An Interview with Gita

Barb Mercer

Gita is a 24 year old doctoral student from India. Gita is Catholic and described herself as part of the two percent of Christians who live in a culture predominantly Hindu. We spoke about grief in general in India. For a month or two after a loved one dies, close family members may fast from meat and strictly eat vegetarian meals and on the 41st day after the death, there is a meal of celebration for those who were supportive of the family during their grief. Sometimes the family will buy all the children at an orphanage a meal instead of hosting the celebration meal for the friends and family of the deceased.

Gita then told me about some of the Hindu practices of India. Of most interest were those that involve the eldest son. He lights the funeral fire for the cremation and shaves his head. The soul of the deceased is then set free, resting in peace or reincarnated. People celebrate death anniversaries in India by taking out ads in the personals or classified section of the newspaper. Some people take out large ads with pictures of the deceased to commemorate the death of their family member. The size of the ad depends on the family s ability to pay for these ads but Gita said it is a very common practice.

When I asked her if there were any rituals or beliefs that caused her discomfort, she said the idea of hell and purgatory disturbs her most. It is a scary thought for her that someone would be confined to a life of suffering. She believes in heaven but does not discount the idea of reincarnation. Gita believes that some people are "old souls" they have a wisdom or there is a sense that they have been around for a long time. Gita believes that they may be reincarnated.

Her culture is focused on family and putting other s needs above your own. There is a strong sense of family and community in grief in India. Unhealthy grief would be such that you could not meet your responsibilities to other people. You can be sad and grieve but you shouldn t let it affect what you need to do for other people.

Memorializing takes the form of headstones and displaying pictures of the deceased. Cemetaries are often located near a church. Generally people don t bring flowers as condolence but the family brings those to put on the casket. There are no funeral homes so the wake is held in the home. There is embalming. At that time candles and incense are lit and it is more like a prayer meeting. A large picture is kept at the family home. Sometimes candles will be burned or a light will be placed to shine upon the photograph.

It is perfectly acceptable for an older woman and other women to express public grief but men are expected to be reserved and to be the strong ones and take care of the funeral arrangements. Their upbringing would inhibit males from exhibiting too much grief. There is a stigma, sort of a sense of shame attached to suicide, such that suicide would be covered up because it would indicate the family had failed the person.

When I asked her about group support for the grieving process, she said there is definitely not the level of formal group support in India as compared to here. Gita compared it similar to how our American culture was decades ago. There is still neighborhood and family support in India. You would look to them or to friends for consolation. In general, in India the entire family is part of everything that goes on. Children attend funerals with their parents and are exposed to grief at very young ages so that they grow up with the reality of death. Gita believes this is preferable to shielding them and saying that the deceased is sleeping.

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Written for Grief in a Family Context, HPER F460, Summer, 1999.
(C) 1999, Barbara Mercer. All rights reserved. Interested parties may contact her through the course instructor, at