The Impact of Culture on Grief.
Dia De Los Muertos
That a festival to do with the dead should be a joyous
occasion might perhaps strike those of us from other cultures as
something hard to understand. Does biology determine our many characteristics
that differentiate our perceptions of how to deal with death and
grief? Could our cultural upbringing determine our eventual ways
of dealing with death and grief in spite of our biological origins?
The Dia De Los Muertos or The Day of the Dead is essentially a private
or family feast. It has a public aspect at the community level,
but the core of the celebration takes place within the family home.
It is a time of family reunion not only for the living but also
the dead, who, for a few brief hours each year, return to be with
their relatives in this world.
Karen Homey, a psychotherapist during the first half of the 20th
century, (Psychology An Introduction, Eleventh Edition), considered
environmental and cultural forces could be instrumental in forming
our personalities. The explanation can be found in society and culture
rather than in biology, as characteristic ways to deal with grief
can be changed with corresponding changes in society and culture.
For example, I grew up in Venezuela, the daughter of two American
citizens but many of my characteristic ways of dealing with grief
stem from my formative years as a child in Venezuela in spite of
my American origin.
The Day of the Dead is just that, a festival of welcome for the
souls of the dead which the living prepare and revel in. The souls
return each year to enjoy for a few brief hours the pleasures they
once knew in life among their family and friends. Each household
prepares its offering of food and drink for the dead to be set out
on a table among flowers and candles.
Most Westerners, especially Americans, are too distant in their
way of dealing with death and grief. In the Hispanic culture there
is the same fear most feel of death, but at least they do not hide
their fears nor do they hide from death. The Day of the Dead is
celebrated on October 31, the same day the United States celebrates
Halloween. The smoke from lit candles going up to Heaven is comforting
in that the practice of the Dia De Los Muertos allows for healthy
grieving as opposed to the typical "closed door" way Americans
deal with grief. The group support that takes place during the Dia
De Los Muertos festivities, both in the home and at the church,
helps with resolution of grief.
Shapiro (1994) states that "In the dominant North American
culture, which emphasizes the centrality of the isolated individual;
minimizes the importance of spiritual, as compared to scientific
explanations; and stresses the value of 'letting go' and 'moving
on', social sanctions are likely to pressure the bereaved into reentering
the flow of ordinary life long before (the bereaved) feel psychologically
ready" (p. 221). The North American culture doesn't really
encourage thinking or talking about death but focuses on the positive
things in life. Sometimes this leads one to have an unrealistic
outlook about life... that we can Stay young and alive forever;
that we will never die. As the reality of the death, the sadness,
confusion and anger begins to set in; we don't know what to do or
The Day of the Dead is celebrated by visits to graveyards, where
relatives decorate the graves, have a picnic, and tell stories about
the departed. The holiday helps the dead remain part of family life.
On a deeper lever, this party in the graveyard symbolizes that the
wheel of life includes death. The best way to describe this Mexican
holiday is to say that it is a time when Mexican families remember
their dead and celebrate the continuity of life.
The traditional observance calls for a feast during the early morning
hours of November 2nd, the Day of the Dead proper, although modem
urban Mexican families usually observe the Day of the Dead with
only a special family supper featuring the "Bread of the Dead'
or the (pan de muerto). It is good luck to be the one who bites
into the plastic toy skeleton hidden by the baker in each rounded
loaf. Friends and family. members give one another gifts consisting
of sugar skeletons or other items with a death motif, and the gift
is more prized if the skull or skeleton is embossed with one's own
Two important things to remember about the Mexican Day of the Dead
are: 1. It is a holiday with a complex history, and therefore its
observance varies quite a bit by region and by degree of urbanization.
2. It is not a morbid occasion, but rather a festive one. The Day
of the Dead can range from a very important cultural event with
definite social and economic responsibilities for those participating
to a religious event featuring actual worship of the dead whether
or not Catholic priests recognize or approve of the events. Mexico
is like most of the world, in that infant mortality and adult illness
are much more common than they are in the United States. Death is
more a part of life, and perhaps because of this, Mexicans treat
it with a healthy mixture of respect and irreverence.
In the United States we have grownup with a culture where we think
we have to "fix it". We have lost the basic ability to
listen. There is possibly some misconception that if you just don't
mention the name of the dead person it will be all right. The grieving
isn't observed and we tell ourselves that not mentioning the deceased
person's name or the death helps keep the bereaved from getting
upset. When in reality it is because we cannot deal with an expression
of grief that we cannot do anything about. If there is one thing
I have learned from the death of my father. ...it is that it is
the healing power of putting grief out in the open and talking about
it... that does the most good. The memories of my father are not
dead and we cannot bury the memories in the coffin with the deceased
person so why not talk about the feelings.
Members of the health care profession also may face a conflict
between the needs of a person facing death and her/his family and
the pressures they feel from their professional subculture. So in
a sense... this could also qualify as a cultural way of dealing
or not dealing with death. In the hospital, the human experience
of dying is undercut to an extent by the mission of the health care
facility from a medical point of view. The mission of health care
conflicts sometimes with the needs of dying patients and their families.
This results in a clash between the spiritual and the technical,
the personal and the impersonal, the subjectivity of the cared for
and the objectivity by the caregiver.
Once again...my personal experience with my dad's death...can be
considered. He spent the larger part of his life in Venezuela. He
spoke Spanish as well as English. For several days before his death
he had not opened his eyes, not in response to any stimuli from
the medical staff nor even at the sound of familiar voices of his
family. For some reason we said a few words in Spanish and noticed
that he seemed to hear but didn't open his eyes.
I mentioned to my mother that maybe we should ask for the final
blessing to be in Spanish for my father instead of the typical English
priest. My mother agreed to the request and we went through the
hospital staff and my father's last blessing was given to him in
Spanish by a wonderful priest with a beautiful Hispanic voice. A
very compassionate man. And guess what? My father opened his eyes...fixed
his gaze on the priest...hung on every word that was spoken in Spanish..
.even though my dad was born and raised in south Louisiana.. .of
American parents. It was the most moving experience I had ever felt
in my life. So being introduced to another culture during one's
lifetime that is different from your birth culture can make a definite
difference even in death.
Understanding religious and cultural diversity can be extremely
important for anyone who provides services and/or support to those
affected by death and illness. For effective intervention, a person's
beliefs and personal needs must be recognized, honored and appropriately
addressed by caregivers. What types of pressures in our society
hinder people from working through their grief? At times of loss,
when we are the most vulnerable, when we rely so heavily on people
to be strong, when we cannot be, is usually when those people are
often so terribly uncomfortable that they cannot bare the thought
of having to deal with your tears and having to see your grief.
One question comes to mind: Might it be better, easier, possibly
emotionally safer to live in a society in which there is less exposure
to alternative cultural views? I can answer that with an equivocal...no.
Culture and diversity is what makes us so wonderful as a people
on the whole. My father would not have had such a beautiful, meaningful
last rites had he not been exposed to another culture and language
during sometime in his life.
One of the most common questions that family and friends ask is
how long does it take to "get over" the death of a loved
one. Native American culture holds many lessons about grief and
its duration. The Native American legend of the Caterpillar people
holds lessons for us all in grief. This legend is traditionally
told during funeral services of the Shoshone.
"Long ago, there were two caterpillar people who loved each
other very much. When the caterpillar man died the caterpillar woman
was overcome by her grief. In her remorse she withdrew into herself
and pulled her sorrow around her like a shawl. She walked and mourned
for a year and because the world is a circle she ended up where
she had started. The Creator looked down upon her and told her that
she had suffered too long. "Now," he told her" is
the time for you to step into a new world of beauty." He clapped
his hands and the caterpillar woman burst forth as a butterfly.
Her world was now full of beauty and color." I can only comment
that...culture is like a butterfly...full of many beautiful colors