Once They Die, They Become the People that Watch Over Us
 by Ryan Forsythe

I spoke with a first generation american individual of Cambodian and Chinese descent to learn about the grieving process within this culture. She is a married 23 years old female, living in a large midwestern city, and describes herself as "very acculturated" in the traditional ways, although she indicates that not all of her views may be customary, due to factors such as her marriage to a caucasian American.

When asked about traditions and rituals regarding death, she first indicated that "a person who dies is burnt to ashes." At the burning of the body, everyone is dressed in white (and tan), and the day after a prayer is said. A monk is there to celebrate the service. She provided the example of her step-grandfather's death, at which time a prayer was said in hopes "that ancestors up there will take care of him and welcome him into his place." Ancestors and the deceased are very important, as it is their spirits that watch over remaining families members. "Once they die, they become the people that watch over us."

She noted that "Instead of sitting and grieving...it is a festive time--lots of food, lots of people celebrating the life." She stressed the importance of celebrating the person's life--this is much more important than mourning the person's passing. Because of the festive, celebratory nature, there are great amounts of food present--a lot of which is not ordinarily a part of everyday meals, such as pigs' heads.

Also, she indicated that it is traditional to have a shrine dedicated to the deceased. The shrine is decorated with candles and food for over a year. It is important that the shrine be kept up so the food is replaced as it starts to ruin, meaning that it may be changed on a weekly basis for upwards of a year. The fruit is there to thank the deceased for watching over the family--it is a gift of thanks--but it also represents a feeding of the deceased.

When asked if there are any beliefs that offer comfort in times of loss, she prefaced her response by indicating that death in her culture is "not surprising--we know we're going to die." She notes that in southeast Asia, not many people live long, but she does believe that"after you die, you will some place safe." She indicated that some people may find comfort in the idea of reincarnation, but for her personally, she is comforted by the fact that when she dies, she will be able to look after her relatives.

Individuals "relie on ancestors before depending on a spiritual god." She indicated that "we knew they lived; what proof do we have of god?" The ancestors may be led by one spiritual god, but it is the ancestors that they turn to for guidance. For the Cambodian New Year, they remember all the dead that are close to them. They say a prayer to their ancestors, offer them food, and ask for wishes or guidance. Because the ancestors provide spiritual support and guidance, it is always important to show respect. She emphasized, "You always have to show support--always."

I asked her if there are any beliefs that might add to the pain of a loss, and she indicated that it is one thing to be able to "spritually guide your loved ones" but another to be there physically. "You can't touch and feel and hold." She gave the example of if she or her husband died, "I can't hug him, I can't say it's okay." The inability to touch and feel a loved one after death dooes provide pain, despite the knowledge that a loved one may be watching from above, providing guidance.

Another thought that might add to the pain occurred during our discussion on life after death. She indicated that she does have some fears of death: "Will you have a conscience? Will you remember everything you lived through? Probably not--I believe that's taken away from you." The loss of memory that may occur due to a reincarnation or re-birth can be unsettling.

She had a number of thoughts regarding what occurs after one dies in the physical world. "I think there is life after death," she indicated. "In most cases I think you will come back as a different person or a different identity." She indicated that the soul will be reborn in some way, perhaps not as an animal, maybe as a human. But it's also possible the individual may not come back, but "may just stay up there." The determination depends on the fate of that individual. Her personal opinion is that there are two different issues that may coexist: "I think there's both the heaven and hell issue and the reincarnation issue--it's just what fate holds for you."

In speaking about the difference between healthy and unhealthy grief, she indicated that it becomes unhealthy when one grieves so much they end up hurting themselve.  "You can grieve, but when it affects your health and your mentality, it's unhealthy." She believes it is not unhealthy to get into stages where one misses the person and thinks "I'll always remember..." but it becomes unhealthy to get to a point where one is saying "It's so horrible" or is able to say "I can't live without him and I can't function."

She discussed the effect grieving had on the deceased: "Would (the deceased) really want you to do that? He wouldn't want you to do that." When one of the survivors continues to grieve, that can make the deceased grieve as well: "You're not showing respect to the person, because if you really love them you don't want them to grieve." As indicated earlier, it is very
important to show respect to the deceased, for they are still with one, providing guidance. Grieving so much that one can not function is considered disrespectful, as she indicated, "You can grieve so much that it hurts yourself--that's not showing respect" to the deceased.

Regarding the relationship between private grief and public mourning, she noted that in her culture, there is a difference: "Publicly, you want to maintain your composure. You can't grieve so much, you bring everyone along with you." She indicated that at a funeral, there is a need to avoid falling so hard into tears that you bring others down. Rather, "You need to pick yourself up to help others."

She views public versus private grief as a balancing act. When grieving publicly, one should think of the good times and think of something positive, which one can think of when grieving privately. By trying to help others publicly, through offering positive thoughts, one helps themselves because that information given to others publicly can offer support to one's self in private: "Simple words, no matter how much you cry...will always stick to you...you'll always remember the comfort, the caring."

Finally, we spoke on the subject of group support in facilitating resolution of grief. She indicated group support is "very useful...you need that group help, that extra opinion." She felt that oftentimes "when you're grieving, you are mindless." In this regard the outside perspective that group support can bring is helpful. "You need that person to say 'Is this wrong or right' or 'I'm so confused, can you help me.' In her experience, communication with others has been key to helping figure out what is right and what is wrong.

Return to Cultural Interviews
Written for Grief in a Family Context, HPER F460, Summer, 1998.
(C) 1998, Ryan Forsythe. All rights reserved. Interested parties may contact him through the course instructor, at gilbertk@indiana.edu.