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Culture and Grief


About four years ago I moved to South Carolina from the Pacific Northwest. Northwesterners are big on celebrating cultural diversity. Where I lived, though, we really didn’t have much of it, so celebrating it was mostly theoretical. This made my job as a chaplain easier in some respects; I knew who I was dealing with. Coming to the South brought me face to face with more cultural diversity than I had been accustomed to … and I appreciate it.

Culture is one of the lenses through which we see the world. A strong influence, culture informs our views of what is right and wrong around us. It also helps us process the tough things in life like crisis, death, loss, and grief. And it shapes how we see our jobs as first responders.

We in public safety don't always get the chance to take culture into account. Considering it can seem a luxury when time is of the essence and we must put out fires, rescue those in danger, and respond to accidents, crime, and other urgent matters. Yet even as we do what must be done, each person on the scene—including first responders, victims, family members, and bystanders—brings their culture and worldview to the event. We all do. We can’t help it.

Wikipedia may not be the best source on all matters, but it gives us a good definition of culture:

“Culture is the [sum of] social behavior and norms found in human societies. Culture is considered a central concept in anthropology, encompassing the range of phenomena that are transmitted through social learning in human societies.”

A Commitment to Learn

No chaplain can master all cultures. Not even the most skilled missionary could do that. As chaplains what we need is not complete knowledge, but a willingness to grow and an acceptance that other ways of looking at the world exist. We should be continually learning not only about other cultures but about the skills we may need to minister to people from different cultural backgrounds.

Death, Loss, and Grief in the American South

You may have lived here all your life, or you may be a transplant like me. Either way, do you realize what different assumptions you can find from one culture or community to another? Take funerals. Where I was raised, a funeral might last an hour, and it might be considered over the top to show up in all black. Not so in South Carolina, where dress can be a significant matter, and a funeral can easily go on for three hours or more. And even within the same community, people may have strongly felt assumptions about what is right and best. A family’s culture or worldview may play a big part in why they choose cremation, burial in a pine box, or something quite different. We cannot assume we know what others want or why.

Here are some things we can look at and be aware of when we deal with grief calls.

Symbols

Learn to recognize the symbols of different faiths. These may be visible in the home or displayed on the body in some way, though some may appear only at special times like when someone has died.

Time

How do people from different cultural backgrounds approach time and timing, especially when it comes to death? Muslims, for example, may feel pressure to see their loved one’s body buried within 24 hours of death, and that can be hampered by death investigations. An informed chaplain may be able to help mediate between the needs of law enforcement and the religious community. Views on life after death and what constitutes appropriate grief also vary between cultures and religious communities. How people view time can have a direct impact on grief.

Family

Who is family? Is a person’s definition of family limited to their parents and siblings, spouse and children, or is it wider, maybe much wider, than that? When I lived in Hawaii, I knew friends who were given family leave by their employer following the death of someone who was not technically related to them because blood, adoption, or marriage connections were not considered necessary to call someone family. We would do well to know what people mean when they say they are family or that they want their family there.

Food

You may not think of this one, but some cultures have a celebration meal when someone dies, and some bring meals to the family for an extended period. When does this happen? What kinds of foods are expected or appreciated? How your church or faith group approaches these things may be very different from someone else. It may also have something to do with whether people think they should visit and stay with the grieving or that it would be better to leave them alone. People with clashing expectations can easily offend or hurt one another.

Spirituality and Religion

Here in South Carolina, people are more likely to be Christian or have a Christian background than anything else, but many different worldviews are also represented in this state. Those with a faith background may have a variety of attitudes toward that faith, accepting or rejecting it or something in between. And even those with no faith have views on death. Sometimes those with no faith have a harder time with death, I have observed, perhaps because it doesn't make sense or is an ultimate loss from which they have no hope.

Culture and Caring

Being culturally sensitive doesn't happen overnight. You must be a constant learner of culture. Not only do you have to become aware of others but become aware of the lenses (world view) that you observe other cultures through. True care means treating each person as a human being, who has real feelings and a real spiritual outlook on life. Without understanding ourselves and how God sees us and others and how they view the world we will have a hard time understanding how others see themselves. It is only when we understand where a person is coming from culturally, we can treat them with respect according to their world views and values.

A few other things to keep in mind:

  1. Be careful about physical contact and be aware of physical distance between people. Where some may appreciate that hug or hand on the shoulder, others may find it offensive or intrusive.

  2. Sometimes the people we minister to may feel more comfortable with someone from their own culture. This is not a criticism of you. It is our job to help facilitate the best care, even if it isn't us.

  3. Do not expect people to necessarily follow instructions given by EMS/Fire/Police when they violate their values, traditions, and worldviews. As chaplains, we can be that bridge between the culture of the victims and families and that of the first responder community.

  4. Don't necessarily treat people as you want yourself treated. It is easy to project our worldviews on someone else and think that is the way they want to be treated. It may not be.

  5. Asking questions about another's culture or worldview doesn't make us look ignorant or seem rude, it shows we care. There are times I will ask a cultural question even though I probably know the answer, just to help with bonding.

  6. Get to know the cultural and religious groups in your community.

  • Read books

  • Ask questions

  • Seek out others from different cultures to gain insight

Chaplain Chris M. Wade

Vice President South Carolina Public Safety Chaplains Association

Resources (Feel free to add your resource below)

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