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Cancer Health Center

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Grief, Bereavement, and Coping With Loss (PDQ®): Supportive care - Health Professional Information [NCI] - Cross-Cultural Responses to Grief and Mourning

Grief, whether in response to the death of a loved one, to the loss of a treasured possession, or to a significant life change, is a universal occurrence that crosses all ages and cultures. However, there are many aspects of grief about which little is known, including the role that cultural heritage plays in an individual's experience of grief and mourning.[1,2] Attitudes, beliefs, and practices regarding death and grief are characterized and described according to multicultural context, myth, mysteries, and mores that describe cross-cultural relationships.[2]

The potential for contradiction between an individual's intrapersonal experience of grief and his or her cultural expression of grief can be explained by the prevalent (though incorrect) synonymous use of the terms grief (the highly personalized process of experiencing reactions to perceived loss) and mourning (the socially or culturally defined behavioral displays of grief).[3,4]

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An analysis of the results of several focus groups, each consisting of individuals from a specific culture, reveals that individual, intrapersonal experiences of grief are similar across cultural boundaries. This is true even considering the culturally distinct mourning rituals, traditions, and behavioral expressions of grief experienced by the participants. Health care professionals need to understand the part that may be played by cultural mourning practices in an individual's overall grief experience if they are to provide culturally sensitive care to their patients.[1]

In spite of legislation, health regulations, customs, and work rules that have greatly influenced how death is managed in the United States, bereavement practices vary in profound ways depending on one's cultural background. When assessing an individual's response to the death of a loved one, clinicians should identify and appreciate what is expected or required by the person's culture. Failing to carry out expected rituals can lead to an experience of unresolved loss for family members.[5] This is often a daunting task when health care professionals serve patients of many ethnicities.[2]

Helping family members cope with the death of a loved one includes showing respect for the family's cultural heritage and encouraging them to decide how to commemorate the death. Clinicians consider the following five questions particularly important to ask those who are coping with the emotional aftermath of the death of a loved one:

  1. What are the culturally prescribed rituals for managing the dying process, the body of the deceased, the disposal of the body, and commemoration of the death?
  2. What are the family's beliefs about what happens after death?
  3. What does the family consider an appropriate emotional expression and integration of the loss?
  4. What does the family consider to be the gender rules for handling the death?
  5. Do certain types of death carry a stigma (e.g., suicide), or are certain types of death especially traumatic for that cultural group (e.g., death of a child)?[6]
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