An Appalachian Perspective on Greiving
- Pat Amos -

L. is 38 year old white female, single parent who is a law student. She is from a rural agricultural background in the center of Appalachia and of Scotch-Irish, English and American Indian background of many generations back. Her familial religious background is Protestant and strong.

Question 1: What kind of traditions and rituals do you have to commemorate a death?

In discussing the kinds of traditions and rituals she has to commemorate a death she shared that she felt her background to be very traditional and burial ceremonies involves several parts. She described a wake, which is an informal service at a funeral home for family and friends to gather and offer support and talk about the loss. She said, "We do not just hand over the preparation of the body to the funeral home, we take a personal part in that process. We have touched up make-up and hair and manner of dress to enhance the natural appearance of the loved one while they were living."

The second part of the traditional and ritual burial is the funeral. This is a formal service with the person's pastor speaking, and the tradition is growing that one or more members of the family speaks on a more personal level about the one who has died. There is music, most often hymns and/or popular music specific to the departed. There is a viewing of the body at the end by the funeral service, although there are occasions where the casket would be closed and one would merely walk by to pay respects. This involves a long line with the family leaving the service and walking by the casket last. This is absolutely not wailing and emotional outbursts. If family is emotional it is more reserved and "not up for public display". There would then be a gathering at the gravesite for a final memorial service. This service is very short unless there are rituals performed by some military or fraternal organization. The family then gathers at the home of the major bereaved and eats dinner prepared usually by neighbors and friends. The home is open to all family and friends to stop by and pay their respects.

Question 2: What are some of the beliefs you hold that offer comfort in times of loss?

The belief's that L. holds is that the dead person is "in a better place" and is "without suffering". She also says that life and death have a natural sequence of events that provide balance in nature and "although we may not understand it, we can trust that death happens for a reason". This is a traditional Protestant belief that is based on Biblical scripture. In her conversation I felt that her religious beliefs gave her a lot of comfort. L. cited Emily Dickens's poetic stance that death is too be embraced and not feared. She also said that a very significant death in her family gave her a real reverence for life that did not exist for her prior. She feels it is very important to tell her loved ones that she loves and appreciates them as she grew in her belief of the uncertainty of life.

Question3: What about beliefs that could add to the pain of loss?

L. says that the only thing she could think of that could add to the pain of loss, (which she alludes is very painful in itself) would be if someone died for her to learn a lesson. She felt it would be a real tragedy if you don't do some internal survey about what you might do differently if the person hadn't died. She felt that death of the young, or of her mother, or close family relationships would definitely add to the pain of loss for her. When I pressured her to clarify this she agreed that an untimely death or a loss of a close relationship would add to the pain.

Question 4: What are your beliefs about life after death?

There was no question in her mind about this answer. L. believes that the spirit never dies. She likened it to the energy of a light bulb; energy in is equal to the energy out, although some of the transformed energy is measured in heat and some in light. I asked, "What about if the light bulb burns out?" She replied "It's just the principle of energy, that the energy is still going in whether the bulb works or not". For clarification, I likened it to the quantum physics theory of all things continuing to exist in one form or another throughout time. She did not agree as she felt this applied to matter only, and clarified for me her specific point of reference was "energy". In her discomfort with this question L. began to use rhetorical religious reference but she did it in a way that made me believe this was her basis of her value system regarding life after death.

Question 5: How would you define healthy and unhealthy grief?

This was a difficult question for L. She, after much thought, said, "I really don't believe there is healthy and unhealthy grief." She said that she had learned in her experience with grief not to place a judgement on a different form of grieving, as persons should grieve in their own way. She added that if the grief were so overwhelming that the person is unable to function for an extended period of time then it would be prudent to seek professional guidance or opinion. L. asked me if I wanted her to quantify a time period and I declined. In retrospect, it would have been helpful in describing her opinion. L. ended the discussion on this topic by saying she thought it was healthier to allow people share in your grief but qualified that as "her personal opinion."

 Question 6: What is the relationship between your public grief and your private mourning?

The interviewee stated that she did not think there should be any relationship between the two. She felt they were two separate entities. She felt the grief should not be worn as a 'badge of honor' or open for public display. She was adamant that public displays of grief were distasteful and unethical. It should not be used to promote any kind of a public agenda, not fear or any other emotional appeal. She based this opinion on theories of persuasion learned in her academic career when I questioned her on the etiology of this opinion. She said that any public agenda should be based or promoted on tangible fact and objective data, not human emotion. She is very against using fear or emotion "in all aspects of her life" to promote or persuade private or public policy. "I think it's a cheap shot, its when you don't have anything else you would use that."

I pulled her back into the question of 'private mourning'. She replied that her belief was that it was 'private'. To discuss your experience on a personal level was ok with her. I pressed for a clear answer on the relationship and she said she felt that private mourning should be kept within your most intimate relationships and your public persona would be selectively based on benefit to the participants. She added, "whatever you need to do in private to help you with your grieving is ok." L. went on to describe many instances that might be offensive to some people such as have a shrine, sleep with their clothes, hold a séance, drink, as acceptable for the person who is grieving. She added these might not be her preference but that if she suffered a significant loss she might change her mind. I asked L. how much her cultural background influenced her strong notion of keeping her private grieving private. She replied "probably a lot" but not entirely. I then asserted that her cultural background would dictate that grief is a very private affair and I would like her to speak to that assertion in relation to her opinion. She said that she had thought it out and feels that her stand on private mourning is from her utilitarian background and her practical philosophy of life.

Question 7: How useful do you think group support is in facilitating successful resolution to grief?

Quick to answer this she said, "It depends. People are individuals. You can't corral everybody into a single objective or intervention." She thinks most people would benefit from group support but goes on to say that some people would be uncomfortable in group support. She further stated that the approach of the helper inviting a griever to a group would be important and further, the operations of the group meeting would be important. She felt that level of group involvement should be voluntary and individual. She cited Internet support as a means of maintaining privacy and yet getting support. I asked her what she thought about the tactile human intervention as a means of offering solace.

L. said that touching would appeal to her and that would be missed in the internet group but went on to say not all people are open to being touched. She ended by saying that she believes touch is healing.

Return to Cultural Interviews
Written for Grief in a Family Context, HPER F460, Summer, 1999.
(C) 1999, Pat Amos. All rights reserved. Interested parties may contact her through the course instructor, at