Bereavement in Cross-Cultural Perspective

Paul C Rosenblatt. Handbook of Death and Dying. Editor: Clifton D Bryant. Volume 2. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference, 2003.

Studies of bereavement cross-culturally have produced fascinating and important challenges to much that has been taken for granted about bereavement in U.S. psychology and the social sciences. Although the U.S. bereavement literature gives a sense of something basically human across cultures, as cross-cultural bereavement research has accumulated, the core of what can be said to be basic to human bereavement has shrunk. Based on studies conducted in a variety of cultures, social scientists have demonstrated that many widely held assumptions and truths about bereavement, rooted in research conducted in the United States, are ethnocentric and inaccurate (see, e.g., Hébert 1998; Rosenblatt 1993a, 1993b, 1997, 2001; Rosenblatt, Walsh, and Jackson 1976; Shapiro 1996; Stroebe and Schut 1998).

Universals in Human Grief

What is basically human in bereavement? All over the world, most people who experience the death of someone close or important are, in ways that others can recognize, upset about the death, and that upset state may go on for quite a while—perhaps for years, or even for a lifetime. But when it comes to the specifics of characterizing that state of being, it is striking how diverse emotional expressions are across cultures. It is even difficult to describe that diversity of emotional expression in the English language, because people who speak other languages use vocabularies of grief that do not necessarily translate well into English terminology.

Even if in superficial translation a particular feeling in the language of another culture seems to translate into English, the context may make the superficially similar feeling quite different. For example, bereaved people in the United States may say they feel a mixture of anger and fear, anger perhaps about when or how the death occurred and fear about the future. In some cultures, people may say they feel a mixture of anger and fear, but the grounds for those feelings, the ways those feelings pervade their daily life, and the implications of those feelings for action may be quite foreign to what people in the United States would experience. Consider societies where many or even all deaths are understood as caused by sorcery or some other act of malevolence at a distance (for one illustration, see Counts and Counts 1991, writing of the Kaliai of Papua New Guinea).

It is also common across cultures that what is grieved after a death is not just the specific loss of a person but much else—more than can be listed here, but almost certainly other losses (including economic ones) accompanying the death, unpleasant things in the past of the person who died, unfinished business in relationship to the person who died, the grief of others, one’s own personal failings, and one’s own mortality (see, e.g., Boehnlein 1987, writing about the many losses of bereaved Cambodian refugees). Moreover, much of this might have a distinctive content that differs from culture to culture. For instance, the losses grieved by a young Bumbita Arapesh man whose father has died might include mentorship at becoming an effective man, help obtaining a wife, the strength that a young man can draw from his father, and the opportunity to show his father the kind of work he can do (Leavitt 1995).

Across cultures, deaths leave holes in the social fabric. Those holes are often difficult to repair, and from culture to culture, what the social fabric includes and how significant a particular hole is varies enormously. For example, in some cultures, one’s mother’s brother may be crucial to one’s future; in some cultures, grief for the death of an only son may be partly about the loss of the one person whose prayers would have been necessary, after one’s own death, to assist one’s soul to reach heaven.

Across cultures, people give meanings to a death, and those meanings arise in substantial part from the culture(s), language(s), and social relationships of those individuals or groups. Typically, it is not a simple matter to come to meanings about a death, so part of the bereavement process is the individual, family, and community struggle to come to those meanings. Certain meanings may appear in many cultures. For example, meaning making in many cultures will include an evaluation of whether the death was “good” or “bad” by the standards of that culture (Abramovitch 2000). A good death might be a death in old age, surrounded by descendants; a bad death might be the accidental death of a young adult who leaves no descendants. The central themes and metaphors of meaning also vary quite a bit from culture to culture, so much so that a person from one culture may think people from another culture are bizarrely unconnected with reality as they talk about a death. To take an example that might seem bizarre to many speakers of English, consider the issues and metaphors that come up when the Toraja of Indonesia try to determine the meaning of a death. Among other things, a Toraja would be concerned about what the death means for the practice of smoke ascending and smoke descending rituals (Wellenkamp 1991). As unusual as that concern might seem, if one wanted to understand a bereaved Toraja, one would need to learn what smoke ascending and descending rituals are and why they matter.

Within any particular culture, there is considerable variation in what goes on in the grieving process, even though there is some discipline to that grieving as a result of cultural values, cultural rituals dealing with death, the ways emotions are socialized in the culture, and the meanings available in the culture to give to a loss. In some cultures grieving is somatized in the sense that grief may be expressed partially or even primarily as what might appear by U.S. medical standards to be physical illness (e.g., Fabrega and Nutini 1994). At the extreme of somaticizing are those cultures where it is understood that one can die from grieving (Abu-Lughod 1985).

An important element of grieving is often to develop a narrative of how the death came about (Riches and Dawson 1996; Rosenblatt 2000b). In the United States, the narrative may rest on culturally central domains of meaning such as medical explanations, religious explanations, issues of human error, issues of moral responsibility, and concepts of the good life. In other cultures, narratives may be linked to very different culturally central domains. For example, in cultures where narrative is an important part of the grief process and where sorcery is thought of as a common cause of death, the narrative may include ideas of who the sorcerer was, how the sorcery was performed, and what made the victim the target of sorcery (Brison 1992). The development of a narrative is social in many ways, perhaps most of all because the narrative almost always involves others and often develops out of talk with others. Others may contribute to the narrative, although they may also withhold information for various reasons. Seale (1998) talks about cultural discourses on death or cultural scripts “making available a variety of meta-stories to dying and bereaved people for interpretation of their biographic situations” (p. 4). It would be a mistake, however, to think that what culture gives people is crystal clear and definitive. If anything, it offers more narrative ingredients than can be fit together in a single, integrated story. It offers ambiguity that almost demands interpretative effort by the bereaved. It offers so much variety of narrative and so much ambiguity partly because it has to fit the enormous variation in how deaths come about and who the bereaved are; partly because the ambiguity gives individuals and groups latitude to deal with the politics, power issues, and other unique aspects of their situations; and perhaps partly because people get along with each other on important issues only if they do not probe together very far into exactly what their ideology means or implies (see Seale 1998:21). But even though they may have sifted through a variety of ingredients to come up with a narrative and even though an outsider may see substantial ambiguity in a narrative, people come to be captured by the words of their narrative, to believe it is truthful and about real realities.

Across cultures, there is a sense that for many people death does not end relationship with the deceased; rather, the deceased continues as a presence in various senses of the word in a person’s consciousness and perhaps even in what the person experiences as reality. For example, the person who died is still present spiritually or the person who has died actively interacts with the bereaved individual (see, e.g., Howarth 2000; Klass, Silverman, and Nickman 1996; Walter 1999). There is a great deal of variability, however, among cultures in the meanings and forms of continuing connection. For example, the Toraja dead may communicate with the living via dreams (Hollan 1995; Wellenkamp 1991), and those dreams may foretell future prosperity. Consequently, after a death of a close relative, many Toraja eagerly await dream communications. There are also societies that seem to ban certain kinds of relationships between the living and the dead (Rosenblatt et al. 1976; Walter 1999). People may try to prevent the dead from interacting with the living or may avoid mentioning the name of the deceased to avoid summoning the deceased. But in a sense, active efforts to avoid a relationship continue to make the deceased a presence.

In many cultures, grief is entangled in the requirements of living. One may be expected to continue as an active family member, to continue economic activities, and so on. I say “many cultures,” because there are cultures where the bereaved who are considered closest to the deceased person are expected, or even required, to step out of everyday life (Rosenblatt et al. 1976). They may live apart from others and may have their basic subsistence needs met by a small number of others whose job it is to maintain them. And this may go on for weeks, months, or even years.

Finally, although it may not be a universal, it is clear that many cultures have notions of grief pathology and work at preventing grief pathology. Wikan (1990), for example, wrote about the efforts of friends and family of a bereaved Balinese Muslim woman to prevent her from being upset or sad (because if she were upset or sad she would be vulnerable to illness or harmful magic). Wellenkamp (1988) wrote about Toraja ideas of grief pathology, including the dangers of not crying immediately after the loss of someone close to one and of a grief that goes on too intensely for too long. The Toraja believe pathological grief can produce illness, misfortune, or even death, punishments imposed by the ancestors or the spirits (Hollan 1995; Hollan and Wellenkamp 1994:176; Wellenkamp 1988). Although by the standards of many who write in English about bereavement it would be good to express feelings of sorrow, and although the Toraja, too, have notions of grief catharsis (Wellenkamp 1988), encouraging a Toraja to engage in intense grief catharsis may be horrifying to the Toraja, or perhaps just rude. Thus even though the Toraja have ideas about grief pathology and how to deal with grief that seem close to U.S. ideas, the implication of Toraja ideas for helping bereaved Toraja is quite different from the implication of U.S. ideas for helping bereaved people in the United States.

Questions Raised by the Cross-Cultural Study of Bereavement

The study of bereavement across cultures has raised several key questions, including the following.

What is life and what is death? There are variations across cultures in how death is defined, so in some cultures people are defined as alive who would be defined as “dead” by many people in the United States. And in some cultures, people would be defined as dead who are not defined that way by many people in the United States. Related to this, in some cultures there is not a neat binary division between life and death, but instead there are stages that many people go through, several of which would be categorized as “death” in the English language.

What is grieved as death? Cultures seem to differ greatly in terms of what is grieved as a death. For instance, in some cultures, one gets little sense of miscarriages, stillbirths, or perhaps even infant deaths being grieved much if at all, whereas in others such losses are commonly grieved. Chalmers (1996), for example, writes of substantial variations among five different South African cultural groups in women’s reactions to a pregnancy loss.

Why did the death occur? In some cultures, a part of the bereavement process is wondering why a death has happened (e.g., Einarsdóttir 2000:151, writing about some bereaved mothers in Guinea-Bissau). In such cultures, an important part of the grief process is to develop an understanding of why the death happened. The understanding in one culture might be primarily medical, in another it might be primarily spiritual, and in another it might be primarily in terms of finding a culprit (perhaps including somebody who performed a sorcery act that led to the death). As understanding is achieved, it is incorporated into how people talk or lament about the death. By contrast, in other cultures, explanations of why a death happened seem usually to have little or no part in the grief process.

What is lost because of the death? Cultures differ quite a bit in what the losses are that are understood to accompany a death. In some cultures, what is missed is the person, the companionship, the place a person had in one’s heart and one’s identity. But there are cultures where one grieves the loss of support in old age or the loss of one’s previous investments in the person who died or the future one would have had with the person or the security that person gave to some other relationship (e.g., the security a child may have given to her parents’ marriage). Maybe it is a matter of rhetoric, of how one talks about a loss rather than deeply felt feelings, but maybe the rhetoric represents reality differences that are important.

What is normal grieving? Cultures differ enormously in what seems to be normal grieving. That is, what bereaved people say and do and seem to feel varies significantly from culture to culture. A bereaved mother in Cairo, Egypt, may well be in something like a numb, catatonic disconnection from others for years (Wikan 1988). By contrast, Balinese Muslims seem to get on with life almost immediately and to give no obvious outward signs of grief (Wikan 1990). There are cultures where anger seems the predominant feeling in bereavement, whereas in others it might be sorrow or depression, and in others fear has an important place. To complicate matters, there may be ritual demands on the bereaved that constrain or force certain behavior and expressions of apparent feelings.

A discussion of normal grieving across cultures leads to a questioning of the very nature of grief as U.S. psychologists and social scientists might ordinarily understand it. One might, for example, question whether grief is universally an emotion or a feeling, when from the viewpoints of some cultures it might better be thought of as feeling-thought, feelings and thoughts that are inseparably connected (Lutz 1985; Wikan 1990). At an even greater remove from what might seem to fit U.S. psychological and social science concepts about grieving, one can find terms for grief feelings in various languages and cultures that have no equivalent in English. Among examples in the literature are the Ifaluk (a Pacific atoll society) concepts of lalomweiu and fago (Lutz 1985). Lalomweiu is a loneliness-sadness that includes obsessive thinking-feeling about a person who is missing from one’s life. Fago is a feeling combining what would be thought of in the U.S. as compassion, love, and sadness. Still another way in which cultures differ in what is normal grieving is that there are wide variations in whether grieving is about remembering or about forgetting. For example, bereaved parents in the United States may work at hanging on to their memories of a deceased child and remaining in some kind of relationship with the child (Rosenblatt 2000b); but among the Jivaro of Ecuador, bereaved people will actively work at forgetting and achieving distance from the deceased (Taylor 1993).

There are also cultures in which grief (or grief that takes certain forms) is considered undesirable and, in a sense, not normal. For example in Guinea-Bissau, a child grieving the death of a mother may be given an amulet to prevent grieving (Einarsdóttir 2000:154), lest the child’s grief lead to the child’s death.

What does culture allow and provide a person who is grieving? As a person rooted in a culture, one uses what the culture allows and provides for bereaved people. And each culture has its own concepts, meanings, and practices. And even if two cultures might seem to provide bereaved individuals with the same concepts, meanings, and practices in grieving, at closer examination it will be clear that the cultures differ. For example, some bereaved parents in the United States say that one thing they do in their bereavement is to keep busy (Rosenblatt 2000a:56-57). Similarly, some Taiwanese widows talk about keeping busy (Hsu and Kahn 1998-99). There are differences, however, between the two cultures in what people keep busy at, why they say they are keeping busy, and what keeping busy means to them.

Culture and Death Rituals

At this point, it may be useful to clarify the meaning of the term culture. A culture is a social construction. It includes a shared and distinctive identity, as well as a set of practices, language, and beliefs that mark it off from other cultures around it. A culture is not a country. In fact, most countries contain quite a few cultures. For example, the United States includes the different cultures of hundreds of different American Indian groups, hundreds of different immigrant and refugee groups, and arguably cultural differences that distinguish many black Americans from people who are not black. Rituals are an important part of what most cultures give people who are dealing with a death. One way to look at death rituals is to differentiate grief (feelings, actions, and thoughts not demanded by cultural models of how to act and feel following a loss) from mourning (culturally ideal or even expected actions, words, and expressions of feeling following a death). (See Rosenblatt et al. 1976, for a discussion of this distinction.) The distinction between grief and mourning is helpful in making clear why people might resent having to express feelings they don’t have or why it is that some bereaved people can seem to turn off expressions of grief very abruptly. But the distinction can also be seen as a blurred one when we realize that no expression of human grief can come from a culture-free individual or group (Walter 1999). In that sense, cultural ideas of what is proper and improper in grief are always in operation, and there may often be an active policing (Walter 1999: Part II) by others of a person’s expressions of grief and mourning. In some cultures, the others who do that policing include the dead (see Hollan and Wellenkamp 1996:186, writing about the Toraja). And it comes as no surprise then that how people express grief varies widely from culture to culture, even in situations where it cannot be said that they are following cultural dictates regarding formal expression of mourning (Abu-Lughod 1985; Rosenblatt et al. 1976). To further complicate matters, the demands of rituals may be part of what people are upset about when they grieve. For example, Toraja emotionality following a death may be in part about the cost of financing the funeral rituals (Hollan and Wellenkamp 1996:187).

Death rituals vary enormously in elaboration, the time span over which they are carried out, the economic costs of the ritual, and much else. One can understand death rituals in many societies as providing psychological help to the bereaved in coming to terms with the death (Klass 1996; Rosenblatt et al. 1976). Death rituals may, for example, recruit others to provide material and other kinds of support to the bereaved. Death rituals may offer the bereaved cultural meanings to help them come to terms with the death. They may support the grief process by allowing the bereaved a substantial period of time when they are excused from some, many, or virtually all social and economic demands. They may provide the bereaved with a time limit to the mourning, in the sense that many cultures have a final funeral ceremony months or years after the death. Prior to the final ceremony, a bereaved person has the freedom, perhaps even the obligation, to mourn. Coming up to the final ceremony, the bereaved person knows the time is coming for the public mourning to end, and knowing that may help him or her to make the cognitive and emotional changes necessary to get past the most intense and absorbing aspects of grieving. Then when going through the final funeral ceremony, a bereaved person makes a public commitment to end the formal mourning and is supported in making that commitment by those present and by the cultural understandings that accompany the final ceremony.

Funeral rituals are, however, about much more than the psychology of the bereaved and may not be, in the understanding of people in the culture, seen as about the feelings of the bereaved at all. The rituals may be about honoring and guiding the spirit of the deceased, protecting the bereaved from harm caused by the spirit of the deceased, allocating the property and roles of the deceased, marking the change in status and roles of the bereaved (e.g., from married person to widow, from junior person in the family to the most senior person in the family), determining the cause of death and acting on the implications of that cause, engaging in culturally proper disposal of the remains of the deceased, affirming important cultural values, and much else.

It is possible to romanticize funeral rituals, to see them as marvelous social inventions that provide healing, meaning, and other good things. However, there are more than enough examples, from Europe and the United States, of funeral rituals that many found burdensome and that were willingly dropped when it became permissible to do so. For example, the wearing of black for a defined period of time and the avoidance of partying and other activities that seemed inconsistent with grieving was dropped as a cultural “should” in the United States and England. The reasons were complicated and seemed partly to do with patriotic pressures to act as though military deaths in World War I should not be grieved (Cannadine 1981; Lerner 1975) but also to arise from the expense of maintaining a black wardrobe and the burden, annoyance, and meaninglessness of being in mourning if one’s relationship with the deceased was not warm, caring, loving, or close.

Another thing about rituals is that within a culture they will vary enormously depending on many factors, including the age and gender of the person who died, the culturally understood cause of the death, the roles of the deceased, the economic resources of the bereaved, and much else.

Just as the death rituals of a culture may be experienced as unhelpful by some bearers of that culture so, too, may cultural beliefs connected to death. For example, Berta (2001) writes about Hungarian peasant soul beliefs, which offer the survivor of a deceased person whose life and death fit within cultural norms various kinds of solace and support. Survivors of someone whose life or death did not fit within cultural norms (e.g., because of death by suicide), however, are burdened by community sanctions and will, in a sense, not only grieve the death but also grieve the ways the community is unsupportive.

A culture is not unitary. In most cultures, a great deal of diversity exists in beliefs, customs, rituals, practices, language usage, engagement with the culture, and so on concerning a death. This diversity may show up in the complexity that a single individual brings to a death—for example, explaining the causes of a death in a way that brings in many cultural factors, each of which may make sense culturally but that from an outsider’s perspective may not seem consistent with one another (see, e.g., Rice 2000, writing about Hmong women in Australia). The diversity may also show up in disagreements between people or groups within a culture in deciding what rituals are appropriate, in trying to explain the cause of a death or in other aspects of dealing with a death.

Many people are bearers of more than one culture. Their families of origin may include more than one culture; the people closest to them may come from more than one culture; and through education, religious conversion, places where they have lived and worked, the languages they know fluently, or for other reasons, they may bear more than one culture. In such cases, one of the challenges of bereavement is to come to terms with one’s differing cultural norms, meanings, ways of expressing feeling, ideals for rituals, and so on that feel right to one. Perhaps not infrequently, a person who bears more than one culture does not experience a unitary form of bereavement. In fact, some bereaved people may seem to feel and act differently depending on which culture is salient in a specific situation. Other bereaved people will blend their cultures as they deal with a death, and not infrequently that blending is a sociocultural invention that many people share. For example, a bereaved mother in the Shona cultural group of Zimbabwe (Folta and Deck 1988) may belong to a Christian denomination and have brought her sick child to a modern medical clinic to deal with an illness such as measles that may have resulted in the child’s death. She may understand the death within Christian and modern medical belief systems, but she may also turn to Shona cultural understandings, seeing the death as due to a problem with one of the child’s organs, her own failure to follow the proper birth rituals, incorrect burial following a previous family death, or the anger of a spirit.

At the family level, two partners may be bearers of different cultures and different cultural shoulds about emotional expression, the proper ways to grieve, the meanings to give to a death, the rituals that should be carried out following a death, and the kinds of support others should provide a bereaved person. Those differences can be a challenge when one partner is grieving or the couple must deal with a shared loss. Not only will they be grieving, they will be struggling with their differences. That can add an element of relationship conflict and relationship disappointment or anger to the grief process. It probably also means that part of the grief process is to deal with grief over cultural differences with partner.

To add to the complexities, any given culture is not static. Cultures are ever changing, importing new meaning systems, changing how life is done as economic and ecological context change, changing as a result of pressure from the larger society around them, changing as the resources available to do what would have been done in the recent past change, and changing as a result of the action of human creativity and problem solving. So within one’s lifetime one may have to learn and unlearn various cultural understandings and practices for dealing with a death. And family or community members may differ partly because their notions of what is proper are rooted in somewhat different ecological and historical contexts of a culture they share.

Grief in Political Context

Grief generally seems to occur in a larger political context. And all too often, a death arises from that political context. There are many countries in the world where death arises from the actions of governments—including deaths from war, forced migration, oppressive or dangerous work conditions, and political decisions that leave many without adequate food, safety, housing, or health care. When a government is in some way responsible for a death, the government may also endanger anyone who speaks out about the government’s responsibility or who even grieves a death caused by the government. (For example, if one grieves a relative’s “disappearance” by the government, one may be seen by government agents as disloyal to the government.) For that reason, there are many bereaved people who mute their grief feelings when in public. There were, for example, many people who kept silent during the “dirty war” in Argentina or “La Violencia” in Guatemala, when their relatives or friends had been “disappeared” (Hollander 1997; Zur 1998:211). Among other things, this means that people must learn to control their feelings and words in a way that might make them have one reality in public and another in private. No doubt some bereaved people experience the contradictory demands as difficult.

From another perspective, the political context of a death provides resources for and constraints on the narratives available to bereaved people. For example, the dominant political context in Israel may offer those who are grieving an Israeli soldier’s death stories about the soldier’s being a hero and a patriot (Palgi and Durban 2000). It is unlikely that the dominant Israeli political context would offer stories that might make sense of the soldier’s death from the perspective of Palestinians, who might consider the soldier a murderer and a terrorist. The dominant political context in Israel would constrain the bereaved from thinking the way Palestinians might and would also constrain the bereaved from coming to other stories that would be inconsistent with current Israeli political culture—for example, that the soldier’s death was meaningless or resulted from the ambitions or incompetence of political leaders.


For people who are bereaved following a death, the evidence about grief across cultures suggests a core of bereavement that one is likely to experience, including a state of being upset that may recur for years after the loss, grief about other losses connected to the death, struggles to deal with holes in the social fabric resulting from the death, a continuing relationship with the deceased, and perhaps considerable effort at coming to meanings and understandings concerning the death. The cross-cultural literature also suggests, however, that a bereaved person’s feelings, thoughts, and actions may be quite different from those of people in other cultures. For instance, feelings may be quite different from culture to culture; the ways bereavement is entangled in everyday life may differ; the narratives bereaved people come to about the death and their grieving may vary dramatically, and in some cultural contexts, there would be little or no interest in developing narratives. So the cross-cultural grief literature offers a bereaved person both a sense of common humanity with all grieving humans and a sense that whatever one’s culture or cultures, there are many bereaved people around the world who are feeling, thinking, and doing things that would not fit one’s own situation. The literature also suggests that anyone grieving in a multicultural environment will be among people whose sense of what is normal or appropriate in grieving will not fit one’s own grieving.

For anyone who wants to support or help the bereaved, the cross-cultural grief literature warns one not to judge grieving that differs from what would be appropriate in one’s own culture(s) as pathological. Across cultures, there is so much variation in what sorts of grieving might be considered normal or appropriate and what, if anything, might be considered pathological. To support a bereaved person, it is important to be attuned to what loss means to him or her and to the cultural grounding he or she brings to bereavement. It is also important to recognize political constraints on grieving, to respect their power, and perhaps to consider joining with others to reduce or eliminate those constraints.

Finally, although I have been able to cite some wonderfully informative studies of grief cross-culturally, there is room for much more. I anticipate that future versions of this chapter will be informed by new, insightful, and challenging studies of grief in various cultures.