We are all familiar with the changing face of America. Along with new people arriving, other changes are occurring across our land. New arrivals bring with them traditions that engender new ways of seeing the world. Our focus will be on the impact this has on bereavement.
New waves of people necessitate changes in how we evangelize. We need to embrace the multicultural face of God. As a total people, we can benefit from other cultures’ rituals and practices pertaining to loss. In addition, we must assimilate new experiences of loss through terrorism — most recently the Marathon bombing in Boston — that necessitate our exploring meaning and hope while we grieve.
What is simultaneously occurring is the way we theorize as we experience bereavement. Increasingly, we have to go beyond an American/Euro view and embrace new ideas and insights. Researchers point out the cultural inadequacies of how we have structured a “grieving process” for those suffering from separation and loss. At the same time, they note a resiliency among people to go through grief in far-better-than-expected ways. It all ties in with how we find meaning and how we realize that we are meaning makers, and new cultures and rituals have much to offer.
Current researchers question many of the assumptions we associate with grief. From 1917 to the present, Americans have relied on set theories that have directed people’s lives while grieving. Now, the changing landscape for the bereaved impacts not only how we relate and evangelize, but also how we minister to the grief-stricken. How can we discover new meaning?
Our worldview is expanding to include other cultures, rituals, stories and practices. We note how other cultures have much to offer in their ways of going through life’s separations and losses. By exploring cultural competence in terms of how we construct our world view, we will be more conscious of other cultures and their customs. We will be better equipped to relate their worldview and experiences to ours while we seek meaning.
The New Science of Bereavement
Recent studies and evaluations of grief have led to the debunking of theories in the American/Euro culture that have been traditional over the last one hundred years. There is a major paradigm shift occurring whereby the actual necessity and effectiveness of our theories is under fire. What is being discovered is that people do not grieve in stages, phases, invariant steps, and according to tasks. These concepts are now seen to be not only outdated, but also not helpful.
They were used as roadmaps for going through grief. Often, when someone in our culture did not meet the theories’ expectations, they were policed by society. Little criticism was heaped on the theories; rather, the bereaved person was blamed and often “diagnosed” as ill. The roadmaps superimposed on the bereaved told them how they ought to respond and consequently took them nowhere. If anything, the counseling led to more complications and prolonged the experience of loss. Now is the time to discard the old crumpled roadmap and embrace new ways to find meaning in our lives.
In 1917, Sigmund Freud wrote about detaching from people and objects. He had an influence on theories even though he never really formed one. What happened was that later theories were based on Freudian ideas of detachment and severing of ties with loved ones who died — that one needs to “let go” and “re-invest” in new relationships.
Current research does not accept this premise. This is in agreement with other cultures’ idea that we still have an “enduring bond” with those who have died. This concept of an enduring bond means that the language of loss is changed. Such phrases as “letting go,” “moving on, “re-investing,” need to be struck from our conversations with the bereaved. We need improved conversations about grief and mourning. Where do we find this fresh language? The answer is obviously in talking and listening to other cultural perspectives.
Cultures frame our experiences. In many cultures in the world, death does not end relationships. While someone is physically absent they are still present in one’s mind in many ways. These insights can show us ways to redefine our relationships when physically separated by death. Rituals and ritual drama clearly express the ongoing or continual bonds we share with departed loved ones.
The idea of defining a bond according only to American/Euro standard theories needs to be reconsidered. In our conversations with other cultures, we need to be careful not to superimpose our standards on others’ cultural beliefs. We can benefit by listening and accommodating some of what we experience with them for ourselves and our beliefs.
There are still among us those who assert that, once people are residents of a country, they must conform to that culture to fit in. When we hear that in the United States, what we are really hearing is something else: that the new arrival must conform to the culture of the speaker. This is not in accordance with hundreds of cultures to be found in the United States.
Looking Out in Order to Look In
Awareness of other’s beliefs and customs equips us to minister. This is especially relevant to evangelization. Pastoral outreach and care entails competent ways to focus on and develop viable worldviews. It cannot be overemphasized how important this is for ministry.
“As Church history indicates, the Church cannot be focused on its mission to evangelize without being more and more an expert in adversity” (Pope Paul VI, apostolic exhortation on Evangelism in the Modern World, Evangelii Nuntiadi).
Jesuit Father Patrick Ryan’s presentation at Fordham University’s McGinley Lecture provides us with a striking example of cultural competence. He spoke about a young man who was killed by nervous police in Ghana when they randomly shot into a crowd of students who were innocently gathered together.
The young man was a Catholic but also an Asante, a member of a matrilineal society that dominates central Ghana. Father Ryan spoke about the funeral preparation in his lecture entitled: “Life After Death: Hopes and Fears for Jews, Christians, and Muslims.”
He said, “Within the wall of cloth surrounding the corpse, one of his matrilineal uncles reached into his pocket and produced two coins which he wished to place in the coffin with the corpse. Another uncle, looking remorsefully at me, remonstrated with him: “No! This is a Christian funeral.” I looked up from the corpse, tears in my eyes. “Let it be.” I said, “Let him give the coins.” The uncle was offering his nephew the coins of passage across the river of death, a motif known both in ancient Greek and Roman worlds as well as in Asante.
Father Ryan was aware of the old Asante tradition that, for the deceased to survive crossing the river of death for one who had died a “bad death,” the gift of the uncle’s coins transcended cultural expectations. It was a testimony of hope for life after death. In the Catholic funeral, our prayers for the Christian are to cross over the waters of death to enter eternal life. Meaning making as was done in this ritual can only increase faith and strengthen the enduring bond with the deceased nephew.
Describing Cultural Competence
There are certain descriptions we may assert for cultural competence. Entering into our new parishioners’ world entails keeping in mind these significant points:
• Be willing to listen to and visualize the parishioners’ worldview.
• Take a storied approach. In other words, follow their story.
• Be aware of their mourning practices.
• Engage in a faith dialogue with the bereaved and their customs.
• How do they revise and rebuild their often-shattered world?
• How do they understand their continual bonds?
Deconstruct to Reconstruct
In the American/Euro tradition we follow some set ways of going through grief. While many of our practices are being questioned, it is all the more important to listen. In our multicultural society we can let other cultures provide us with new ways to transform our grief experiences.
This is especially evident among Hispanic Catholics, whose ways of remembering those who have died are rich. The celebration of El Día de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) can teach us about enduring bonds and how the Spanish-speaking world observes and lives this in their worldview.
The Day of the Dead, which dates back to the time of the Aztecs and now coincides with the Catholic feasts of All Saints and All Souls, is a widely celebrated Mexican holiday observed throughout the country. This historic tradition includes building private altars honoring the dead with marigold flowers, sugar skulls, and the deceased person’s favorite foods and beverages.
Families also gather at cemeteries (Campos Santos) to pray for departed loved ones. Similarly themed celebrations are observed around the world in other cultures. In Brazil, for example, Dia de Finados is a holiday observed by visiting churches and cemeteries.
The best practices for faith are given to us in the universality of the Church. We draw upon many other cultures as rich resources for deepening our relationships with loved ones. At the same time, our belief in the Communion of Saints is reinforced for our culture as we seek added meaning while we grieve.
Grief is not detaching or disbanding our relationship with loved ones; rather, it is deepening our bond of love with them. Although we relinquish their physical presence, at the same time we welcome a new spiritual relationship.
We are becoming increasingly aware that the landscape of grief across our country is changing. This is in keeping with our history in the United States as an immigrant country, a melting pot of so many cultures.
In this article we have touched upon significant changes in our understanding about grief. Other cultures contribute to these changes and put into practice what is needed to expand the American/Euro way of approaching and going through mourning.
Some of the changes in light of other beliefs and cultures are:
• There is a continuing bond with those who have died.
• Resiliency in the face of loss is evident in communities.
• The communal expression of loss overshadows the individual and provides strong support.
• Belief in the Communion of Saints is increased.
• Belief in eternal life and the need to ritualize are increased .
Other cultures are of great value as we process our grief. They assist us in revising and rebuilding our lives by offering rich theological, social and psychological benefits that meet our needs as we experience life’s losses. The more we communicate with and across other cultures, the better we will become as a people. The more we listen and discover multicultural resources and their meaning, the more we will increase trust and hope in our lives, no matter what losses we incur.
In conclusion, I would like to include a clipping I received from a widow. I think these words of Blessed John Paul II illustrate a ritual response and capture the importance of our ongoing bonds with those who have died. His words relate to all world cultures.
“Pope John Paul, shortly before he died, was reflecting on those who had gone before him, and he made what I consider a very consoling observation. He pointed out that in faith and prayer we actually reestablish our ties with those who have died. He assured us that those who have gone before us watch us, they follow us, and they assist us. . . .It is the bond that comes from our baptism, which is grounded in the very life of the Trinity. In this bond, as the Holy Father reminded us, we still ‘hold hands.’”
As true believers, we hold hands with each other and with all those who have gone before us in every culture in the Body of Christ.
Father Curley, a priest of the Archdiocese of Boston, has long been active in grief ministry. His latest title is Rebuilding Trust & Hope, New Models for Grief and Mourning for the New Evangelization, A Society of St. Paul’s Alba House, DVD, with four programs for ministry to the bereaved. 1-800- 533-2522