My Interview with K. on Culture and Grief

by Julie Davey


Background

I first met K. two years ago, after the death of her daughter, when she contacted the agency I work with for support. Her daughter had cancer and she died in January 1994 after nearly a year's struggle with the disease. Four years earlier, her husband had died. I greatly admire her courage and quiet strength in the face of such adversity.

K. is a very attractive 41-year-old, widowed, middle class, female. She is a third generation Trinidadian of East Indian descent. Her religious background is Islamic, but she feels that her upbringing was very ecumenical. Though the family did observe some teachings and rituals of the Islamic faith, K.'s father owned a farm in a rural region of Trinidad, where the only school available was operated by Roman Catholic nuns. In addition to the Islamic and Catholic influence, a caregiver, when her parents were working, often took K. to an Anglican church. When K. met her husband, she was baptized in the Anglican faith, so that she and her husband could be married in his faith. (According to K., the minister who married them, was not very free thinking.)

When her husband died, K. was left to parent two young children on her own. She felt she was just beginning to reconcile her husband's death, when her daughter was diagnosed with cancer. Since the death of her daughter, she has worked very hard to maintain a stable environment for both herself and her adolescent son.

She is currently attending university as a mature student, in the hopes of earning her degree in music.

The Interview

Question 1. As a child and adolescent, growing up in Trinidad, what kind of traditions and rituals do you remember being used to commemorate a death?

Response: "Generally, the body was prepared for burial at home or removed to a funeral home for preparation. If the body was kept at home, the funeral arranger came to the home and ministered to the deceased there. A "wake-like" atmosphere followed until the interment.

"Forty days after the death, on the anniversary date, family and friends gather at the home of the deceased to observe a day of prayer and discussion about the deceased.

"A year after the death, on the anniversary date, family and friends congregate at church for a celebration. In memory of the deceased, a feast is provided by the family and the church congregation, for the less fortunate in the community."

Question 2. When your husband and then your daughter died, did you fall back on your childhood experiences with death for their funerals?

Response. "Yes and no. Trinidad is a cultural "melting pot". As such, there are many different rituals and rites that are observed and that I was exposed to. I have lived in Canada for nineteen years, so the funerals were in keeping with what I have experienced in this country, but, I have found that there is not much difference between what I experienced in Trinidad as a child and what takes place here in Canada."

Question 3. What are your beliefs about life after death, and have they helped or hindered you in your grief?

Response: "I would like to believe that both my husband and daughter are together in heaven, but, since my daughter's death I have had a "crisis of faith" so-to-speak. I am not sure that I can believe, just now, that they are in heaven or anywhere. Maybe they are just dead. I struggle with this often. I do feel that if there is a heaven and hell, surely I must be in hell now.

"I do not feel that my beliefs have helped me or hindered my grief, probably because of my present frame of mind."

Question 4. What would you consider healthy grief?

Response: "I feel healthy grief is allowing oneself to fully feel the pain of loss in the manner best suited to you. Grief is a difficult journey, and sometimes it is incredibly challenging to do what is right for you when so many are trying to manage your grief for you. I think that doing their grief work to have reconciliation is necessary for the bereaved, but, the bereaved can only accomplish this themselves."

Question 5. What would you consider unhealty grief?

Response: "I think unhealthy grief would be the inability for the bereaved to accept the reality and finality of the death. As well, if you cannot, or will not, adjust to the changes that the death brings, I think that could be considered unhealthy. "

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

Response: "My private grief is how I feel inside and currently, it has had to go "underground". Public mourning is the face I put on to enable me to function in the outside world. People tell me I am doing so well because I seem to be "getting on" with my life. I wish I could turn myself insided out so that they could see what I really feel like. That is my private grief."

Question 7. How useful do you think group support is in facilitating successful reconciliation of grief?

Response: "I am a firm believer in the self-help group process, though I do not think that group support resolves bereaved people's grief. Group is an aid in giving the bereaved coping skills, and support from others who are in a similar situation.

"After my husband died, I entered a group for widows. I found it tremendously helpful to have a safe place to talk about my grief with other women who understood my pain. It was such a positive experience, I had no hesitation in contacting a bereaved parent's group after my daughter died. I was unsure that I would benefit from another group, but now I feel it was the right thing for me. The group has given me much needed support, and we continue to be in contact, which I find very comforting."

What I Learned about Myself from the Interview

I am a 44-year-old, Caucasian female, married, middle-class, homemaker. I am a second generation Canadian of English descent, with a blue collar, urban background. I was baptized and raised in the Roman Catholic faith. Presently, I think I am what is known as a "lapsed Catholic".

When I think of myself in terms of a cultural background, I draw very heavily from my British roots. I have a strong tendancy to use the British "stiff upper lip" control that is very predominant in both my paternal and maternal families.

I found the readings from this unit particularily eye-opening in terms of caring for bereaved families of different cultural backgrounds than the caregiver. I have often cautioned myself not to judge how others grieve because they come from a different cultural background than I.

Many times, since I have been facilitating groups I have heard about a rite or ritual that I wish I had known about when my son, Brian, died. I do have some regrets now, about how we handled his funeral. (Ignorance, is not always bliss.)

Probably because of my Roman Catholic upbringing, I believe in life after death. Even though I am a lapsed Catholic, when Brian was dying I made sure a priest was called to administer "Last Rites". He was too young for this rite, so he was baptized instead. (I could not bear the thought of him floating around in purgatory.)

When I interviewed K., I was saddened because of her doubts about life after death. I learned that by thinking/feeling that Brian is safe in God's hands, it has brought me much comfort in the last ten years. I believe I will see him again.


Return to Cultural Interviews
Written for Grief in a Family Context, HPER F317, Spring semester, 1996.
(C) 1996, Julie Davey. All rights reserved. Interested parties may contact her through the course instructor, at gilbertk@indiana.edu.