Death and Grief Cuban Style-Or is that American Style?
A Mother and Daughter’s Perspective
Janice M. Heller
Two very strong and wise women consented to my interviewing them about death and the process of grief as they have experienced it. The interviews were conducted separately, about a week apart. H., a woman I work with, who the day after this interview was turning 43 years old, is a first generation American born to a Cuban mother and Spanish father. Her mother, N., is 71, and moved from Cuba to Yonkers, New York, with her husband of six months when she was 25 years old. Three years after arriving in America, H. was born. Both women have been divorced twice. N. divorced her Spanish husband in 1970 and moved to Jackson Heights with H. and her son, S., born about five years after H. After being single for about a year and one-half, N. married an American with whom she lived for the next nine years, moving to Florida in 1973. H. was married for about a year and one-half each time, and both marriages were to Cuban-American men. They did not have any children. H. moved to Colorado in 1994, and her mother followed her there in 1996.
N. worked as an officer at a bank in Florida for 21 years, retiring early in 1992. H. is the first woman in her family to attend college. She holds an Associates Degree in Business and a Bachelor’s Degree in Sociology and Psychology. Currently, H. is employed at Donor Alliance (a procurement agency for organ and tissue transplantation) as a Family Support Coordinator. Both women were raised Catholic, H. attending Catholic school from kindergarten through the 9th grade. The family attended mass in Latin together every Sunday. At this time, neither woman attends church on a regular basis, although both still believe in God and talked about the influence their religious/spiritual beliefs have on their ability to grieve.
I learned a great deal from these two women—beyond the scope of the questions recommended for this interview. You will therefore find that I’ve included some of what I learned from them in conjunction with their answers to the interview questions. You will also notice that N. occasionally still speaks in broken English. I hope you find her quotes to provide a Cuban “flavor” to this paper; I know I found her accent endearing, and I certainly felt a bit of Cuba while I spent time with her.
TRADITIONS AND RITUALS USED TO COMMEMORATE A DEATH and
SOME DIFFERENCES BETWEEN CUBAN AND AMERICAN CULTURES
Both H. and her mother, N., focused primarily on the death of N.’s mother (H’s grandmother) in our discussions. (For the purpose of this paper, I will use the initial G. for N.’s mother, H’s grandmother.) This is the first death H. had dealt with in her life other than that of distant relatives and acquaintances. N., on the other hand, had experienced other deaths of people close to her besides that of her mother. With me, N. spoke of the death of her biological father, her American father-in-law’s death, and the grief experiences of several friends.
N. explained that years ago in Cuba, viewing of the deceased took place in their living room. She speculated that this may still be done today in some of the more remote areas of Cuba, Costa Rica, and Mexico, although she could not say for certain since she has not visited her homeland in a very long time. However, her memories of funerals while she was still in Cuba were of the deceased being taken to a funeral home. Most of the people in her family, such as her father, aunt, and grandmother, died in Cuba when she was already in America, and she was not able to go back and attend their funerals. Therefore, most of her experiences surrounding death and funerals have taken place since N. has been in America. Still, there are Cuban influences that she told me about when we discussed the funeral of her mother, G.
N. made the arrangements for G.’s funeral. Not unlike most American funerals, the viewing was set up to last for several days since there were so many people coming from different places. H. had already moved to Colorado, and N.’s brother needed to come from New York. As H. explained, “My grandmother had a full life, she died when she was almost 90, and she had been sick for a while…the kids came and the grandparents came…everybody who could possibly come, came. She was like the last of seven brothers and sisters that had passed…so it was real interesting. She was very honored and a lot of people loved her, people who were not only members of the family but were good friends. People cared about her a great deal, so people came from different places, all over Florida.”
Both N. and H. described the expectation that G.’s body not be left alone. “We would spend the whole night,” said N. H. told me that they spent “the night at the funeral home in recliners…set up by the funeral home, which happened to be a Cuban mortuary in Florida.” N. explained, “It’s not like Americans…Americans go from 1:00 to 8:00 o’clock or from 1:00-10:00 and that was it. We would not. Once the body is there, we would stay with that body until it is buried.” When I asked N. if she knew the reason why it was important to stay with the body all night, N. responded with, “It’s just part of the culture.”
At the same time, N. spoke about being caught between American and Cuban traditions. “…Like you make a combination of the Cuban with the American. My brother says, ‘I’m going to order some food and some people are going to go to the house.’ I had company already for two days and I didn’t want to talk with nobody. I just wanted to be by myself, mourn by myself. Maybe I’m wrong: I don’t know.” N. talked about how much the focus on food during the time of her mother’s funeral bothered her. “In my country, I don’t know if we are more emotional, or I don’t know; I don’t want to be prejudice in that point, but we don’t eat. We just have coffee and a little bit of milk, a little cracker, but we don’t eat, we are mourning! We are hurting!” H. also spoke with me about how Americans and Cubans approach the idea of food while mourning in different ways. “There was lots of coffee being passed around—espresso coffee. I remember…whose going to get dinner? We would go in shifts—like Grandma was going anywhere! We couldn’t leave her alone, so certain shifts went and ate and came back; the other shift would go and eat and come back—somebody was always there keeping her company.” N. told me, “She was my Mom! I didn’t want to leave her alone…like my brother said, ‘Let’s go to eat,’ and I said, ‘No, I don’t want to eat.’ ‘I’ll bring you something.’ ‘No, it’s not proper that I eat here, while the body is there; it’s not nice.’ He would go and eat, my kids went to eat and all that, but I couldn’t eat.”
I empathized with N., saying, “How hard it must be to have your culture…pulling at you and then be somewhere else and thinking, ‘Well, now that I’m here, maybe I’m supposed to do it this way,’ but maybe still wanting to do it this other way…because that’s more familiar to you and what feels right to you.” N. replied with, “Yeah, but at the same time I think, ‘What is appropriate?’ That’s my point of view, ‘What’s appropriate?’ Like my mother, I had been dealing with her for years, and it’s a relief, so you just want to let it go. She had been sick for 15 years, and I was taking care of her…it was kind of hard. So, when she died, I said, ‘That’s it,’ I mean, God forgive me, but this is a relief because for her…she didn’t talk, she was paralyzed on one side, she had to be fed, bathed, everything, and she wouldn’t talk. So, I stay all night: no sleep, no eating, no nothing…but like you said, I was between tradition and everything else. Between two cultures. What should I do? And then I ask my kids, and of course, they are American! ‘Oh Mom, don’t be silly!’ What are you going to do?” N. expressed feeling pressured to have people over to her house after the funeral, and in order to be more American, she conceded. “So you know, a few people came to the house, and my brother had food and they had sandwiches and stuff like that. So that was it.” H. recalled that it was just close friends and family who came back to the house.
H. spoke of how loud it was in the funeral home. I asked her if that meant there was a lot of crying. She surprised me by saying, “People were laughing! My grandmother had a full life, she died when she was almost 90, and she had been sick for a while…so it was like a blessing that she was gone. People were celebrating her life.” People were “just loud, like people trying to talk over each other. Cubans do that. You know…let’s talk over each other instead of everybody lowering the volume and … whispering or being respectful of the dead, which is what Americans kinda do—they don’t do that, they are very loud: ‘Hey, what’s happening? Oh, I haven’t seen you in so long!’ Just very emotional that way.”
I wondered if crying was sanctioned in the Cuban culture. If you were sad, was it okay to cry? H. said she thought it depended not so much on the culture, but on the family itself. She told me that her family tends to be reserved and that humor was the way they dealt with being really sad, and maybe to avoid things. After everybody left following her grandmother’s funeral, she said that they “giggled a lot that night—it was my mom and my uncle—we spent the night giggling, trying to scare each other.” On the other hand, when I asked N. whether it was acceptable or encouraged for people in her culture to be emotional, she replied with, “Oh yeah! Oh, we get very emotional! Whew!” And it’s okay, I asked? “Oh, the Spanish people get hysterical. I don’t! I think you can grieve, you know—you can feel the pain, and you can cry. But don’t (she screams loudly here). You don’t have to do that; I mean, from my point of view. And I’m not criticizing anybody, but I wasn’t. My son came over in the funeral home and he said, ‘Mom, you haven’t cried, and you need to cry.’ And I says to him, “I’ve been crying for your grandmother for 15 years, I have no more tears.’ But after everything…about a week later—no, after we did the nine days prayer (explained below)—I sat in my house by myself and I cried. I still get emotional because it hurts, you know…” N. and I talked about this, and we both agreed that it doesn’t matter how long someone is gone, it still hurts. Maybe the intensity changes, but the pain is still there. N. said, “Maybe it changes, but it doesn’t go away.”
H. described the overall funeral as a “Cuban wake.” “I had been to American wakes for years,” H. said, “and I didn’t see any kind of Anglo. The only thing I saw Anglo was the priest, you know, I had seen that in American wakes.” N. told me, “Of course, the priest came in and say a rosary. Then another friend of mine, he’s like my cousin, he came also and he said a few prayers for her and everybody joined in the prayer… Then, the following day the burial was at 11:00 in the morning.” Both mother and daughter spoke of attending a Catholic mass before leaving for the burial at the cemetery. They described the burial itself to be like most burials experienced here in America. H. told me, “The whole thing at the gravesite was like any other funeral I had been to. Usually, they’ll give you flowers and I think everybody does that: you throw a flower on top of the casket. But there is nothing symbolic about anything.”
H. backed-up a bit and told me an interesting story that caused quite a stir amongst all of her Cuban relatives. H. said, “When we took her out of the hearst I wanted to be a pall bearer. My mom was shocked, and so were all of her friends. I said, ‘Now, why can’t I be one? Who says they have to be a man? This is my grandmother, and if anybody here knew her, I surely did.’ ” So, H. carried her grandmother’s casket, along with her brother and her uncle. “I could tell all the older Cuban women were…appalled: you just don’t do that. They were…shocked. But to me, it was just like nobody else should carry her—it should be close family.”
Both H. and N. spoke to me about what it was like to live in America with Cuban roots. N. told me, “Because I’m here eleven years I tried to, since I had my son and H., I tried to be American and Cuban and everything. It’s not easy, either, because like with H., when she was younger and she wanted to go out on a date and I said, ‘You are not American, you’re Cuban!’ What a hard time I had with her because I didn’t want her to go on a date by herself. I wanted to raise her the same way they brought me up, you know, the same values: you go with a chaperone, you don’t go by yourself.” H. told me, “I had to go out with a chaperone when I was a teenager. Nobody goes out with a chaperone; you know, that’s a Hispanic thing. You know—nice girls don’t go out with boys unattended—that was a big one. Or, good girls don’t go away to college. You stay close to home and you go to the community college…and you live at home until you’re married.” H. said that this kind of thinking had a tendency to force a lot of young Hispanic women to get married just so they can get out of the house, and this is exactly what H. did: she got married for the first time when she was 19. “I wanted out,” she explained to me. N. later conceded that “the rules were a little hard for her (H.) because she was born here and I wanted to raise her as a Cuban. But I’m not sorry I did it, because she learned Spanish very good and she likes both cultures.”
H. explained to me that it is very traditional in Hispanic families for the mother-in-law to live with the family, for a strong commitment to family is expected in the Hispanic culture. “Everybody is very dependent on each other,” H. said. “So, my mom is hysterical that I don’t call her every day…whereas, if you’re in that little Cuban circle you call mom every day and you go by every Sunday and have dinner with mom, you know. Whereas my brother and I, he lives over in Florida and I live here. I don’t see my mother but maybe once a month if that, and that’s when the guilt sets in and I feel I have to see her…Regardless, you have to put your feelings in the background: it’s a family commitment.”
H. went on to say how important it is to always do what “looks right.” This is one of the reasons everyone was so upset with her wanting to be a pall bearer—how would it look? H. talked about how she is expected to take care of her mother in her old age, or should she become ill. However, H. explained that she’s told her mother she will likely end up in assisted living or a nursing home: something that does not make N. very happy. However, H.’s reasoning is, “I saw what my grandmother did to her and how hard it was, and it’s silly—not when there are so many facilities that will take care of people.” I responded with saying that she could still be a part of her mother’s life, and H. said, “Right. It’s just a very high drama kind of culture.”
H. attributes her different ways of seeing things not only to growing up in America, but also to her level of education. “I’m the first woman in my family to graduate from college. …Cousins of mine who went only to high school are still stuck in that little mold and kind of go along with all of these old traditions. But, if you expand and reach out and try other things—travel, and read, and go to college—expand your horizons, then you get so many different opinions and your outlook changes totally.”
I asked H. how it was for widows in her culture. She proceeded to tell me about her grandmother on her father’s side, who was from Spain. “When my grandfather passed away my grandmother was young, maybe in her 30’s, and she had six or seven kids to raise. She never got married again. And she wore black until the day she died.” On the other hand, her grandmother on her mother’s side, the one who had just passed away, had been married twice and lost both husbands. According to H., she maybe dressed in black for a while, but then went back to wearing her regular clothes.
I then inquired about property rights for widows in the Spanish and Cuban cultures. H. told me that they have a family farm in Spain that, to this day, is still there. Her grandmother continued to run the farm when her grandfather died. Since she had so many children, they all helped her run the farm. Presently, one of H.’s aunts and one of her cousins manage the farm.
I asked both H. and N. if they celebrated the Day of the Dead. H. said she didn’t, and she wasn’t sure if her mom ever had. H. explained, “It’s different when you grow up here because a lot of the customs your parents try to ingrain in you, but society doesn’t allow it.” N. told me that she used to celebrate the Day of the Dead in Cuba, but hadn’t done so since she’s been in America. When she was still in Cuba, she recalls bringing flowers to the cemetery and praying while they were there. N. explained to me that “each Hispanic culture from different countries have different customs and ways to do things.” She told me that in Mexico, the Day of the Dead is celebrated by bringing food to the cemetery and making an altar. In Cuba, she said, “We don’t do that; we bring flowers and the whole family goes.” Since none of her family is buried in a cemetery here in Colorado, she finds no reason to celebrate the Day of the Dead. However, she does make it a point to remember loved ones by telling stories. “We believe in telling stories to the grandchildren about the grandmothers and what they did and all that,” N. said. As we continued talking, N. revealed that her father died when she was three, so the primary way she came to know him was through stories she heard, which she later passed on to her children. “I keep telling my son … all the stories about my father and (his) being in the militia. He was killed in the revolution, in 1933. He used to own a horse in Cuba. It was a white horse, a beautiful horse…and nobody could ride that horse but him…” I offered sympathy that she had to grow up without a father. “Well, my mother remarried when I was six,” N. shared, “and this guy was very good. He was my father. I didn’t know that he wasn’t my father until I was about 12 and my aunt told me about it. He was very good, but I used to tell my son stories about my (biological) father; stories that I heard from my mother and my relatives.”
N. also shared with me about a Cuban ritual she has followed since being here in America, and she called it “the nine day ritual.” This ritual is begun the night following the burial and consists of prayer, a lit candle, and a glass of water. N. explained to me that every day the candle and glass of water is raised four inches higher than the day before in order to “help to elevate the spirit.” Every evening, prayers are said in front of the glass of water and while the candle is lit. “Prayers like the Our Father, Hail Mary, or a rosary,” are said, N. told me. After the prayers have been completed, the candle’s flame is put out and re-lit the following evening when the ritual is performed again. After nine days of doing this, the ritual is complete and the loved one’s spirit is considered elevated toward heaven.
In addition to talking with me about her mother’s death, N. also told me about the death of her father-in-law from her second marriage (which was to an American man). “I was devastated at first because I loved the guy. I was there at the hospital with him when he died. I had never seen anybody die before. So, my husband comes in, and my mother-in-law comes in and she signed papers and all that; so cold. She’s American. …From there we said there’s nothing we can do, so we went home. She didn’t go home. I asked her if she wanted me to stay with her. No, she was going to the beauty parlor. What?! I was devastated! Do you feel like going to a beauty parlor when you are in pain?? She went to the beauty parlor and had her nails done, her hair done.”
N. and I then talked about the differences between the death of her mother and her father-in-law. With her mother, N. watched her become more and more ill, knowing that she was getting closer to death every day. “I was crying for her for seven years. …I had everything ready. I had paid for the funeral home, paid for the cemetery; everything. …Since I was responsible and I was on my own—I didn’t have a husband—I had to keep trying to pay for everything, and everything was so expensive.” However, with her father-in-law, his death was more sudden and unexpected. N. kept talking about how devastated she was when her father-in-law died, whereas she never used such strong words to describe her reaction to her mother’s death; rather, she was relieved when her mother died because of her long-term illness.
N. also shared with me how her son, S., was impacted by the death of his grandmother, who was the first person he ever knew who had died. He was with N. when she received the calls from the nursing home. “When they called me from the nursing home where my mother was, I was so thankful to God that my son was there. I was at my house when they called me and said I better come, ‘Your mother, we think is going to pass on tonight.’ And I went, ‘Oh my God, I’m on my way.’ So, he goes, ‘What happened?’ ‘I have to go, my mother is dying.’ ‘I’ll take you.’ So, I’m getting dressed and I get another call. She had died already.” N.’s son took her to the nursing home, which was run by nuns. She said, “They were waiting for me to say a prayer and they just had her like she was asleep.” N. told me that she didn’t know it until five years later, but S. (her son) could not sleep that night because his grandmother didn’t look like she was in pain or dead—she just looked like she was asleep.
I wondered if N. saw the way she grieves as being different from the way her son, S., or her daughter, H. grieves, and if she thought that had anything to do with her children having been raised in American instead of Cuba. “I don’t think so,” N. replied. “I think it goes in the person. Because they were born here, but they…are another generation also. They have a different way of grieving or showing their emotions. They are more socially concerned and they don’t cry in public and stuff like that…I cry all the time, I’m finding…I’m a very sensitive person and I’m a very sensible person. H. is too. The only thing is, life makes her tougher. And S., because he is a man and Spanish, men don’t cry.” N. went on to tell me that, in fact, she has never seen her son cry, even at her mother’s funeral. “I can close my eyes and I can see him, very well dressed for the funeral… black dress and all that kind of stuff…” (She said that most of the people who attended her mother’s funeral wore black.) “So, I remember S. just standing there and he wouldn’t move,” N. recalled. “He would keep watching me, watching me all the time. I guess it was an experience for him because he never had somebody die before…I guess it was hard for him, but he never said anything, he never talked about it. But then, after years, I heard he didn’t sleep for a couple of nights…because he saw her and the impression that he got…he couldn’t sleep.” I asked how old S. was when his grandmother died, and N. told me he had been 32.
I then inquired if N. thought there were gender differences in the way her son and daughter grieved. She surprised me by saying, “I think it depends on the person—on the person’s feelings. I don’t think it has nothing to do with culture because, I don’t know…it’s hard to say. I know H. has feelings. It’s not that S. doesn’t have feelings—he does—but he doesn’t show them. H. will show them. H. will cry and talk about it.”
BELIEFS THAT OFFER COMFORT IN TIMES OF LOSS and
BELIEFS ABOUT LIFE AFTER DEATH
When I asked N. and H. about beliefs they hold that offer comfort in times of loss, both of them spoke openly about their spiritual beliefs. N. said, “I believe in God mainly, and I pray a lot. Like H. says, ‘Do you pray every day?’ ‘Yes,’ I said, and she said, ‘Oh my God!’ And she was brought up in a Catholic church from kindergarten to the ninth grade! And my son the same way. Then now they don’t go to church. I don’t go to church, either. As you grow older you see so many changes, and for me it was a disappointment…God can hear me from my house, I don’t have to go to church. People go to church to see who has the same dress on…the same coat as last year. Hallo! You come here to pray, not to look at who’s wearing what, but that’s the way it is …I enrolled H. in the best Catholic school in Yonkers and we went to 8:00 mass every Sunday... Do you know how many masses I went to?! And then it’s like, ‘Oh! You have a nice…’ Well, please! I couldn’t take that! So I go to church when I feel like it. It could be Thursday, Friday, or Wednesday at 3:00 in the afternoon and nobody is there but me, and I pray, and that’s it.” N. said that she was very content in God, that she believes in God and in her patron saints, to whom she often prays.
When I asked N. what she thought happened to her mother after she died, N. told me that she believes her mother went to heaven. I wondered if N. thought her faith was any stronger because she had been raised in Cuba, but she didn’t necessarily think so. “There are people from all different countries and they believe in church, they believe in God, and they believe in saints.”
H. told me that she thinks a lot her beliefs are “mixed in with Catholicism; but not all, because I don’t agree with all the teachings of the Catholic church even though I was born and raised there. I grew up in a Catholic school from kindergarten all the way through ninth grade. I do know there is an afterlife. I don’t know if it’s heaven. I know there is a God, but I don’t know if it’s a HE. I think it might just be a power way stronger than any of us. I don’t know if there’s really a hell; sometimes I think that we are here already…because, I mean, it’s really hard here, so the way I deal with grief is I just do things for myself—I’ll read, sometimes I’ll pray, and…I find peace in church sometimes, but it doesn’t have to be a Catholic church, just the fact that I’m in a church…it’s just that serenity of a safe place, a comfortable place.” H. went on to say, “I’ve read a lot of Buddhism and I like some of their stuff. I obviously had catechism from being in a Catholic school, so I have a lot of different views. For me, when I’ve lost people who are close, I have found peace with my friends, with my family…you know, getting goofy with my family and then telling stories about my grandmother. That’s how we all found comfort—all of us use humor a lot.”
I wondered what kinds of things H. would read during a time of grief. She told me that it didn’t necessarily have to be something religious or about grief, just as long as it captured her attention and she could remain focused on it. H. did say that she liked “poetry a lot, and those affirmation books, things like that—that helps me.”
I also inquired more specifically about beliefs regarding life after death. H. told me, “I think we all have souls and I think the souls either come back, …maybe some kinda hang out.” “So, you believe in reincarnation?” I asked. “Yeah, reincarnation. I believe in guardian angels, somebody watching after you…some people call it instinct or gut, some people say I heard a voice in my head! It’s something that’s protecting you and watching out for you. Maybe an old soul somewhere.”
N. said, “I believe there is a life after death. I believe in spirits. Well…I don’t know if H. likes this, but I’m a medium. Sometimes I can say things, I can predict things that happen.” When I asked her if she has had any communication with her mom since her death, N. told me she had. “I have a couple of friends in Florida who are like me: they believe in spirits and one of them is a medium that spirits come through her. My self, I don’t do that. I can see things. I dream of things, and I see spirits.” I encouraged her to keep talking. “So, when I was in Florida I have a spiritual mass in my house. We get together, we set a table with a crucifix, a candle, flowers, holy water, and perfume. And we pray and we sing, we pray and we sing, and then we say that this mass is for the spirit of so and so. So, her (my mother’s) spirit came to my friend. My friend had never met her.”
“Was your friend also Cuban?” I asked. “Yes,” N. replied, “There’s a lot of things that she doesn’t know between what happened with my mom and I—there are things between the two of us that nobody knows. We may have a fight and we say things, and we hurt each other for a few years, and then we talk with each other again and that’s forgotten—but it’s there—you know? So my friend didn’t know about my mother and me, and my mother and me…we never got along so good. She was totally different from me, and that was it. So when she came to my friend, the first thing she said to me was I’m sorry, I want you to forgive me because I wasn’t a good mother.” I asked N. how she felt about that. N. told me, “I said to her, ‘No, I forgive you a long time ago, and this is past. Don’t think about it; you need to be concentrating on your spirit, and you get the light.’ ”
I wondered if N. had frequently experienced contact with her mother. “No,” she said, “it doesn’t happen that often. Usually I see her in a dream.”
When I asked H. if she ever sensed her grandmother around her, she said, “I’ve sensed stuff before, but I don’t know if it’s my grandmother because I wasn’t that close to her. But as I’ve gotten older I’ve tried to follow my instincts more. Even when I was younger I’d have a really weird feeling about something, you know, and sure enough! As I’ve gotten older I just feel that whenever I get that gut feeling I try to follow it, and it’s never led me astray; it’s always been the right thing to do. It’s an intuition kind of thing.”
H. told me that, besides her belief in God and an afterlife, she also believed that “we’ll see each other again at some point. This isn’t final. I never feared death at all because I always feel like people are going to a better place; again, because this is kinda hell sometimes, and it might be a release. Especially when people—like the job I’m doing now, or when I worked at the hospital—sometimes death is the best thing, you know, and it is to finally be at peace with yourself. So, I never feared it. I don’t know; I mean, when people have passed on I don’t get like I lose it, I just feel they are going to a better place and one day we’ll meet up again.”
BELIEFS THAT COULD ADD TO THE PAIN OF LOSS
When I asked N. and H. whether there were any beliefs they held that seemed to add to their pain after loss, neither one of them had very much to say. It was hard to tell if they found the question confusing, or simply didn’t hold any beliefs that added to their pain. Still, H. did talk about how her losses seem to pile up, one on top of the other. “I’ve had lots of losses,” said H., “but it’s not people who have died. It’s people who have left my life for some reason or another, and that’s a loss.”
I wondered if, when experiencing these losses, H. lost any faith in God. She replied, “No, I think I lose more faith in God when I see really bad things happen. Like, not so much death, but if I see starving children or disease…things like that really bug me; that bugs me more than death because death is final and you’re done, and that’s it.”
“So you see death as kind of a natural thing,” I affirmed. “Yeah,” H. replied, “it’s part of life. Where the other things are things that can be handled differently by man—it’s more controlled. Whereas death…there’s a saying in Spanish that there are two things that you can’t predict: …one is when you are going to be born, and the other is when you’re going to die. …Everything else you can just kind of go with it, but those two things you just don’t know. Just like I feel that when you’re born you already know…somebody already has it written somewhere when you’re going to die. And you can do anything in your power to get around that, but the day that it’s assigned for you to go is it.”
I said, “You believe in fate, then.” “Big time, yup,” replied H. “I believe in fate big time because everybody—and now you hear it even more with the World Trade Center—people who have said, ‘I could have been in the building, but I stopped off at Starbucks to get coffee,’ or, ‘I went to the dentist’s office,’ or the fireman who had the day off, but he went into the building anyway. You know…it was their day to go. It was just their day. Somebody called them. I definitely believe in fate.” She went on to say that she thought somebody’s time to go had “a lot to do with your soul and whether you’ve done what you wanted to accomplish on earth while you were here…or are you going to maybe hang out and protect some people, people you love or were in your life…or are you going to come back as something else because you’re not done yet, you still have another journey to complete.”
In reply to my question of what could add to the pain of her loss, N. said, “Well, it’s hard. It’s hard when a person dies you love…you know you’re not going to see them anymore; that you won’t be able to talk to them, and sometimes you get regrets, like, ‘Oh, I didn’t say this, or oh, I didn’t tell them that.’ But you know, I don’t think I have anything…”
At this point, N. didn’t seem to have anything else to say, so I proposed the situation of a widow who may, besides losing her husband, also lose property and assets. I wondered how, in her experience, it was in her culture. She explained that her mother, since she’d been in a nursing home for so long, did not have an estate or anything like that. N. then went on to talk about how important she thinks it is to have one’s affairs in order. “I keep telling H. I’m going to write a letter and tell her what to do with this, and this… ‘Would you stop it!’ ‘No, I want you to do things like I tell you or I’m going to haunt you forever.’ ” N. laughed, and said, “And she would say, ‘And you would do it, too!’ ” N. went on to talk about how we never know when we are going to die, so it’s important to have everything in order. “You don’t know,” N. said, “It’s so hard. Like, because I believe in spirits and things like that, I know you don’t know when you’re going to die. I can be sitting here, and I can be dead in a couple of hours. All I have to do is get a heart attack, or a brain hemorrhage, or whatever, and that’s it. You know? So you have to be prepared. And unfortunately, people don’t do that, and it creates problems for the family after.”
END OF LIFE DECISIONS
I asked H. if, in her opinion, her mother’s culture had any beliefs about end of life decisions. I posed a hypothetical scenario of a family conference where they were being told that a loved one, say her grandmother, had six months left to live and some decisions needed to be made. I wondered if this would be an acceptable thing for a doctor to do with people from the Cuban culture. “I don’t know,” H. replied. “I don’t know how they would have handled it, to be honest with you…The whole family conference thing, I think it would have depended—and I think this is true for most Hispanics—it would have depended on who was telling them. Was it coming from a doctor who they’ve known for a long time and who is trusted, maybe a Spanish guy? Or is it coming from this white doctor who is a neurologist who just started treating her because he’s on duty that day? That’s a big one.”
I summarized, “So, the relationship they have with the person who is discussing all of this with them is important.”
“Yes, that’s a big one,” said H. “I think people will hear it better if you send someone in who is kind of like them.”
I later asked about cremation. “Actually, my mom was not thinking about cremation, but I’ve talked her into it,” H. answered. “Now she doesn’t want to lie in the ground. And there again, it had to do with education.”
OPINIONS OF HEALTHY VS. UNHEALTHY GRIEF
When I asked H. how she would define healthy vs. unhealthy grief, she asked me if I wanted her to answer that question from her point of view, or from what she felt the Cuban point of view would be. I asked her to give me her perspective on both because I thought it would be interesting to see how things may have changed for her as she grew up in America. H. replied with, “What I’ve seen about Cubans is that they let it drag on and on and on…and they will talk about the same dead person for ever and ever, and just drag it on and not let it go. That seems like the most unhealthiest thing because they don’t use it in a good way.”
I asked H. if she could elucidate. H. explained, “It’s this big build up of tragic events that led up to this person’s death instead of celebrating…to me, it would be healthier to celebrate the person’s life—you know—talk about how they made us laugh. Let’s talk about what kind of person they were, how they made you…a better person in this way.” We talked about how there’s so much to learn from one another. H. said, “Yeah, instead of saying, ‘Oh, my God, she had Alzheimer’s forever, she was this, she was that—remember when she used to…’ because there was a lot of bad stuff with the disease, and my mom will still continue to this day to talk about that, and my grandmother has been dead since 1995. It’s been six years, and my mom still, ‘Oh, your grandmother used to do this and that to me.’ You know, and drag it on. It’s like, you know, why can’t you think of the positive, fun stuff…like the bread pudding she used to make…And I think Cubans tend to do that; I’ve noticed in the culture that the older ones tend to focus on the negative stuff, whereas the new generation says, ‘Okay, they’re dead: move on.’ Celebrate their life and move on.”
So I asked H. what she thought a healthy time period for grieving was. “I don’t know if there’s an exact…I don’t think you can just say, ‘Okay, six months from now I’m not going to grieve any more,’ ” H. answered. “I don’t think you can just put a limit on it, or you know, any kind of set time on it—you can’t because everybody’s individual needs have to be… I mean, I was done grieving by the time I flew back; but everybody is different. My uncle grieved forever. My mom is still going on about it, so I don’t know exactly how long it takes, but I certainly think that once a person has passed on it’s time to let go. I mean, what is the point of thinking about what they went through? What’s the point of just talking it into the ground? Just let it go.”
I asked H. if she thought she saw her mom move through the various stages of grief. She replied with, “I don’t know…I think the grieving process has a lot to do with the relationship you had with the person. My mom’s relationship with her mother was just awful. It was dysfunctional…it was horrific, just awful, and that’s how she grieved: dysfunctionally, the same exact way she lived her life…and how her interaction was with my grandmother, it’s the same exact way after she passed away. It wasn’t healthy, just like the relationship wasn’t healthy…My uncle was the same…my uncle was always kind of narcissistic, so the funeral turned into the same for him. I mean, nobody grieved in a healthy way at all.”
I wondered if H. could tell me more about her thoughts on what would have been a healthier way to grieve. She told me, “I mean my uncle…his grieving…he wasn’t even grieving. I mean, he was crying and all hysterical, and all this show, and I’m thinking to myself, ‘You didn’t even call this woman. She was in a nursing home for how long, and you didn’t pick up the phone, you never wrote…and now you’re putting this on, for who?’ You know, and I don’t know if it was maybe guilt…I just didn’t trust his tears. So, I mean, the healthier thing would have been like, ‘Yeah, I really didn’t care. I’m just showing up.’ I mean, show up—do the decent thing—she was your mom. Be there, be respectful, but don’t come with tears and all this stuff, and the whole show…Cubans are very high drama.” I found this interesting, since earlier in the interview it sounded like there had been very little crying at her grandmother’s funeral. H. explained, “A lot of the Cuban culture is very catered to what people are going to think, and what people are going to say…so I need to behave a certain way because, what are people going to say?…And it’s ridiculous: totally ridiculous. But there is a lot that. …That’s my interpretation from being first generation. You’re going to get a totally different opinion from my mom.”
N.’s response to my question about what was healthy vs. unhealthy grief, interestingly enough, was actually not so different from her daughter’s viewpoint. N. started by saying, “Healthy grief is to continue your life…You know, like what’s the use to keep crying for something, for somebody: they aren’t there anymore. Why keep the clothes? Give the clothes to somebody else. That’s it, you know. Not to forget…because I haven’t. I have a lot of people in my family who died—my father, my mother, my grandmother, my aunt that I love like my mother. And I have pictures of them, and I say prayers to them. In other words, I never forgot them. But I don’t cry for them everyday or anything like that. Sometimes I shed a little tear when I think of something, but that’s it. So, I try to live my life as much as I can, and enjoy every day as it comes, because you don’t know tomorrow what will happen.”
As for what unhealthy grief looked like according to N., she explained it would be someone who “…holds onto it. Like…I have a friend whose husband died and she kept his clothes for years. Why? That’s unhealthy! Give it to somebody who can use it, or throw it away. But what do you want the clothes in there, in the closet for, taking space? It’s good to have a picture, to have memories of a little something that he gave you, and you know, things like that. But some people just hang onto and they get sick on it. They cry and cry, and they get sick.” Obviously, N.’s opinion of her own grieving was quite different from how her daughter saw her grieving!
From there, N. and I started to discuss the connection between one’s mind and body. She told me that she believed that someone who couldn’t let go, but continued to grieve, would get physically sick, “Because your mind has a lot to do with your body,” N. said. She then went on to tell me about her battle with breast cancer, something that she did not connect to her grief over her mother. N. told me that she was diagnosed in 1998. She had a lumpectomy done and received radiation. “And I was depressed,” she said, “Not that I thought I was going to die, because I knew I wasn’t going to die—the doctor said so. But that big C, you know…”
I empathized with all the loss N. must have gone through as she was diagnosed and treated for her cancer. N. said, “It’s depressing! …But I went through it and I prayed a lot. And I don’t even think about it. Why? Because if I think about it, maybe I get it again. I don’t want to think about that—Nope! Forget it! I have faith that I would never get it again, and that is that.” N. went on to show me a picture of herself, H., her son and her daughter-in-law, at the Race for the Cure, which took place the day before N.’s lumpectomy. N. told me that just looking at that picture made her feel emotional. The depth of her sharing was very touching to me, and I told her so. The courage that she showed dealing with her breast cancer was inspirational, and I was touched that she would show me such a personal facet of herself and how she dealt with the loss and grief inherent in being challenged with such a disease. The cancer was not something that came up in my interview with H.; perhaps because she didn’t want to breach her mother’s confidence, for as you’ll see in the next section, in many ways both N. and H. see themselves as very private people.
RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THEIR PRIVATE GRIEF AND PUBLIC MOURNING
H. told me that she saw herself as very strong when she’s in public. “I’m there and I’m the strong one—I don’t show a lot of emotion. …I’ve done it tons of times with friends, with family. If they need someone strong, I’ll show up and I’ll be there…My persona is that I can handle anything—you know, bring it on! And then I go home and I crash. And I’ll cry, and I’ll throw things, and I’ll let it out. So, it’s totally different from what I’m showing. And I don’t think a lot of people see that side of me because it’s to an extreme. I’m extremely sensitive, so to a certain point I think it’s a defense mechanism, too. I don’t show people that I’m that sensitive, but, I mean, I lose it—I totally lose it.” H. told me about a case she went on as part of her job. She explained how she sat with a family member and grieved with him, and how during that time she was very strong. However, she said, “the next two days I could hardly walk. I was just emotionally drained.”
I asked her if she thought it was different in the Cuban culture, and reminded her of her uncle whose public mourning seemed to be very different from his private mourning.
H. shared her opinion: “…to me, that’s annoying (what her uncle did) because having grown up here, the American way…is be honest and if you don’t feel like crying, don’t cry, and that’s okay. But you know, the Cuban style is you have to show emotion: you have to do it—especially the women. For women not to cry and not to be overly sensitive is like (she gestures here)…All my mom’s friends, they all say, ‘H. wears the pants in that family,’ because I’ve been strong for my uncle, strong for my mom. For a woman to be strong and not show emotion is not typical, not typical at all—they kind of go, ‘What’s wrong with her?’ Kind of like, ‘How could she carry her grandmother’s casket? She should be hysterical, crying!’ They thought emotionally I should be a mess, but I would just say ‘I’m not a mess, really! I’m okay!’ …Because I wasn’t feeling that, why should I show that? For other people to see and say, what, ‘poor H.?’ No!…And I looked at it totally different, I looked at it as this woman lived her life—she lived a long life—she’s done, you know? She was done 20 years ago! But God let her go on…that was somebody’s decision, somewhere.”
H. and I went on to discuss how lonely it can be when everyone gets used to you being the strong one, but then one day, you’re not feeling so strong… “You present this person who can handle anything,” said H., “and then one day you just can’t and they’re like, ‘Hey! What got into you?’ Hello! I can get depressed!”
H.’s mom also described herself as a person who was more private than public. In answering the question, overall she spoke more of general affairs than of herself personally. “Because I’m a very private person,” said N., “Like, I go to the gym and I don’t like to go naked in front of the other women; I mean, I’m not like that! It’s nothing against the other women…but I can’t do that! I don’t know if it’s my culture, whatever—but I cannot do it. So, this (grieving) is the same thing. Some people…like when this thing happened in New York. My brother lives in New York; he lives far from where it happened, thank God! But he’s there and he sees things we don’t see over here…and he feels it more than we do.” N. went on to tell me, in detail, about how her brother called her the morning of September 11th, and how, “…he’s screaming on the other line, ‘Oh, my God! Look what happened!’ We got so emotional,” she said. “You know, I couldn’t sleep for three nights!”
Then, N. started to talk about her son, S. She showed me a picture of S. in military clothing. “…when you see the towers fall down, you see how many people are dead, and you go, ‘Oh, God!’ Just the thought of it, I don’t know, I get so emotional.” N. related several stories to me about her son.
“When the Gulf War happened, he was signed in, he was packed, he was vaccinated…and he was ready to go. It was a matter of 24 hours. And I kneel down to that saint and I pray like that, crying, begging God, ‘Don’t let him go!’ He didn’t go, okay? He didn’t go to the Gulf, and to this day he still doesn’t know why. Then I go and tell him it’s my saint. ‘Yeah, right,’ he says.”
“My son,” N. went on to say, “was working in the Pentagon in Washington, okay? He had signed…that’s why I got sick and couldn’t sleep for three days…he had signed a contract with the Army to work there three years, and he moved from Colorado to Washington in 1999. So, 99, 2000, 2001…July of 2001 his commission was over. In June of this year he got orders to move to Florida…and he said, ‘But I still have another month to go.’ Still, they told him he had to go now; you know how the Army is. So, July 11th he moved to Florida. …So, the plane hit right where he was working…okay? The plane hit right there. When I saw that…I got to my knees and I said thank you, thank you…because he probably would have been killed that time…” N. told me how H. and S. joked around about how their mother’s saint saved S. “Because they don’t believe as I believe, but for me…it was very real.”
N. told me how worried S. was about friends he had who were working in the Pentagon. She related a story to me that was just amazing. N. had asked S. if he had heard from one of his friends, E. S. said that he hadn’t, and he was very concerned about him because he always started work very early in the morning. N. told me how she prayed to her spirits who told her that E. was okay; and she told her son this, “S.,” she said, “don’t worry about E., he’s fine. You’ll hear from him in a couple of days.” And S. did hear from E! Turns out, E. had gone to work at the Pentagon that morning, but was sent for coffee, and that’s where he was when the plane hit. “So, all the rest of the ones at the meeting were dead, including the general, and E. was alive because he went to get coffee,” N. said with incredulousness. We both shook our heads in disbelief and gratitude.
After she shared this, we spoke about the tragedy of September 11th for a while. Eventually, the conversation led to discussing visits to the cemetery. N. said visiting the cemetery was an important thing to do, “…but I mean, now I can’t do that because she’s in Florida. But…I have a cousin in Miami and I send her money for Mother’s Day and I say, ‘Please go to my mother’s, you know…where my mother is and put some flowers,’ so, that’s it.”
HOW USEFUL IS GROUP SUPPORT IN FACILITATING THE SUCCESSFUL RESOLUTION OF GRIEF?
On the topic of using group support to help facilitate the resolution of grief, N. and H. expressed very different viewpoints. H. told me, “I think (support groups) are very important. I know from the Cuban or the Hispanic point of view, my family doesn’t get what I do. The issue of mental health is not an issue—we just don’t have any in the Hispanic culture! (laughter)…They just don’t see (mental health) as an issue, so like, formal groups and things like that, they don’t get it. …Me, personally, being an educated woman, I know that it benefits people, and I’ve benefited from it. So whether they are informal or formal…I think it’s very good…it makes you feel like you’re not alone, and you know, that’s so important because it’s like in the meantime you’re going, ‘Oh, my God, I’m crazy! I’m the only one in the world who feels this way!’ So when you see that there are other people that are in the same boat as you, it’s great to have solidarity with other people and you kind of know, ‘Okay, it’s not so bad’…I mean, I’m totally for groups.”
H. told me how she has encouraged her mom to go to groups for social activities, but again, it’s just not something people from her culture are given to doing. “She doesn’t want to do it,” said H., “I’ve asked her to do community groups for the elderly, go to the senior citizen center, and her response is that it’s full of old people. I said, you are an old person!…but she says it’s depressing.” Although H. tries to tempt her mom with all the different activities that are available, N. still resists. “But again, with that culture, they limit themselves,” H. explains, “None of her friends go to senior citizen centers. They all kind of hang out at each other’s houses or they don’t go anywhere—they spend the whole day watching TV.”
I extrapolated that, since seeking social activities in a group setting is off limits, so, too, must dealing with issues such as grief in a group setting be off limits—but even more so. “Oh yeah, most definitely,” replied H., “And I think not only culturally, but it depends also on your level of education. My parents were immigrants and they were blue collar workers. …So, you know, your level of education certainly influences where you’re coming from. My brother has a Master’s Degree, so we’re both college graduates and we know better! And then when we talk with them, they are just set in their ways and they just don’t want to see it, don’t want to do it.”
Even though formal support groups were out of the question, both H. and I agreed that people in her culture sought support from their family and community. “…So those are the social groups that are important, the people you have known for years and years, and they go to your weddings, to your funerals. And what’s interesting is you might not see these people all the time; you might not hang out with them. But when somebody dies or somebody gets married or baptized, everybody comes together. But, Americans kind of hang out together more—it’s like, ‘Hey, you want to come over for the game? Hey, let’s barbeque!’ Cubans don’t do that too much. They kind of like to do their own thing with their own family, and maybe, once in awhile, like holidays or whatever, you mingle with other people.”
When I asked N. her opinion of group support, she told me, “I don’t know, maybe…it depends on the person. I have never been to a group. It’s not that I’m against it or anything, it’s just that I’m a very strong person and every time I have problems…I would sit down and talk to myself. I would say, ‘this is this, this is that, and you’re just going to have to do…’ and a drink isn’t going to help me, cigarettes aren’t going to help me, so I deal with it. But see, I’m strong, I don’t necessarily need it, but some other people—some people think they need to (go to a support group), maybe they feel better. I understand it works. Like when I had my cancer thing, they said I was so depressed that the surgeons suggested I go to groups and stuff. But then, I thought, I’m very strong. My son calls me Sergeant! So you know how strong I am…he sends me a Mother’s Day card and he signs it to the Sergeant! So…when they suggested I go to a group and I needed help, I said I gotta deal with it…I have a problem, I have to deal with it. All I have to do is wake up and smell the coffee!”
Since formal group support was obviously out of the question, I wondered if N. relied on family and/or friends to talk with when she needed support. “Like I said from the beginning, I’m a very private person. I can count my friends with one hand. And at the same time, if you go to Miami, I know tons of people in Miami and they like me…I can say I have a lot of friends, but in reality I have a lot of…acquaintances. So you know, my life is a private life; my thoughts are my thoughts, and I keep them to myself.” She told me that sometimes there just simply is no one who she considers to be the right person to talk to. I heard her hurt and her grief when she said, “…I used to believe in friendship, I used to believe in church…I used to believe in a lot of things that I don’t anymore…One thing that I always did and I still do believe in, and that is God. I believe in God, and every morning I get up and I look at the sky and I go, ‘Thank you, God, for letting me see the sky!’ because this eye (and she points to her right eye), if I cover it and look with this one, I know you’re there, but I don’t see you. I lost it from an operation I had, and it only works 30%. You know…it’s things like that, I have been through a lot. And I find out that when you need it most, your friends, they are not there. Yet, if you have money and you have parties, and you have drinks and a beautiful house, you have a lot of friends.”
I said, “It’s not right, is it?” N. replied, “Oh no, it’s not, but unfortunately, that’s life.” N. talked about how her daughter, H., encouraged her to build friendships, maybe go the senior community center and engage in some activities. N. replied with, “I don’t want any friends; I have a television! ….and I don’t want to go to old people. Leave me alone; I’m fine. You know, because I have my pain from friends.”
“And it’s hard to open up and trust again,” I said.
“Yeah, it is,” said N. “And then when you say you have friends and you’re going through, like you know, I had my problem, and ah, no, forget it! And I have seen what they do to other people that need love and stuff like that, and no… Like I said, you know, I was married for 15 years to my kid’s father. I divorced. A year and ½ later, I met this guy and I married him, and we were married for nine years. After that I said, eh, no more! No more, because I don’t feel like taking it from anybody. See, I love my kids, I will give my arm for any of them!…H., I’m all close to her because she’s by herself and you know, she’s a woman, and…I think even though she doesn’t say it, and I would never mention it to her, but I think she needs me more. S. is married and he has his wife, and you know, he’s a man. But I don’t want…to have somebody next to me, telling me don’t do this, don’t go there—oh please! I can’t take that anymore! I took a lot of that. The Spanish people, the Spanish man, is very possessive. They tell you how to dress, how to comb your hair, how to put on make-up, how to do this and how to do that. …Let me tell you, they think there’s a macho man thing. And unfortunately, I was married to a Spaniard. That is worse than anything else. So, the second one was an American. Worse! His feelings and my feelings were totally different.”
I was amazed at the amount of information both H. and N. were willing to share with me. Even though they both said they see themselves as private people, I felt like they had been quite intimate with me.
I came away from these interviews in awe of both of these women and with a deep amount of respect for them. Not only did they answer the questions I asked them, helping me to learn a great deal about the Cuban culture and what it’s like to combine that culture with that of the United States, I also felt they offered a lot of additional information that was unsolicited.
While at first glance, the interviews seemed to revolve around the death of G. (N.’s mother, H.’s grandmother), in retrospect I noted several areas of profound grief that H. and N. shared with me from their personal lives. N. spoke of losing her biological father when she was three and of being there when her father-in-law died, a loss she said was devastating to her. N. also spoke candidly of suffering from breast cancer and of losing the sight in one of her eyes. Both mother and daughter spoke with heart wrenching honesty about the pain and grief inherent in the living of life. H. talked about being the strong one and then finding herself misunderstood and alone when she finally showed feelings of sadness. N. spoke of feeling betrayed by her religion and by friends during times of need, eventually coming to a decision not to be so quick to trust…
Still, both women exhibited a great deal of faith, as well as a sense of humor, that seems to help them not only survive but thrive. I am grateful to both of them for sharing so much of themselves with me, and allowing me, in turn, to share them with you.