common elements missing in western culture, except when we come together as a community to “grieve” deaths that have gained a level of notoriety through media attention. These elements are 1) the recognition of shared experience and 2) precise behavioural practices or rituals in which everyone participates without fear or judgment.

Festival of the Cows. Image by photosforyou on Pixabay

From Mexico’s The Day of the Dead annual public holiday that celebrates the departed, to the public cremations at the Ganges in India (the practice requires that bodies are washed in the river beforehand and the ashes returned after cremation), to Nepal’s Gai Jatra or happy Festival of the Cows that celebrates families who have lost a relative in the last year (it is interesting that the origin of this festival dates back to a king, who after losing his young son, started the festival to cheer up his wife), to the Bali fire burial that eases the economic burden for families struggling to pay for a burial (when there are enough bodies to bury a communal cremation takes place), to Hinduism and Buddhism practices, where because death is not is not viewed as the end of life, it is mourned for specific periods of time, to Islam – where mourning is also for a specified time and crying (though not wailing) is expected, to the specific Jewish practices that include intense mourning immediately following a death and then annually; what these practices and many more around the world focus on and how they differ from the western world is tradition, community, cultural attitudes, and expected and specific behaviours, whether these are severe, celebratory or both. They are inclusive rather than isolated and they don’t change. Some have been around for centuries.

Hanging coffins. Image by rmac8oppo on Pixabay

While in North America there is one way to bury our deceased – we go to a funeral home and they take care of it for a princely sum – many people haven’t got a clue what this entails until they find themselves losing a loved one. Drive past any funeral home and its very appearance from the outside (at least to the non-initiated) seems mysterious and conjures up a sense of foreboding. I had not even been in one before my daughter died. I was 48 years old!

Though practices around memorials and celebrations of life differ, actual disposal of the deceased’s body and who disposes of it, does not (the funeral home with no one in attendance for cremations). Now, while I’m not sure I’d want to stand on the edge of the Ganges to watch my loved one burn, or see them pressed into jewellery beads (South Korea), feed them to the vultures and crows (Tibet), hang their coffin off a mountain (China), or dress them in their finest, sit them in a chair and place a smoke in their mouth for several weeks (Tinguian Funeral the Phillipines), because these are all common practices within the culture, death is neither to be feared or hushed. It is accepted for what it is. Together, the people cry, laugh, remember and celebrate. And then they get on with it.

I have been a staunch vocal advocate of the need for us to not feel shamed about our losses and grief. We need to come together in our communities and have respect, compassion and empathy for everyone’s loss, no matter how recent or long ago, if we want to all have a better chance at healing. It helps to be able to openly honour our deceased, and our journey together before their death and now, whether we are saying goodbye to a child, parent, sibling, spouse, extended family member or dear friend.


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