Understanding Grief Within a Cultural Context

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 04/2018

Many people experience grief and a sense of loss after the death of a loved one. But the ways in which they experience and express these feelings may differ across cultures. Culture is the mix of beliefs, values, behaviors, traditions, and rituals that members of a cultural group share. Each culture has its own rituals that influence the expression of grief. Carrying out these practices offers a sense of stability and security. Rituals can also help people who are dying and bring comfort to the loved ones who are preparing for their loss.

Culture and the meaning of death

Every culture has its own set of beliefs that describe how the world works and people’s roles in the world. In societies in which most people share the same religion, religious beliefs significantly shape the culture. Each culture has its own beliefs about the meaning and purpose of life and what happens after death. This informs how people in those cultures approach death. For example, people may find death more bearable if they believe in a life after death. In some cultures, people believe that the spirit of someone who has died directly influences the living family members. The family members are comforted by the belief that their loved one is watching over them. In general, beliefs about the meaning of death help people make sense of it and cope with its mystery.

Cultural rituals regarding death

In each culture, death is associated with rituals and customs to help people with the grieving process. Rituals offer people ways to process and express their grief. They also provide ways for the community to support the bereaved. A person who is bereaved is in a period of grief and mourning after a loss. Death can create a sense of chaos and confusion. Rituals and customs provide a sense of routine and normalcy. They provide a set of directions that help structure the time surrounding death. Also, they direct people’s roles during this time. Rituals and customs can help address:

  • How people care for people as they approach death. This includes who is present and what ceremonies are performed at the moments before and after death.

  • How a person's body is handled after death. This includes how the person's body is cleansed and dressed, who handles the body, and whether the body is buried or cremated.

  • Whether grief is expressed quietly and privately or loudly and publicly. This includes whether public crying or wailing is appropriate.

  • Whether people of different genders or ages grieve differently.

  • What rituals people perform after death and who is included in these rituals.

  • How long family members are expected to grieve. And how they dress and behave during the mourning period.

  • How the deceased are honored over the lifetime of the family. This includes ongoing rituals to celebrate or talk with the deceased.

  • What new roles family members are expected to take on. This includes whether a widow remarries or an oldest son becomes the family leader.

Personal differences in grief and mourning

People often adapt the beliefs and values of their culture to meet their unique needs and circumstances. As a result, grief responses within a culture vary from person to person. This is especially true in societies made up of people from many cultural backgrounds. A family with members from 2 or more cultural backgrounds may develop its own set of rituals and customs.

In some instances, a person’s experience of grief may be at odds with cultural norms. For example, someone who is quiet and reserved may not feel comfortable crying in public as expected. Others may have a level of despair that feels out of step with cultural beliefs about life after death. Despite cultural norms, people need to grieve in ways that feel right to them.

Grief and cultural sensitivity

There is no correct way to grieve. Mourning rituals that are normal to one culture may seem strange to another. It may be difficult to know how to be sensitive to a grieving person from a different cultural background. Consider the following questions as you seek to support a person with a different cultural background:

  • What emotions and behaviors are normal grief responses within the person’s own culture?

  • What are the bereaved family's beliefs surrounding death?

  • Who should attend mourning ceremonies, and how are attendees expected to dress and act?

  • Are gifts, flowers, or other offerings expected?

  • What special days or dates will be significant for the bereaved family?

  • What types of verbal or written condolence are expressed?

Consider talking with someone who shares that cultural background or searching for information on the Internet to learn more about the customs and mourning practices of a person from another culture.

Related Resources

Coping With Grief

Coping With Change After a Loss